How supporters at all levels of the game in the US are banding together to fight homophobia
Supporters in the National Premier Soccer League tend to make a statement with their accessories: scarves that give the wearer a skull face when wrapped a certain way, “Fuck Ohio” paraphernalia, bandoliers of smoke canisters spewing colorful plumes.
So it’s fitting that Galen Riley’s path to co-founding Prideraiser started with a rainbow bandana.
Two seasons ago, Riley, capo for Chattanooga FC’s Chattahooligans, wanted to show solidarity with LGBTQ+ folks during Pride Month, and planned to don the bandana and other rainbow accessories. But that didn’t feel like enough—he wanted to do something more concrete to show support, and pledged to make a financial contribution to the Tennessee Equality Project for every goal Chattanooga’s men’s and women’s clubs scored, challenging his fellow supporters to do the same.
Within hours, Riley’s efforts were matched several states away. Dean Simmer, capo for Detroit City FC’s Northern Guard, announced he would be donning rainbows in the capo stand and raising funds for You Can Play and the Ruth Ellis Center, which provide short-term and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth in Detroit and Southeastern Michigan. Grand Rapids FC’s Grand Army and supporters’ groups from four other clubs jumped on board with their own fundraising efforts for local LGBTQ+ charities through word of mouth. The movement took off “like a rocket,” as Simmer puts it.
“I figured I would get a couple of friends to match my pledge, and we’d raise about $300 overall,” Riley says. “The first year, we collected pledges from 80 individuals and raised more than $6,000.”
The Prideraiser administrative team emphasizes the grassroots, supporter-driven nature of the effort—although many clubs will support and promote their respective Prideraisers, each fundraiser is uniquely the work of supporters groups, not front offices. “This was created by supporters that love their club and their communities and wanted to find a way to make their communities more inclusive and comfortable for all sorts of people,” says Jackie Carline, a member of Northern Guard and the Prideraiser admin team. “It gives us the opportunity to have our supporters groups be a safe place, and a chance to better ourselves and one another.”
[Disclosure: the author served as Prideraiser’s contact for the Chicago Fire last year and is helping to organize a campaign this year with fans of the Chicago Red Stars.]
The symbolism is still important though, beyond rainbow flags or bandanas. Prideraiser participants strive to create space for LGBTQ+ supporters and community members to participate in their club. Simmer cites the example from the first Prideraiser season of a supporter who was new to their section. “One of his friends came up to me at a match to share some texts from him, saying about how as a quiet gay man he had never felt safer or more welcome in a place than he had in our supporters group,” Simmer says. “We staked out a position saying all were welcome with us.”
In its inaugural season, supporters from seven clubs participated. Last year, that number more than tripled to more than 30 supporters groups representing 26 American soccer clubs up and down the pyramid, who raised more than $50,000 for local nonprofits supporting the LGBTQ+ community in their respective cities. They hope to break 50 groups in 2019, and at this pace, it’s certainly feasible.
After a seat-of-its-pants first year, Prideraiser participants sought to be more intentional the following season about building a scalable, easy-to-follow model and software any supporters group could use (without starting a whole new charity), and to build stronger relationships with the community partner groups.
The Grand Rapids Pride Center, charity partners of Grand Army, holds the city’s major Pride festival every year. Grand Army sponsored and staffed a booth at the Pride festival and brought representatives from the Pride Center to a match, even giving them smoke canisters to pop during the pre-match march. “It makes it much more genuine when you involve the charity as much as possible,” says Adam Cheslock, a Grand Army member and Prideraiser administrator.
The Chattahooligans’ 2018 charity partner, the Nooga Diversity Center, is the first nonprofit in the area to offer resources for LGBTQ+ youth and families, from support groups for youth and adults to social outings to Six Flags or all-inclusive dances. Founder and Executive Director Kat Cooper describes it as an important “safe space” where communities and families can come together to share stories, kinship and resources.
The NDC is an all-volunteer organization, and 100% of their funds go directly to operational costs and programs. Cooper says the support of the Chattahooligans last season provided enough funds to keep their space in downtown Chattanooga open and operating for an entire year. The NDC hopes to strengthen their partnership with the Chattahooligans next year and bring more of the youth they serve to matches, a tradition that began last year, where they got to enjoy the match, be out and proud and cheer and support in the rowdy supporters section. Riley says one of the NDC guests from last season has even gotten involved in the Chattahooligans leadership.
“Though it seems simple, taking kids to a soccer game, it’s so much more than that,” Cooper says. “For so long, you’ve got young folks who feel like they have to be closeted in their home life, in their school, in their church. To have a public partnership with someone like the Chattahooligans and integrate those same kids who have felt historically left out with that kind of public platform speaks volumes to the direction our community is going.”
Lindsay Eanet can be seen reading at live shows around Chicago and next to you at your favorite bar, skipping over all your songs on the jukebox. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Paste, SEASON, GrokNation and others. She is the host & producer of I’ll Be There for You, a new podcast about pop culture and coping. But enough about her, let’s talk about you.