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Portland Timbers player will wear ribbon in his hair to support LGBT youth

‘Who are we to tell each other we shouldn’t be together?’ Zarek Valentin says.

MLS: Portland Timbers at San Jose Earthquakes
Zarek Valentin is raising money for LGBT youth.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

”It was one of those things where someone’s like, ‘You’re not down,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I am.’ “

That’s how Zarek Valentin, the Portland Timbers defender, describes the events leading up to this Saturday, when he will step onto the field against Sporting Kansas City wearing a ribbon in his hair as part of a fundraiser for an organization supporting homeless LGBT+ youth.

It all started, as so many dares do, over a beer. One day after a Portland Thorns game, Valentin got to talking to a fan, a guy wearing a Hayley Raso jersey. As a big supporter of the NWSL side himself, Valentin’s conversation with the fan naturally turned to Raso, the Australian national team and Thorns forward — who, along with her blistering pace up the wing, is known for wearing a ribbon in her hair every game.

One thing somehow led to another, and eventually Valentin found himself being dared to wear a “Raso ribbon” for one game. Eventually, he agreed — on the condition a tweet about the dare got 10,000 retweets.

The tweet became an instant sensation on soccer twitter, and to Valentin’s chagrin, it took less than 24 hours for the retweet count to reach 10,000.

“Right when I thought it was going to slow down, I guess the women’s Australian [national team] account retweeted it, and then while we were asleep, all of Australia was retweeting it,” he said.

Although the whole thing started as a joke, Valentin quickly realized he had an opportunity to use the viral sensation as a force for good. He and his fiancée started brainstorming. Together with members of the Timbers Army, the Timbers’ supporters group, they came up with a simple idea: sell ribbons at the game and donate the proceeds to charity. Suddenly, the joke had become a cause.

”It was a little bit of spitballing ideas, how we can raise money,” says Valentin about how the fundraiser took shape. “Obviously, ribbons made a lot of sense. It’s a rainbow ribbon that’s going to be a pin, that people can pin onto their shirts ... It just made sense.”

Because Valentin and the Army wanted to honor Pride Month, proceeds from the ribbons, which are rainbow-colored, will go to the Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC) at New Avenues for Youth, an organization that provides counseling and education for homeless and housing-unstable LGBT+ youth, as well as hosting activities like art, open mics and drag shows.

Valentin’s support for the LGBT+ community goes deep.

As a kid in Lancaster, Pa., his mom worked at a deli owned by a gay couple. “I was raised from a very young age to accept all. My mom, I would go into her work, there were homosexuals at work, and from a very young age, I was taught these were good people ... It didn’t matter [that they were gay,] and that’s how it should be.”

For Valentin, who is also a self-identified feminist, LGBT+ equality is the same as racial or gender equality.

“Everyone should be treated equal no matter what color they are, sex, race, I don’t care,” he says. “And when people don’t, it really pisses me off ... Whether it’s women’s equality, the LGBTQ community, racial stuff, I just think that there’s so damn much negativity right now that the least we can do is listen to someone, hear their story, get to know them as a person.”

He’s also quick to point out that religion isn’t an excuse for bigotry. “My mom, she was a daughter of missionaries for 40 years,” he says. “You can be typically raised in a Christian household and not think marriage is just for a man and a woman ... Who are we to tell each other that we shouldn’t be together? It’s freaking stupid.”

When it comes to the question of how Valentin, who doesn’t have the luxury of Raso-length hair to tie back, plans to physically affix his ribbon, he won’t go on the record.

“That’s a surprise,” he says. “Look at the way Hayley does it, and imagine that for me. Hayley always matches it with her jersey, so I’m going to match mine with my jersey ... I’m not going to say anything more than that.” He does promise the ribbon will “look cool.”

As much fun as everyone has had with the whole thing, though, this is ultimately about using a platform to make a real impact in the community. “If everyone in the stadium gave $1, that would be $20,000 to go to make humans feel more comfortable when society doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable,” he says. “That idea blows my mind.”

Fans will be able to buy rainbow ribbons on the concourse for a minimum $1 donation; if you can’t make it to the game, you can donate via GoFundMe.

Katelyn Best is a writer and journalist in Portland, Oregon, and an Outsports contributor. She covers the Portland Thorns for Stumptown Footy, and her work has appeared in Portland Monthly, Excelle Sports, ESPNW, and elsewhere. She can be reached via her website: kabest.me or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BestKabes