Jaelene Hinkle, the North Carolina Courage defender who refused a call-up to the U.S. women’s national team in 2017 because she didn’t want to wear a rainbow number as part of the team’s LGBTQ Pride initiative, then appeared on “The 700 Club” this spring to reaffirm that her decision was motivated by homophobia, is getting another look with the team.
Many people — myself included — assumed Hinkle would never be given another chance. What she did was a bad look not just for herself, but for U.S. Soccer, whose initiative benefitting You Can Play was in part a gesture of goodwill towards LGBTQ fans.
For her to not just refuse the call-up on the grounds of her religiously motivated homophobia, but then go on television and publicly discuss that decision, framing herself as brave for doing so, was embarrassing for the team.
Here’s the other thing, though: the American pool is woefully shallow at outside back, which is Hinkle’s position. As anybody who follows the national team knows, head coach Jill Ellis has gone to sometimes absurd lengths looking for solutions to that issue, attempting to convert one forward after another into wide defenders. Ignoring off-the-field issues, Hinkle is the obvious answer. She’s homophobic, but she also happens to be by far the best left back in the pool.
I’m not sure how to feel about this. As I wrote back when “The 700 Club” segment came out, I wouldn’t want to play with Hinkle, especially if I was a young player still trying to figure out who I was.
Hinkle was not asked to do much. Nobody was trying to force her to make a statement supporting gay marriage or trans rights. She was being asked to wear a symbol that represents us in the LGBTQ community— one that represents a sizable portion of women’s soccer fans and players.
At the time, most people assumed doing so would be the end of her national team career. To jeopardize a chance to reach the highest level that exists in your sport because you don’t want to wear a symbol on your uniform requires a serious level of disgust with that symbol and who it represents.
On the other hand, 2019 is a World Cup year. If I was a player, would I be willing to put up with playing with someone who had espoused homophobic views if it meant a shot at winning the biggest trophy in the sport? Maybe. That’s one of those questions I don’t think you can know the answer to unless you’re actually forced to answer it.
It’s easy for me to condemn U.S. Soccer for this decision, which effectively tells the sport’s numerous LGBTQ fans that our right to feel accepted and supported is not as important as winning.
It’s less easy for me to condemn Jill Ellis, who is married to a woman, over it. If I were in her position — in short, in a high-pressure job where putting together a winning team was expected of me — would I do this? I can’t answer that without actually being in her position.
The question I do have to answer is this. Can I support this team if Hinkle is on it?
The Tournament of Nations, which is a series of friendlies, is one thing. I can choose not to watch those games. But unless Hinkle is in miserable form, this isn’t likely to be her last call-up. It’s a pretty reasonable assumption, based on her NWSL play, that she’ll be the starting left back in France at the World Cup. What then?
The position we as LGBTQ soccer fans are being put in here is to have to choose between two aspects of our identities: our Americanness, on one hand, and our queerness, on the other. Which is ultimately more important? Can I cheer for the U.S. to win another World Cup even with a player who doesn’t think I deserve love and acceptance for who I am on the field?
I still don’t know.
I do know this: it hurts, deeply, to have to ask myself that. It hurts to have to explain over and over to people who ultimately aren’t interested in listening that what Hinkle did was homophobic, and that homophobia and transphobia are still killing us, right now, in America.
And, yeah, it hurts for US Soccer to make this decision that prioritizes winning over the LGBTQ community’s humanity —although that last part, I suppose, ultimately isn’t surprising.
I want to believe that Hinkle can grow and learn to accept and support LGBTQ people, including her queer teammates, for who we are.
If I’m being optimistic, maybe I even hope that spending time with the national team could help sway her views. But I’m not optimistic. She’s already had plenty of opportunities to get to know gay teammates and that doesn’t seem to have changed anything.
For all I’ve criticized U.S. Soccer and the national team for, I do love this team. When I’m being sentimental, the fact that the women’s game has flourished in America relative to most of the rest of the world is one of the things that makes me most proud to be an American — and the success of the women’s national team is the thing that pride is most closely attached to.
I hate feeling like I have to choose between pride in my country and pride in who I am.
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