Can you remember the first time you heard someone use the word “faggot”? I can’t, although I do remember the first time that word burned into me.

I was at my freshman high school locker after school in Royal Oak, Michigan, when one of the jocks a year ahead of me came up and spat “Luke you’re a faggot” at me just feet from my face. He was taller and more popular than me, and it was the first time I’d felt so confronted.

To my shock, the words “fuck you” came out of my mouth. A moment later, the intervention by our religion teacher stopped what would have ended up in a fight. Even then, she directed her concern my way, asking “Luke, what did you say?” She either hadn’t heard the slur or she just didn’t care about it.

The ugliness expressed by this jock, directed out of the blue at me, was so common in my Catholic upbringing as to be invisible. That hostility was a defining reason I steered clear of team sports and poured my energies elsewhere, and that expectation of homophobic hostility has kept me from participating in team sports, even as I’ve enjoyed becoming a spectator and supporter.

Fast forward to today, and I love watching sports, especially soccer. When we first learned Los Angeles was getting a new MLS team, my husband, Bryant, and I were some of the first to become members and get season tickets. Every step of the way toward that first match, a voice in the back of my head made me wonder if we would find the investment worth it. I worried that maybe as gay men, we would not be welcome in the crowd.

If I needed confirmation of being unwelcome, it came swiftly at LAFC’s first home match, as chants of “puto” rained down from the crowd every time the opposing goalie kicked the ball. Every. Damn. Time. Puuuuto! Puuuuto! I knew what it meant, not just its literal English translation but also the intent behind it.

As my husband and I watched our first home match of our new team, I was horrified and just wanted to leave and never come back. The play on the field itself may have had a “Hollywood ending,” with a stoppage time go-ahead goal to get the team three points in the standings, but the experience of the match in the stands will forever be stained by pure homophobia.

The day after this opening match, the front office issued a statement denouncing the chants, and one week later the team’s owner, captain, president of the 3252 (LAFC’s lead supporters’ group), and head of Pride Republic (the club’s nascent LGBT supporters’ group) all made statements from the field before the next home match began. Rainbow flags were carried out alongside the supporters’ groups flags, and — for at least this match — the chant was snuffed out.

Luke Klipp, right, and husband, Bryant, before carrying a rainbow flag on the field at LAFC’s Pride Night in 2019.

Then, game after game, the front office kept bringing out those rainbow flags and kept playing PSAs before and during matches denouncing the chant. And it stayed away the rest of the first season, except for a return during LAFC’s first-ever playoff match. It stayed away all of the second season and what few games were played in this, the team’s third, season. The demonstrated commitment of the front office to all of the team’s fans has kept me coming back.

But that’s not what transformed me from a fan to a supporter who feels seen and accepted by the LAFC community. A year ago LAFC celebrated Pride Night, which could have just been like any other front office-sponsored, rainbow-themed match, perhaps with a tribute video or statement and then afterward let’s all move on.

This time, though, the 3252 created and raised an unbelievable tifo celebrating Freddie Mercury, and thousands of fans throughout the match wore the rainbow captain’s armbands that were given out at the entrance. Spoiler alert: many fans have continued to wear those armbands at matches since.

The experience was transformative, and showed this gay man that I was not only welcome as a fan, but that I was seen and accepted as a full human being by the team’s core supporters.

A tifo celebrating Freddie Mercury at LAFC’s 2019 Pride Night.

I’m not naive. Plenty of people out there would still just as soon echo the sentiments of that high school bully, but we cannot allow the chant to be so commonplace as to become invisible. This singular experience of acknowledgment and visibility — on account of the fans’ acceptance and not simply owing to a declaration by the front office — demonstrated just how many in this community welcome us for who we are.

There’s no tidy end to this story. The chant could still return, and many fans of the beautiful game still see LGBTQ people as “less than” on account of who we love. But LAFC’s supporters have made clear that we all belong — that all are welcome as we are — and that has transformed my experience not just of sports but also of my ability to be a part of the change I seek.

Luke Klipp, 42, is Metro Board Deputy to Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and a proud member of the Los Angeles Football Club since 2015. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @LAFCLuke.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected])

Check out our archive of coming out stories.

If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.