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Jaelene Daniels is back in soccer despite her anti-gay past. I’m reserving judgment. For now

Jaelene Daniels’ return to soccer, and her statement of ‘respect’ for LGBTQ teammates, tests our community’s grace.

SOCCER: SEP 18 NWSL - North Carolina Courage v Chicago Red Stars
Jaelene Daniels played for the Courage for four seasons before returning to the club now in 2021.
Photo by Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jaelene Daniels has been signed to a contract by the North Carolina Courage, and many people with connections to the LGBTQ community are pissed off.

They have good reason. Daniels — better known to some by her maiden name, Jaelene Hinkle — previously made headlines with anti-gay statements and claims that Christian women were not welcome on the US Women’s National Team because of the gays.

The club’s statement after the signing didn’t help. Instead of getting ahead of it and including the community in conversations before the signing, their statement makes it clear they opted to instead ask for “forgiveness” instead of “permission.” Generally not the most inclusive policy in the world.

This comes after allegations of sexual coercion from a now-fired coach. It’s been an incredibly rough patch for fans of the Courage.

To be sure, the LGBTQ community and its supporters could collectively rise up against the signing, withdraw any ticket purchases, force Daniels out of professional soccer and again turn her into a martyr for some of the very people who work actively against our community.

That’s what some fans are advocating. And I get it, I really do. The signing of Daniels — to many the face of homophobia in women’s soccer in the United States — is a tough pill to swallow for some, particularly in a year of so many issues for women’s soccer.

Yet like with most issues, I find the conversation about this in 2021, a couple years after the highest heat of the Jaelene scuffle, more complicated than that.

Daniels previously played for the Courage for several seasons from 2017 to 2020. She also had a stint on the US Women’s National Team, until her anti-LGBTQ beliefs became publicly known and became a public-relations problem.

Her beliefs extended to her refusal to wear LGBTQ Pride gear during a match. That did not sit well with some people around the sport, and many fans.

There is no question that she believes — in one form or another — that same-sex relationships are wrong. It’s also clear she holds beliefs about the LGBTQ community that mirror what have come to be seen as “traditional” Christian perspectives.

Yet, with this signing there seems to be a shift in her approach to the topic. That makes a difference.

Daniels has offered an olive branch to the LGBTQ community. She wrote a lengthy statement focused on her love of her teammates, her love of God, and her commitment to the club’s “high standard of respect, love and inclusion, regardless of color or creed or nationality or sexuality.”

You can read it and decide for yourself:

No doubt, this is straight from the Christian “love the sinner, hate the sin” playbook. Yet for some reason I’m drawn to her return to soccer — particularly if she’ll wear the rainbow-colored Pride kit of her club.

Daniels’ statement went beyond a now-protected apology offered by Sydny Nasello last week after the Portland thorns draft pick was revealed to have retweeted a message from Charlie Kirk in which he said, essentially, trans women should be banned from women’s sports.

“I never want to make anyone feel like they are not supported by me and I am so sorry I’ve done that,” Nasello said.

Daniels’ statement also went beyond what we saw from Daniel Murphy, another avowed Christian who had espoused anti-gay sentiments.

When the Chicago Cubs signed the MLB player in 2018 just days before their annual Pride Night, I wrote about my disappointment that he had not done anything to undo the harm he’d caused by offering the clumsy comment that he disagreed with the fact that a man is gay.

I wrote even then:

I have never advocated for chasing every single Christian person out of sports who “disagrees” with the fact that I’m married to my husband. But when someone decides to publicly elevate the anti-gay environment of the sports world, it’s up to him to fix that. That Murphy hasn’t done that, and that the Cubs would sign him days before Out At Wrigley, is disappointing.

In that same thinking, I can appreciate that Daniels has offered an olive branch.

And to be clear, this is very much who I am as a person. I’m often the one standing in opposition to firing people for actions I may disagree with. Over and over again, I’ve seen second chances pay off in building bridges toward inclusion.

Progress toward understanding can be made.

Will she wear a rainbow-colored Pride kit during the Courage’s Pride match? If she will, that will be powerful to see and a moment of celebration, when a Christian who may not “agree” with same-sex marriage still recognizes the importance of supporting the community nonetheless.

I’m here for that possibility.

Plus, the club has made it clear that they will continue to strongly embrace the LGBTQ community. To that end, they released a nine-point press release detailing how they will make sure the rainbow flag flies high around the club.

If Daniels refuses to wear rainbow colors during her club’s Pride match, that will also speak volumes and I can see her being shown the door.

Does it bother me that Daniels may think some of her teammates and fans are living a life of sin because they love someone of the same sex? Absolutely.

But there’s something I’ve learned in my many years advocating for LGBTQ inclusion in sports and in society. If someone who thinks I’m going to Hell for being gay is willing to de-prioritize their beliefs — so kids can grow up in an environment where they feel acceptance — and they’re willing to support my right to live my life how I see fit, I can support them pursuing their dreams too.

What’s the alternative?

Push Daniels out of professional soccer again. Tar and feather her and force her to sit at home as the window of her dreams closes forever.

What I keep coming back to: If Jill Ellis could open the door for a second chance, I can too.

Through experiencing grace and interpersonal relationships, people do change their perspectives about LGBTQ people. Given her initial foray back into professional women’s soccer, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt here.

If Daniels can somehow become a bridge to fellow Americans who may struggle with simply working in a cubicle next to an LGBTQ person, I don’t think giving it a skeptical try with one eyebrow raised is such a bad thing.

And if that all falls apart? Bye, gurl, bye. And for the last time.