Ryan Keese

It was a message from a mom that showed the work I had being doing with All Stripes, the Atlanta United FC’s LGBTQ supporters’ group, was worth it.

The mom explained that her child identified as LGBTQ+ and that their excitement to be present at a soccer game was intensified when they noticed a flag waving in the supporter section with trans-affirming colors emboldened on it. To know someone out there was validated and felt seen meant my efforts and hardships were not in vain. I cried hard. Since then, I’ve had several more parents bring their kids to our meetups so they could feel safe and included.

It’s been a five-year road for me in my relationship Atlanta FC and All-Stripes and it all culminated in October when we became an officially recognized supporter group of Atlanta United. This is a big deal as there are only a handful of LGBTQ+ Supporter Groups in the MLS, some not formally recognized by their team.

For me, as a once-closeted gay high school soccer player, it was the end of one part of my personal journey and a renewed sense of why I love the game.

I grew up in Smyrna, Georgia, on the outside of the perimeter of Atlanta (what native Atlantiens have coined OTP). I lived on a street next door to my grandparents, who owned a square-dancing shop. Across the street from us were apartments mostly rented by Hispanic families. Growing up, most of my friends were Hispanic, leading me to become ingrained in their culture.

This is not only where my love for the wrestler Rey Mysterio Jr. evolved, but also my love for futbol. With soccer being ever present at school and with its fast-paced, constant action, I was hooked.

As I grew in soccer, so did my weight. My grandparents lovingly ensured I was never “thin in the middle,” and I had a diverse love of all things food. My weight and being white were the only things I remembered being bullied for as a kid.

Homosexuality at that time of my life though wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t talked about and any reference may have simply been passed as a flamboyancy. I recall eating dinner one night and being offered banana pudding. I grimaced and turned it down, to which my uncle and grandfather exclaimed they had never met a man who didn’t like banana pudding. With my manhood on the line, I stuffed down the banana pudding.

My soccer career accelerated when my family moved to Paulding County, Georgia. This literal neck of the woods was a complete 180 from the world I was used to growing up in.

My awareness of homosexuality became more evident in these years as adolescent teens often use gay slurs to address others. I still recognized something internally about me had a fondness for other guys. The male body fascinated me, especially in my years of development. Soccer practices often involve scrimmages where the team would be split up into smaller teams and matched against one another.

Due to the Georgia heat, dividing teams was often done through shirts versus skins. This would lead me to look upon my teammates with envy for the features they had that I didn’t. We would sometimes play against the senior team with guys who were more developed with body hair and muscle, whereas I still struggled with my body weight and only sprouted a troll’s tuft of hair under my arms.

Regardless of my physical form, I was a beast of a defender. I bolstered my defensive ability from years of practice with Hispanic players who are known for their fancy footwork. What stood out though, were my flailing arms. By players moving the ball with their feet, their hands and arms are left sometimes in odd poses like velociraptor arms. Unfortunately, mine were like that of an inflatable air dancer.

This seemingly flamboyant movement of my arms invited jests from my teammates. In my mind, I had been had. The gay boy was erupting from inside of me out through my soccer arms. Fortunately, I was never really the target of bullying based on this as I maintained an amicable disposition with most players. I was the bystander, however, to the bullying of freshmen or other seemingly flamboyant classmates. I kept my head low and thought, “I am not that.” At this point in my life, gay was wrong, and I was determined to do right.

I had a very successful soccer career being chosen as captain of the junior varsity squad in high school and moving into captain of the varsity team my junior and senior years. On my premier team, we had a slew of tournament wins and my 3-on-3 team finished 12th in the nation at the Disney Wide World of Sports Championship.

I concluded my high school career with two state playoffs and being named MVP defender of the year my junior and senior years. I received scholarship interests from a few Christian Colleges and was primed to play at Berry College, but after visiting Georgia Southern University with my team co-captain and future roommate, I was set on being an Eagle.

My focus turned toward my academic career with the resolve that I would try out for the college club team. It was here that my fabulous futbol career ended. I had an excellent tryout and walked away sure I had a spot on the team, but other defenders with similar abilities who were taller made me an easy cut. I was devastated.

Soccer was my life and I didn’t know what to do other than play the sport I loved. I managed to divert this energy into being an intensely involved student, becoming an orientation leader, tour guide, SGA senator and community liaison. By the end of undergrad, I had won an intramural championship along with a few other 3-on-3 tournament wins with my old squad. I was down but never out.

With the freedom granted to me by living far from home and an ever-present sense of curiosity, I began to explore my sexuality. I gave up on attempting heterosexual relationships and pledged a focus to my academics when my single status was ever questioned. I resolved that once I finished my Masters, I could then own a gay identity. In my mind, this degree granted me the wherewithal to defend a sound mind and ownership of myself.

My mother asked once if I was gay and explained that if I was, we could seek help. I took this to mean psychiatric therapy or praying the gay away, not knowing at the time she meant support of being my true self.

I came out to my mother over the phone as the next time she would see me was to pack for my career move to Miami. I didn’t want to drop the glitter bomb and exit stage left. When I told her, she cried. Not because she was angry or disappointed, but because she wanted to be there with me. My uncle, being a History Channel fan, had just watched a documentary on homosexuality that explained the true nature of it. He was not angry or disappointed, but proud. He exclaimed how courageous I was and ensured he loved me no matter what. I cried, hard.

Ryan Keesee has now embraced being gay. Moving to Miami was a catalyst.

Miami brought on a whole new chapter of my life. I again was reintroduced to a new culture as Miami is rich with Latin American and Haitian populations. A Haitian student of mine learned of my love for soccer and eagerly invited me to play with his friends. When I arrived to play, I quickly realized they mostly spoke Creole.

As the new player, I knew I’d have to prove myself in order for them to choose me for their team, pass me the ball, or trust me in my field positioning. Through this process, I noticed I was being referred to as “blah.” If I was open for a pass or shot on goal, they would point and yell, “Blah! Blah!” Once I convinced myself what I was hearing was true, I asked my student what the deal was with blah. He laughed and explained, “Oh, they are saying blan. It means white, because you are white.” We laughed over my new nickname and I remembered feeling a sudden rush of humility.

Here I was a gay white man in Miami, playing the game I love in a community I never dreamed being in. After winning a street soccer tournament and building a network of indoor soccer friends, I made my way back home to witness the creation of Atlanta United in 2017.

I studiously researched the team from the ground up, from which players we were drafting, the team colors, and the team name. I took notice of what seemed to be legions of groups forming in support of the team. I knew I wanted to be a part of the team, but these growing factions of supporters were a culture I also wanted to indulge in.

It wasn’t until the team moved into the mecca of stadiums, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, that I started recognizing the different supporter groups I had read about before. They would feverishly howl for the team with banners and flags waving in a true spectacle.

One match, I noticed a Pride flag waving in its rainbow-colored glory and thought, “Hey, my people.” At the intersection of my white cismale identity, there was a gay man that had been suppressed. This was the first time I had seen these two parts of my whole merged into one collective space. I was in awe.

I became a founding member and season pass holder the first year. I soon found the flag I had seen at the matches belonged to a group called All Stripes. Their Facebook page shared that they existed to create a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community to enjoy soccer and that they hosted tailgates and watch parties. It was a cake and eat it too moment. I was able to explore of my life as a gay man in Miami but feared returning home meant I would have to suppress it. The existence of All Stripes signaled otherwise.

All Stripes was founded by two friends discussing their interest in the new soccer team at a Ru Paul Drag Race watch party. They acknowledged that a space for gay people to enjoy sports let alone soccer didn’t really exist. Through their own means, hard work, skill sets, and networks they created All Stripes. I began frequenting their events and volunteering to support their efforts.

I soon became familiar with the regular crowd that attended the events and through my professional experience in service and volunteerism was asked to serve as the philanthropy chair of the organization. This position allowed me to connect All Stripes to Soccer in the Streets which is an Atlanta nonprofit that focuses on youth development through soccer. They ensure access to the sport by developing fields around the city transit system.

This organization was supportive of All Stripes and would go on to develop a Play Proud Playbook which provides coaches a guide on working with LGBTQ+ youth. Over the years, All Stripes has had the pleasure of participating in their Atlanta Champions League Tournament, representing the only LGBTQ+ team participating.

My life around soccer and the gay community began to quickly expand. All Stripes continued to grow as it served not only as a space for queer individuals to support Atlanta United, but also a space for members of the community to make new friendships and feel seen.

My engagement and skill set prompted the founding president of All Stripes to suggest I consider moving into a board position with the organization. This conversation over time evolved into me becoming the new president of All Stripes. With my passion for event planning coupled with my love of soccer, I accepted the position. My career in higher education was primarily in volunteerism and service, which is often coupled with student leadership. This experience, in my mind, signaled me that it was my opportunity to put into practice what I had been instructing for years.

We devised workshops to discuss diversity and inclusion, and allyship versus advocacy. We also created a Ru Paul’s Drag Race fantasy league to further engage our membership. My biggest move during this first year was in challenging the colors of our logo.

The 2010’s saw more awareness of hate crime on communities of color, specifically police brutality. In 2017, Philadelphia introduced a new version of the pride flag which added black and brown stripes to the standard six color flag created by Gilbert Baker. These additional stripes were to acknowledge communities of color and pay homage to individuals lost as a result of hate crimes (some also include those who passed away from AIDS in this acknowledgement).

Ryan Keesee is on the board of All Stripes, one of the few officially recognized LGBTQ supporter groups in the nation.

I did some extensive research on the topic and concluded that it would be advantageous for All Stripes to also consider updating our logo to include these colors. Our mission as a board was to increase the diversity of our membership and as an organization that boasted a safe space for all members of the community, it seemed like the right move. Most were amicable to the idea, but those that were not were really upset. I received a slew of direct messages challenging my leadership and questioning my understanding of LGBTQ+ history. Where I was creating a conversation to make our organization more inclusive, it would seem I was tearing it apart.

The conversation grew stagnant until other well-known organizations began to also adopt these colors. This all was a direct result of Black Lives Matter protest and additional police brutality we saw occur during 2020 and 2021.

Veering into this movement was also the growing desire to create more acknowledgement and respect of transgender communities. The 2018 progress pride flag, created by Daniel Quasar, then became more widely used as it included the black and brown stripes, and added the transgender community flag colors. The spark in advocacy for these communities reintroduced the conversation with new life to All Stripes. At the end of the 2021 season, All Stripes introduced our new logo modified to reflect the progress flag. Of my time with All Stripes, this is one of my proudest accomplishments.

While the grand debate of our logo was occurring, another element that occupied a great deal of our time was becoming officially recognized by Atlanta United as a Supporter Group. The original supporter groups of Atlanta United were creating a central committee to help navigate all matters of the supporter group community. This included the creation of bylaws which would determine what requirements would be in place for an organization to become officially recognized by the team.

All Stripes’ goal is to be an inclusive space for soccer fans.

It was determined in 2021 that All Stripes would be the test group for these premises to be met. The expectations included having a presence in the supporter section at home games, creation of a tifo (a flag or banner held up by supporters), and a clear mission. Being an organization committed to the LGBTQ+ community, we easily checked the box on a unique purpose. The creation of a tifo and supporter section presence became the heaviest lift.

In my first month on the board, I had the privilege of attending the Independent Supporters Council National Meeting. This organization existed to ensure equitable representation of Supporter Groups with their respective teams and acted as a conduit for idea sharing and best practices. All Stripes was one of the few LGBTQ+ organizations that attended the meeting and is still currently one of the only LGBTQ+ supporter groups in the MLS.

This equated to a clear need for our perseverance and fight for legitimacy. Coupled with this factor was the outpouring of messages All Stripes received from members noting the significant impact the existence of our organization had on their well-being.

During my struggle, I added another spinning plate to the juggling act of my life by joining a LGBTQ+ soccer team, Hotlanta. Watching soccer drives my desire to play and I eagerly wanted to get back into the action. This group again verified my love of the sport and its unifying effect. By the end of my term in 2021, I was struggling to maintain all of my commitments and it was clear to everyone I was spent. Fortunately, from my labor along with the immense support of the Atlanta United community, we were able to successfully implement a tifo and now proudly wave a Big Ass Flag (BAF) in the supporter section.

The union of the beautiful game and LGBTQ+ rights has become a centerpiece to my life. It’s a true honor to have the opportunity and access into new spaces that allow us to continue to break barriers.

This past month, All Stripes competed in the Supporter Group Invitational soccer tournament where we placed second of six teams. This again felt huge in my heart. I hope to continue bringing individuals of all communities to the conversation and creating new avenues for more people to enjoy soccer.

There is still a lot of work to be done, especially with Atlanta being announced as a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The opportunity to create more representation on a world stage is invigorating. I look forward to serving however I can to show we can be one nation, one team, united.

Ryan Keesee, 34, is a board member of the official Atlanta United Supporter Group, All Stripes. He is a native of Atlanta and attended Georgia Southern University. He was Captain of his JV and varsity high school teams where he received MVP defender of the year twice, and competed in the Disney Wide World of Sports 3-on-3 Tournament, where his team finished 12th in the nation. He can be reached via email (k[email protected]) or Instagram (@keesee22).

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

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