The statistics are staggering. 42% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth say their communities don’t accept them. More than 40% have seriously contemplated suicide. Queer youth are twice as likely to be physically assaulted by a partner, and more than three times as likely to be sexually assaulted.
Sports environments can be particularly hostile to LGBT+ youth: 73% of people surveyed in a recent study don’t think youth sports are safe and welcoming for queer kids. It also found 84% of participants in that study had either witnessed or experienced homophobia in a sporting environment.
But as much as sports environments often feel hostile to the LGBT+ community, they can also be spaces where young people find community and belonging — and, beyond that, where social change is sparked.
That’s the idea behind streetfootballworld’s new Play Proud initiative, which aims to make youth soccer safe and welcoming for all players by providing education and resources to coaches.
”What struck me so much about this program is it’s reaching kids where they already are, through the people they’re already dealing with,” says Megan Rapinoe, the openly gay Seattle Reign and U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder who’s serving as an ambassador for the program. “It’s educating coaches on LGBTQ issues so they can create a safe space where these kids feel comfortable and they can really thrive.”
Rapinoe, the only openly queer player on the latest USWNT roster, has long been an outspoken voice for social change, not just when it comes to LGBT+ issues, but also on issues like racism and police brutality.
She’s been an ambassador for Streetfootballworld — an organization connecting soccer-related nonprofits around the world — since 2016. Play Proud, which is being rolled out for Pride Month, is the first streetfootballworld program targeted specifically at LGBT+ issues.
“It’s my community,” says Rapinoe. “Kids are going through enough already. They shouldn’t have to be punished for who they are.”
The idea is simple. “It’s to change the culture within a team or within a community to better serve these kids,” says Rapinoe. For LGBT+ kids, feeling safe and welcome around their teammates can help them love and accept themselves. For cis straight kids, a respected coach openly celebrating diversity and welcoming queer youth sets a positive example they can carry outside the team environment.
”It’s good to educate not only the coaches, so they can set up the environment, but also the kids,” Rapinoe says.
Although she didn’t realize she was gay until she headed to the University of Portland for college, she says, “I would have loved to have more information and be more educated about it. Anytime you hear somebody say, ‘Oh, that’s gay,’ or whatever, those things matter.”
In addition to the coach-education component, which will involve distributing an online toolkit to 35,000 coaches around the world, as well as a series of onsite trainings, streetfootballworld is promoting the campaign with a mini-documentary on the impact of the beautiful game in the lives of three queer young people. The series will air on Fox Sports during the World Cup.
”Soccer is a safe space to me,” says Melina De La Cruz, one of the young people profiled in the series. “It’s like a family... The coaches are kind of like my counselors.”
”I think [soccer] has the ability to create incredible opportunity. It reaches pretty much every country in the world, it’s a sport that everyone plays ... so there’s opportunity there to leverage it and to use it for good,” says Rapinoe.
“That’s what the whole mission of streetfootballworld is, and campaigns like Play Proud, is to use the popularity of the sport, how many people play it, how it speaks to so many people, to use it for good and to create social change in the world.”
You can donate to Play Proud’s crowdfunding campaign here.
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