How a fan's Web site is helping make soccer LGBT-friendly
by Dan Woog -
SGN Contributing Writer
'Gay soccer' stories have been coming fast and furious.
* Major League Soccer sponsors Spirit Day, encouraging players and fans to wear something purple, drawing attention to bullying and LGBT youth.
* FC Edmonton goalkeeper Lance Parker, a staunch straight ally, is a finalist for Cosmopolitan Magazine's 2012 'Bachelor of the Year' title.
* Openly Gay player David Testo throws out the first ball at a Toronto Blue Jays game. Not coincidentally, it's the first home appearance for Yunel Escobar after being suspended for writing 'Tu ere maricon' - an anti-Gay epithet - on his eyeblack. Escobar was also fined $82,000, which went to GLAAD and the You Can Play Project.
* A Lesbian couple from Colorado flies to England and has a civil partnership ceremony at Liverpool's famed Anfield Stadium. The two longtime Liverpool FC fans are feted by the team, which recently hired a 'social inclusion officer.'
* Former Arsenal FC and MLS star Freddie Ljungberg talks about being taunted as 'Gay' after appearing in a Calvin Klein underwear ad.
* Out U.S. national women's team coach Pia Sundhage retires and is honored at her final match with a video, songs, and a victory lap.
All those stories - and many more - are featured on the home page of Gay4Soccer (www.gay4soccer.com). The brainchild of Chris Billig, the site (along with its companion Twitter feed) is a proud example of the enormous impact social media is now having on Gay sports.
AN ACQUIRED TASTE
Billig is a rabid soccer fan who loves both the international game and the American pro leagues. But like many Gay men, he did not grow up playing sports or hanging out with jocks.
In fact, he says, while growing up in Pennsylvania he was not even a spectator. He went to college intending to be a teacher, but got involved in political work. His current job is in information technology.
As a teenager, Billig says, he was a 'soccer-phobe.' But during college, while student-teaching in England, his pupils taught him a bit about the game. 'These little 8-year-olds had me supporting West Ham,' he says, referring to the London club.
Two years ago, when he was living in Austin, Texas, a friend took him to a theater where World Cup matches were being shown on a large screen. 'The spectacle, the hype, the anthems, the stories of the players' - it all, Billig says, drew him in.
FILLING A VOID
Yet as he scoured soccer websites and read discussion boards, Billig could not find much to relate to 'from my perspective as a Gay man,' he says. The soccer coverage on Gay sites was limited to 'pretty pictures.' He was frustrated that the accompanying information did not even get important facts right.
When Billig and his Gay friends watch soccer, he says, 'we balance the two parts of our lives. We admire the players, but we also admire the game.'
Billig started Gay4Soccer as a news site. He recruited writers, who posted from a broad range of angles. There were news stories, analyses, light pieces, and - yes - photos of hot-looking athletes.
When former Montreal Impact midfielder David Testo came out, Billig wondered about other players. 'What if someone else is thinking of coming out, but doesn't know what the atmosphere would be like?' he thought. 'How would they know who on their team would be supportive?'
TAKE THE PLEDGE
Billig created an ally list, which grew rapidly. He then added a 'pledge.' Signers promised to help 'make soccer a welcome, inviting, and inclusive place for everyone - for those participating in the sport, those attending matches, and those working or volunteering in it - while making a deliberate effort to reach out to GLBT people. We will work with all these groups to ensure they have a voice, and to challenge unacceptable behavior, including working to eliminate homophobic language from the game.'
The hundreds of signers include current and former players, front office executives, media personnel, and even entire teams and their fan clubs.
The reaction, Billig says, has been 'really, really positive. I'm flabbergasted. I've gotten virtually nothing negative at all.'
Gay4Soccer added a popular Twitter feed. Followers of the website and tweets include players and fans at all levels. Billig says he's heard from some Development Academy (top-tier) youth players.
On a personal level, he's used his site to connect with a Gay soccer team in the Austin area.
'Social media is a great connector of people,' he notes. Soccer, he says, is particularly suited to social media. 'Soccer players are very accessible. They're grounded. You're able to chat with them on a personal level.'
Gay4Soccer has carved out a nice niche. It, too, is accessible. It connects Gay and straight players and fans, tying them together from youth to the pros.
Plus, it's got a killer tag line: 'Because soccer isn't Gay & but once in a while it kinda is.'
Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, Gay activist, and author of the 'Jocks' series of books on Gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached at OutField@qsyndicate.com.
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