By Dan Woog
The “gay soccer” stories come 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 – and staunch straight ally Lance Parker – is a finalist for Cosmopolitan Magazine’s 2012 “Bachelor of the Year” award.
* 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 eye black. Escobar was also fined $82,000 – which went straight to GLAAD and the You Can Play Project.
* A lesbian couple from Colorado flies to England, and has a civil partnership ceremonhy at Liverpool’s famed Anfield Stadium. The couple – longtime Liverpool fans – are feted by the team, which recently hired a “social inclusion officer.”
* Former Arsenal 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 http://www.Gay4Soccer.com. The brainchild of Chris Billig, it (and its companion Twitter feed) are proud examples of the enormous impact social media now has on gay sports.
Billig is a rabid soccer fan. He loves 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 was “a soccer-phobe.” But during college, while student teaching in England, his students 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, living in Austin, Texas, a friend took him to a local theater. World Cup matches were shown on a large screen. “The spectacle, the hype, the anthems, the stories of the players” – all, Billig says, drew him in.
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 http://www.Gay4Soccer.com as a news site. He recruited writers, who posted from a broad range of angles. There were news stories, analysis, 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?”
Billig created an ally list. It grew rapidly. He then added a “pledge.” Signers promised to “make soccer a welcome, inviting and inclusive place for everyone — for those participating in the sport, those attending matches and for 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, the media, 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 own 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.”