Atlanta United, more than any other professional sports team in the city’s history, has connected in a lasting way with Atlanta’s LGBTQ community.
Atlanta routinely ranks as one of America’s “Queerest Cities” by LGBTQ magazine ‘The Advocate’, winning the honor of America’s Queerest City as recently as 2014. An estimated 4.2% of the metro Atlanta area population is LGBTQ -- and that number is likely higher inside the perimeter.
But for a city that has always felt varying degrees of connection to its sports teams, the LGBTQ community never had a team to call their own.
“I think the crowd at Atlanta United games is just so much more open. Just look at the fan base when you look at a football game. You have all the people tailgating but it’s like this family gets together with that family and they know each other,” said Atlanta United supporter Nick Jones. “The way things are structured with Atlanta United and the supporters group we’re going to pool together and we’re going to create a mob and we’re going to do it big. It builds a camaraderie that’s extremely different.”
An open and progressive fan base meant rainbow-colored flags were on display throughout the season in Atlanta United’s supporter’s section and rainbow-colored scarves were regularly sold out from the club’s team store. That camaraderie and the outward showing of support from the club and its supporters meant that members of the LGBTQ community like Jones felt welcomed in both of Atlanta United’s home stadiums last season.
“I have a lot of friends who I initially had to try and get to go to Atlanta United games who are on the season ticket wait list now,” Jones said. “They were initially like, ‘Huh? Sports for gays?’ But then they go and they see the rainbow flags and the scarves and everything else and they say ‘Ok, yeah, let’s go back.’“
For Jones and other LGBTQ supporters like David Prophitt, seeing LGBTQ pride and allyship along with LGBTQ attendance at sporting events went well past their initial expectations for what Atlanta United fandom would be.
“It was a big surprise. I really enjoy seeing the support and seeing the support from other supporters groups. They’ve really welcomed us in a way that I just didn’t expect.” Prophitt said. “The first couple of games I saw my friends coming into the game and I was like ‘Where are all these closeted soccer fans coming from?’ Gay and sports just didn’t really go together in my mind.”
Jones and Prophitt, along with fellow LGBTQ supporters Sean Ellis and Ben Nicoara were so encouraged by the warm welcome they began looking for a way to bring in more LGBTQ fans into the fold. They co-founded and became members of “All-Stripes”, a supporters group made for the growing number of LGBTQ Atlanta United fans.
While a welcoming fan base and supportive club helped the LGBTQ fan community and All Stripes grow — the group currently has 300 members on its Facebook page — there were missteps from the fans and club along the way, starting with the first game in team history. From small sections of the sold-out crowd of over 50,000 a chant broke out. Each time New York Red Bulls’ keeper Luis Robles took a goal kick the noise would rise as he ran up to the ball before exploding into a shout of “PUTO!” as his foot made contact. It seemed to get bigger as the game went on. For many unfamiliar with the chant, it seemed like just another part of Atlanta’s soccer culture. The fans --some unwittingly joining in -- were calling Robles a homophobic slur.
“The first game I remember hearing the “puto” chants. I remember feeling really frustrated by that because I knew that we’re better than that. I didn’t want that to become a habit for us as a fan base,” All-Stripes founding member Ben Nicoara said.
Fortunately, the habit didn’t stick.
The team released a statement saying: “Atlanta United does not support or condone the use of offensive language. We strive to foster a positive, enthusiastic and inclusive environment for all fans, and inappropriate chants have no place at our matches. Fans found to be participating in this behavior will be subject to removal from the building.”
While there were concerns that the written statement wouldn’t be enough — Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez took the step of personally addressing fans before a match in 2016 — the fan base responded and began vocally shouting down any fans or groups attempting to use the chant.
Later in the season, fans held an unofficial LGBTQ Pride Night on the June 24 match against Colorado and the club showed solidarity by giving Michael Parkhurst a unique captain’s armband for the occasion.
We are UNITED pic.twitter.com/5ntfWqHHjw— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) June 24, 2017
However, the team never took the extra step of hosting an official Pride Night in 2017.
“I like that we had an unofficial Pride Night in June but I pushed really hard to have an official Pride Night and that never happened,” Nicoara said. “That was really frustrating for me and I don’t know why they didn’t do it. They had all the rainbow armbands but they never officially announced anything or marketed it. I think that would have meant a lot to the gay community here who don’t watch sports or care about soccer.”
Nicoara says over half of MLS teams held an official Pride Night in 2017, including first-year side, Minnesota United.
“I think there’s a few of us that were disappointed. We were trying to get the team to have an official LGBT pride night which other teams have and Atlanta United kind of...it was like pulling teeth to get any responses from them,” All Stripes founding member Sean Ellis said. “I think really what it boils down to is that the team was as blown away as the rest of us at how much this picked up with everyone in the city. A new team, a new stadium opening, I think they just didn’t have enough time to pull it together.”
Despite frustration at not having an official Pride Night, the club sold rainbow scarves throughout the year at the official team store and became a major presence at Atlanta’s Pride Festival celebration, giving away rainbow stickers and merchandise as well as hosting a massive contingent of fans and employees who marched in the Pride Parade and rode on the team’s float through Midtown.
Additionally, a source with All Stripes says that an official Pride Night will be scheduled this season sometime in June, and Atlanta United’s VP of Business Operations, Catie Griggs, indicates the club’s push for inclusiveness will continue.
”Our club is based on a premise of inclusiveness,” Griggs said in a written statement. “We actively pursue opportunities to connect with and engage the diverse groups that reflect the metro Atlanta population not only on Atlanta United match days, but via our Academy, Community Relations, Marketing, and other outreach efforts.”
Even though the club has played a large role in welcoming Atlanta’s LGBTQ community, it’s the Atlanta United fans who have made community feel truly at home.
“I had the opportunity to go to a Falcons game and it’s just a totally different crowd. I went with a friend of mine who also has Atlanta United season tickets and we were just remarking that the Falcons crowd was more buttoned up, older, much more white and black,” Prophitt said.
“Whereas the United crowd is much younger. It’s much more diverse. It’s every color. It really represents the entire community. It’s that young Atlanta crowd. They’re from everywhere and their perspective on LGBTQ is different from someone who might only have a rural southeast experience.”
“The Hawks have done an excellent job and they have a presence at Pride and they have a billboard that’s downtown that says Hawks pride with rainbows. The Braves have an LGBT night. I think the teams themselves have been vocal,” Ellis said. “But I just think soccer fans are a different kind of person. I don’t know how to describe that, I don’t know how to qualify that, but they just seem more open-minded. More laid back.”
Coinciding nicely with an open-minded fan base to add to the LGBTQ experience is this often unconsidered assessment from Ellis: Much of soccer fandom is, like, really gay.
The acceptance of LGBTQ fans is simply an extension of the culture of one of the Deep South’s most progressive cities. For the first time, the city’s forward-thinking culture has blossomed in the often barren terrain of sports. It feels as beautiful as it was imminent.
“I think Atlanta was this way before we had the soccer team. Our spirit of inclusiveness, of equality, has just bled into our soccer fandom,” Nicoara said.
That spirit’s emergence through Atlanta United will have lasting effects. As the sport continues to grow and the team continues to develop the largest fan base in American soccer, more of those fans who may be scared of being their true self will see a massive collection of people cheering and supporting the team, as well as each other.
“It makes me hopeful for the future. It’s comforting to me to know there are people out there who say ‘We’re going to carry the banner for you.’ It makes me hopeful for kids who may live in small town Georgia who may not be in a place where they’re accepted,” Ellis said. “It’s good to show people that I’m just a regular guy who happens to have a boyfriend. The more that we can show other kids that’s OK in the way of there being rainbow flags at a soccer game that’s on TV or that they’re attending, that sends a message of hope for the future and that everything is going to be alright.”