Editor’s note: This is a guest article by Stephanie Yang, the the co-manager of Stars and Stripes FC and a contributor to The Athletic.
For fans, women’s soccer has come to be a fairly safe space for all kinds of minority communities. The LGBTQ community in particular has carved out its own niche in the United States. There are openly gay players on several NWSL teams, and most clubs have a yearly Pride Night. The woso community has worked hard to keep its fandom a more open, accepting place, particularly for people who may experience discrimination away from the pitch. Perhaps that’s why it stings some fans so much to hear North Carolina Courage defender Jaelene Hinkle declare that she withdrew from consideration for the US women’s national team because she didn’t want to wear a jersey with rainbow numbers on it as part of Pride Month. In a video released by The 700 Club, she said “I just felt so convicted in my spirit that it wasn’t my job to wear this jersey.” In other words, she believed that obedience to God required her not to show support for the LGBTQ community. Here is a clip of Hinkle’s interview.
Hinkle has made her position perfectly clear, both with her statement and her choice of platform. The 700 Club is a TV program on the Christian Broadcasting Network. One of its hosts is Pat Robertson, who is staunchly homophobic and Islamophobic and has said horrific things like homosexuals and Muslims should just be allowed to kill each other and once joked a man whose marriage was in trouble should “become a Muslim and you could beat her.”
And then on top of that, when asked about Hinkle’s statement, teammate Jess McDonald and NC head coach Paul Riley categorized her words as her “opinion.”
“She’s never said anything bad about me,” McDonald told press after the Courage played the Portland Thorns on Wednesday night.
“Whatever she believes in, that’s her. It doesn’t affect the team, it doesn’t seem to affect anybody on the team,” said Riley.
“Faith acted on in personal conviction harming no one else deserves respect,” said team owner Steve Malik in a tweet.
Soccer welcomes everyone. Our actions clearly speak for that support. Pride and Faith Nights are not incompatible. Faith acted on in personal conviction harming no one else deserves respect just as much as creating a welcoming environment for all. @TheNCCourage @NorthCarolinaFC— Steve Malik (@stephenmalik) May 31, 2018
How disheartening must it be for queer Courage fans to see these statements dismissing their legitimate pain? To see a prominent player, the head coach, and the team owner himself unable to make the connection between Hinkle’s actions and the harm the LGBTQ community feels? Her rejection of the LGBTQ community - and it is a rejection - is a signal that she believes every queer person is somehow in the wrong simply for existing. And for many queer people, discrimination causes them to re-experience the cumulative trauma of all the homophobia they’ve encountered over their lifetime. Homophobia is not just Jaelene Hinkle’s personal opinion; it’s scary and demeaning partly because it’s a broader ideology that can have profound impact on the actual lives of queer people, whether it’s through common cultural beliefs that demonize queer people or actual legislation that disenfranchises them.
I wanted to talk to actual LGBTQ Courage fans to get their persepctive. They are, after all, the ones who now have to deal with regularly seeing someone who has renounced them as a group in the uniform of the team they support.
Heather McCoy is a trans and bisexual Courage supporter who said she wasn’t that surprised by Hinkle’s admission; after all, Hinkle’s own social media had already indicated her negative position on the LGBTQ community, including a June 2015 tweet reacting to the Supreme Court ruling on the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry that said “The world is falling farther and farther away from God.”
This world is falling farther and farther away from God... All that can be done by believers is to continue to pray.— Jaelene Hinkle (@JaeHinkle_15) June 26, 2015
McCoy said that she will still support the Courage, because she considers the concept of the team to extend beyond one individual. “I will never, ever wear a Hinkle jersey,” she said, “But I’ve bought merchandise from almost every team because I support the game and I want all the clubs to do well.”
In a follow-up email checking in with McCoy after McDonald and Riley’s comments were published, she said, “I do hope behind the scenes they take [Hinkle] aside and try to explain the concept of a pluralistic society and how even though you do not support the LGBT community they deserve the same dignity as everyone else.”
McCoy admitted there was some “cognitive dissonance” in reconciling being a queer fan of the team while they rostered a player who had expressed homophobic views, but also talked about hoping for better rather than just accepting that things are the way they are.
Haley Neer is another Courage fan who wasn’t surprised by Hinkle’s 700 Club admission. Neer is a queer Courage season ticket holder who said she actually felt a strange sense of relief that everything was finally out in the open, instead of caught in the realm of probably-true-but-unconfirmed. At least now everyone knows.
Like McCoy, she differentiates between the team and individual players. “I love the team and then there’s her and I don’t really think of her,” Neer said. But knowing about Hinkle’s beliefs has clearly affected Neer whether she wants them to or not. Sometimes Neer will be wearing rainbow-themed gear when the players come around to thank supporters after home games. In that situation Neer wonders, “If she looks at me, what’s the first thing that’s crossing her mind?”
She described going to Courage games and sitting with other supporters as “a place where you’re like, this is where I’m free, this is where I’m safe, this is where I can be the most me, not have to worry about the outside world.” But then to know so conclusively what Hinkle thinks of people like her, Neer said “And then you realize [about Hinkle], you feel like your safe space has been infiltrated. And it feels violating to know that [while] you’re in a place where people have worked so hard to make it inclusive.”
Neer did bring up unprompted that several Courage athletes participate in Playing for Pride, an initiative spearheaded by NCFC player Austin da Luz that raises funds for LGBTQ organizations.
“I appreciate that my team, certain very high profile members of my team, are outwardly saying we support you,” said Neer. “We are actively raising money, we are going to score goals so we can donate money to Athlete Ally, both on the men’s and women’s side. And that’s really important to me. And they’re hosting a Pride night. And it really sucks that they employ a homophobe. That really sucks. But it’s one of those things where I feel like I have to let the good outweigh the bad and hope that things get better.”
Eboni Christmas is the president of American Outlaws Raleigh, a Courage season ticket holder, and a member of Oak City Supporters. She identifies as gay and has the same attitude as Neer in terms of letting the good outweigh the bad. “Her coming out to affirm what we all assumed and knew didn’t really make a difference to me, because I still knew that I had the same support from all the other players,” said Christmas. “She is on my team but she’s not the team.”
In light of McDonald and Riley’s statements to the press, I asked Christmas if the NC organization and the players weren’t involved in pro-LGBTQ causes and instead refrained from any activism, would she feel differently about being able to separate the team from Hinkle herself? (Of note, the timing of this conversation was before Malik tweeted his statement.) Christmas needed some time to think over an admittedly big question. “I definitely would have taken a bit more of a pause, especially if they decided to remain [politically] neutral and she made her comment,” Christmas said at last, but with the caveat that it was still hard to say in this what-if situation.
Neer said she would be more vocal about her feelings if the team weren’t already participating in things like Playing for Pride. “Homophobia isn’t an unfortunate side effect of some belief system,” she said. “It’s an active choice to believe that others are less than you and don’t deserve the same rights as you. It’s the type of ‘belief’ that leads to actual hate crimes that are not a thing of the past just because the Supreme Court ruled that we can get married. It’s not harmless, it’s a real threat, and if you aren’t trying to alleviate that threat, you’re actively contributing to it. People are uncomfortable to come to NC because of some backwards legislation we have here. I’ve always told them that their feelings are valid but that Courage games are a safe place separate from that, and I want to keep it that way.”
There were a couple of common threads between the fans I interviewed. First, they support the team and the community around the team as a concept that exists with or without Hinkle. And second, for them, initiatives like Playing for Pride and the team’s June 16th Pride Night outweigh the negative impact of Hinkle’s actions.
But the fact that each of them had to come to some kind of personal reconciliation in order to be able to enjoy having a club to support shouldn’t just be the way it is. Fans shouldn’t have to do a mental exercise every time their team is on the field just so they don’t have to be confronted with a reminder that a player on their team has judged them for their identity. Of course many teams in many sports have players whose personal opinions don’t align with those of some fans. But Hinkle took the situation beyond a personal opinion, publicly telling a segment of the fanbase that has historically found shelter in women’s soccer that they are not worthy of her consideration and then allowing herself to be held up as a positive example for others on the 700 Club. And let’s not forget that that “personal opinion” isn’t a benign one. It’s not “North Carolina barbecue is the best barbecue in the world,” it’s “showing support for LGBTQ people is wrong.”
“If I’m not that big of a significance to her, I shouldn’t let her and her views be that big of a significance to me,” Christmas told me. That should be hurtful for a player to hear, that a fan believes a player on her own team thinks of her as insignificant or worthy of dismissal. It’s not “faith acted on in personal conviction harming no one else.” When Hinkle acted on her faith, it was an insult to LGBTQ people whether she meant it that way or not, and when she went on The 700 Club, it was a demonstration that tacitly validated and encouraged discrimination by others who have the same beliefs as Hinkle.
The fans I spoke to will still support the Courage, but perhaps the Courage should take this time to consider how they support their fans. You cannot claim to appreciate your LGBTQ fans while at the same time excusing homophobic actions from one of your players or one of your teammates as simply being her personal opinion. Perhaps people within the Courage are privately engaging with Hinkle. It can be hard, emotional work trying to have conversations with your coworkers, friends, and family about their discriminatory beliefs. Perhaps they let her be and she lets them be. But on the public stage, where actions have public consequences, the Courage have now sent a mixed message at best to their LGBTQ fans: we support you, but we also support our player’s right to reject you. The inability or unwillingness to make the connection between Hinkle’s actions and the very real hurt felt by the LGBTQ community and to acknowledge that this is harming people can’t feel good for fans who have given their time, their money, and their love to the Courage.