When I walked into U-M Soccer Stadium 45 minutes before the first game on Sunday, nobody was in the stands yet but “Dancing Queen” blared over the speakers. So, I guess there were never any plans to be subtle.
That’s somehow both fitting and ironic, and it can fill both boxes because the Venn Diagram of gays and sports is usually just two circles bumping up against each other. It’s fitting because it’s Pride Day here, for the first time ever, and we aren’t exactly shy about things like this. It’s ironic because we’re at a sporting event and athletes still swing heavily towards a muted, non-emotive way of carrying themselves. It’s still abjectly weird to break that mold, especially in the way LGBTQ folks stereotypically break it.
That’s why there are exceedingly few openly gay athletes in collegiate or professional sports. It’s why those who come out stress for years about it, and it’s why I spent the first 20 minutes after I got there thinking about the social dynamics of playing “Dancing Queen” while some soccer players warmed up.
There’s a deep-seated element of self-consciousness I still have about things like this. It’s not as bad as it was in high school, but it lingers now as my head goes in circles about this song. Nathan Brecht, the man who organized this day, seems to have shaken that element of himself a while ago. When I asked where to find him before the game, I was told by someone in the press box, “He’s the tall guy dancing near the table with the Pride flag.”
It turns out that Brecht is not gay himself, but an ally. That’s somewhat beside the point. If you’re working in sports and dancing around with a Pride flag, your level of unease with breaking norms is below zero.
Brecht started researching last spring about whether other Big Ten teams had done something like a Pride Day, and the conversations started to heat up about three months ago. Sometime in between, the Athletic Department heard from the Department of Equity and Inclusion that some student athletes had asked about doing a pride day in an anonymous survey.
Soccer — especially women’s soccer — has natural ties to the LGBTQ community, so it made sense to do it here. Brecht went on Maize Pages and reached out to every LGBTQ-affiliated group he could find.
“I just wanted to be as authentic as possible,” Brecht said. “I didn’t want this to be a day that members of the LGBTQ community came out to and felt like we were being gimmicky or inauthentic.”
They hung pride flags of various LGBTQ groups over the press box, gave away rainbow flags to fans in attendance, and set up face paint and chalk. At halftime, they played a video highlighting the Athletic Department’s inclusivity. It all felt somewhat understated and quaint, but in a comforting way.
“I think it’s pretty great,” said Cyvvie Barton. She was in the stands with her partner, Laurel Hanna. “There are a lot of kids here. A lot of families here, which is cool. I haven't been to a soccer game before, so I don’t know if the crowd compares or if it’s bigger or smaller than it usually is.”
Both of them work at the University, for DEI. They heard about the event on social media and came anyway, sitting with a pride flag draped between them.
I explained to them that I wasn’t quite sure how to write this story, how much I wanted to talk about my experience as a gay man and that I didn’t really know how to navigate these waters. Truthfully, I was hoping they’d help me find some coherence to this story, but as you’ve figured out by now, that didn’t quite happen.
“We were just talking about how many Pride events that we’ve been to this summer and stuff like that, so this is kind of like a great cherry on top of the year,” Barton said. “But yeah, I think women’s sports in general are more open to people being different than the standard. So LGBT initiatives kind of fit well into that narrative, I guess. Or people in general.
“Whereas I think in a lot of men’s sports, especially professional sports, it’s not good to be different unless you’re the best person on the field. So it’s a little easier in some ways with women’s sports.”
She was surprised that Pride Day wasn’t just for the women’s team. Neither of them saw men’s sports as being particularly welcoming to LGBT communities because, empty rhetoric aside, they’re not. That’s not meant to imply that there aren’t people trying to fix the problem or say that there hasn’t been marked progress being made. It’s not meant as a dramatic statement either. It’s just a fact.
That shows itself in big ways — there’s no hiding the fact that throughout the four major professional leagues in America, there somehow isn’t a single openly gay man — and small ones, too. When the men’s soccer team took the field for warmups on Sunday, rap music played.
Nitpicking things like that belies the point, though. Some people like to dump on any progress that isn’t both wholesale and done in completely their way, going out of their way to find reasons things are still bad or will never be good. I hate those people, because underscoring all of those issues, however big, is an undercurrent of progress.
On Sunday, thanks to Brecht, Michigan took a small step forward.
Sears can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethan_sears.