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Angel City FC celebrates Pride Night with a purpose

Angel City FC captain Ali Riley and her teammates walk onto the field for Pride Night and a game against the Dash on Tuesday. (Harry How/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Angel City FC defender Paige Nielsen was queer before the club celebrated Pride Night on Tuesday and played the Houston Dash to a 0-0 draw, and she will be after it. Just as Nielsen’s sexual orientation and identity will outlive the rainbow bandanas and henna tattoos of the evening, and the pomp of the marches during Pride Month, the 24-year-old’s club is committed to LGBTQIA+ inclusion indefinitely.

In April, Angel City hosted stakeholders from eight professional North American soccer teams to learn about and discuss LGBTQIA+ inclusion, and Nielsen and ACFC teammate Madison Hammond participated.

“Learning to be inclusive opened my own eyes,” Nielsen said. “I have a wife, and I didn’t even understand.”

Prior to the training, Nielsen didn’t think she had strong feelings about Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, for example. Then someone brought up that if a child’s parents were gay, under the law, the child would not even be able to talk about who their parents are.

“And I was like, holy crap, why didn’t I even think about that? I want to raise kids of my own,” Nielsen said.

Since the workshop, Nielsen has connected with some of the organizers on LinkedIn and plans to participate in more Play Proud trainings.

The week-long training was part of the Play Proud Initiative, which grew out of a conversation between ACFC Head of Community Catherine Dávila and Common Goal Executive Director Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe about a collective action effort to combat homophobia in soccer. All clubs and participating individuals — ranging from owners, players and coaches to club supporter group leaders and members — enter the workshops at different levels in their understanding and ability to make an impact. The idea is not to compare, but rather to share knowledge, experiences and best practices when it comes to creating a safe, welcoming and inclusive experience for all LGBTQIA+ individuals in soccer.

Angel City’s commitment to inclusion is what led Senior Director of Community Impact Chris Fajardo to join the organization, where he now collaborates with Dávila on the Community team. He estimates that ACFC has already put in 3,000 hours of training through this initiative, with much more planned for the future.

“This club has made such intentional moves to be inclusive and have it not be performative,” Fajardo said. “What I love to witness continuously, especially at game days, is how fans come in and engage in a community that expresses that. We’ve created something special, a space that’s electric.”

Dávila and her team are actively looking to incorporate as many marginalized identities into their club’s representation as possible. They also often find “low-hanging fruit,” as Dávila puts it, or easy things to correct. For example, the team discovered that adding pronouns to their email signatures would go a long way toward making non-binary and trans individuals feel comfortable and respected.

Fajardo pointed to relationships with the LA LGBT Center and the West Hollywood Soccer Club, the oldest LGBTQIA+ soccer club in Southern California, as ways ACFC is supporting the community beyond Pride Month. ACFC is working with the Center to support Youth Prom and a prom for senior members and to tackle food insecurity issues. As for the West Hollywood Soccer Club, ACFC is helping the organization organize their tournament in November.

Before coming to ACFC this offseason from the Washington Spirit, where she won the 2021 NWSL championship, Nielsen said she never knew a single club could make such a profound impact.

“I was like, holy crap, they stand for everything I believe in,” Nielsen said. “Then when I got here, I saw we had six different supporter groups, and the community initiatives we’ve done have been incredible.”

Paige Nielsen and comedian Lilly Singh pose for a photo after Tuesday's game. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images for Angel City FC)

Nielsen, who grew up in Nebraska unaware of knowing a single queer person, did not begin to realize she fell somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum until a female friend kissed her in college. At the time, she identified as straight and had previously only dated men. For a while, Nielsen kept things platonic. Eventually, she realized her feelings were stronger than that and allowed herself to explore her sexuality.

The fifth-year NWSL veteran describes herself as an open book who has always believed that love is the answer to all questions. Yet, Nielsen only recently came to the conclusion that she needs to be vocal with her story.

“I didn’t think it was so important,” Nielsen said. “I was like, ‘Our world is changing. Everyone is going to love each other. We’re all humans,’ because I’m such a hippie. But people are reaching out to me and saying even Nebraska is changing because of the impact I’m making.”

Last week, Nielsen shared her coming out story and revealed how she met and fell in love with her wife on the Attacking Third podcast, which has been airing during halftime of NWSL matches on CBS. This has led to even more LGBTQIA+ people reaching out to her for support.

“I think making single, individual impacts can go very far,” Nielsen said. “Some people were very vulnerable with me and said they never told anyone before.”

She said her goal for the rest of the month is to respond to everyone who has reached out and talk to them about how to approach coming out if that’s what they want to do. Nielsen wants people to know that sexual orientation can be fluid and no one has the right to judge anyone’s journey. She believes that people coming out and sharing their stories will help others navigating their identities.

“Especially in sports, since we have a huge platform,” Nielsen said.

She credited soccer stars Abby Wambach, Ashlyn Harris and Megan Rapinoe for publicly coming out and making it easier for people like her to do so.

Allies, like ACFC team captain Ali Riley, have also made life easier for Nielsen. Riley asked her over lunch on Tuesday what she identifies as and whether she went back and forth between dating men and women.

“Just talking about that in a safe place to someone who is willing to learn about every individual is so important,” Nielsen said. “There aren’t a lot of safe spaces anymore, especially on Twitter and social media, and that’s where your allies on a team really help you feel safe.”

Fajardo, who is gay, also spoke about Riley’s allyship.

“Ali being so vocal is a brave thing,” Fajardo said. “We still haven’t come to a place, especially in sports, where individuals feel safe. To have somebody that has a platform, is open to being vocal and is so present makes such a difference. She’s creating space for people who could be allies to feel safe expressing that, and she’s showing for those that identity on the LGBTQ+ spectrum that people care and that there is space for them to be themselves. Since so many young kids look to her and other players, it’s an especially powerful statement.”

Riley is continually asking questions and learning so that she can be the best ally possible.

“When I look at my friends and teammates and think that they wouldn’t be treated or have the same opportunities as I would, it makes me so angry,” Riley said. “Particularly with trans kids and sports, I look at what sport has done for me and my life and to think that little kids are not allowed to play sports (because of their identity), it really breaks my heart.”

Like Nielsen and the ACFC Community team, Riley emphasizes that the fight for equality extends beyond the month of June. Still, she hopes that this month can be a time to highlight and celebrate the LGBTQIA+ women on Angel City, in soccer and in the NWSL, including the supporter groups and fans. This month, ACFC participated in the WeHo Pride Parade; next, they will take part in the L.A. Pride Parade on June 12 and Trans Pride from June 16-18 and have a few players volunteer at the Pride Picnic on June 26.

“And I hope that it can be that balance of a time to really fight, but also to celebrate,” Riley said.

At ACFC’s Pride Night on Tuesday, Mariachi Arcoíris — the first LBGTQ+ mariachi group in the world — performed the national anthem, bisexual comedian Lilly Singh led the ceremonial three-clap and special guests from the LA LGBT Center and TransCanWork were honored on the field. All evening, LGBTQIA+-centric music blared from the stadium speakers.

“I hope people feel seen, loved and welcomed here because I see them, I love them and I welcome them,” Riley said after the match. “I really hope that we can continue to show that, here at Angel City, everyone is welcome and we accept you for who you are. We continue to grow together and be an example for other teams, other leagues, and other sports.”

Joshua Fischman is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering Angel City FC and the Los Angeles Sparks. He has covered basketball for Vantage Sports and Hoops Rumors and served as co-host of “On the NBA Beat” podcast. Joshua received his master’s in Sports Media from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @JJTheJuggernaut.