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An Open Letter To Chicago Fire Fans On Confronting Homophobia

Dealing with bigotry in our community takes hard work and persistence. Are you up for it?

Dear Fellow Fire Fans,

I’m going to make some assumptions here to start things off. Please don’t take it personally.

I’m going to guess that, if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth. (The word for this is Cisgender.) If you’re a man, you probably have an ‘M’ on your birth certificate and ID, were probably given clothes and toys coded For Boys as a kid, were raised in a society in which you occupied one of two accepted categories for gender, and ultimately learned what was expected of you as a man by osmosis (and occasionally more direct means, like bullying or being told that “Real Men Don’t Do X,” where X is some fun thing you did until someone said it’s not allowed). You’re comfortable with your label. You can’t imagine being anything else.

I’m also going to guess that you experience sexual and romantic attraction to people of the “opposite” gender. If you’re a man, you’re into women. Maybe you’re able to acknowledge that people find a specific man attractive and are willing to admit as such; this likely marks you as suspicious to some and “progressive” or “confident in their masculinity” to others.

These aren’t value judgments. It’s just math. I acknowledge that there just aren’t that many of us. Certainly not enough to throw an election.

Right, so, that use of us there. None of the above applies to me. I came out as bisexual when I was 13. These days a more accurate descriptor for me would likely be pansexual, to cover a wider range of genders that people I might want to sleep and/or brunch with may identify as. But I still call myself bisexual, in part because I want to push back on the stigma attached to bisexual people— among straight folks and within LGBT circles.

And then last year, after living as a boy for more than 30 years, I finally fessed up and admitted that I actually wasn’t one.

I don’t know offhand how many queer Fire fans there are. We’re not as connected as I would like. And plenty of us don’t feel comfortable being too open about who we are around other Fire fans. Sure, we’re there; by sheer numbers we’re everywhere in MLS. But queer Fire fans don’t mark their territory the same way that, say, Seattle fans and Portland fans and LA fans do.

If you knew what it’s really like for us, you wouldn’t blame us.

If you don’t know what it’s like for us, I wrote a big thing about it last year. And if you read that and said, “but what is to be done?”, my co-author (a Revs fan) for that piece has you covered.

A lot of homophobia and transphobia in American soccer culture is subtle, so subtle you wouldn’t notice it if you hadn’t heard it a million times before. But sometimes it’s painfully obvious. Sometimes it screams in your face. I’ve argued for a while that confronting individuals who act in bigoted ways has a hard ceiling in terms of changing bigoted attitudes, and that the most effective solutions are structural and carry real, meaningful consequences for bad behavior. Sometimes this is about setting and enforcing social norms, where the consequences amount to the transgressor losing friends and, dependent on circumstances, being told they’re no longer welcome in designated supporter sections. And sometimes this is about an organization— the Fire front office, Section 8, etc.— setting new policies and explicitly outlining expected behavior, as well as clear guidelines for what happens when people don’t meet those expectations.

People do what they think they can get away with. Homophobes engage in homophobic speech and behavior because they’re confident they won’t get in trouble for it. And every time a social norm goes unenforced, every time a community is drawn into asinine debates over free speech or arguing whether something was just “banter,” every time an organization promises to do something about a lingering problem and then doesn’t follow through, bigots are proven right in their assumptions.

Which brings me to one “Andrew M.”

On Tuesday, the Fire posted this on their Twitter account to promote yesterday’s game against the Rapids.

#IDAHOT is the hashtag promoting International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. If the Fire were going to have their Pride Night outside of, y’know, June, this was as good a time as any to have it.

Some of the response to this tweet was shocking. And by “shocking” I mean “entirely predictable and expected.”

Some people in CF97 Twitter decided to engage Andrew, with middling results.

So, a few things.

First, I’m not going to address Andrew directly over his comments. As a rule, I try to avoid getting drawn into arguments with children.

Second, when I learned this was happening it was framed as “Fire Twitter coming together to fight homophobia.” That, I think, is a bit of an exaggeration. I noted that a number of people who dragged Andrew on Twitter over this have engaged in homophobic and transphobic speech in the past— in general and against me specifically. So I’m not inclined to assume good faith with the people who jumped in Andrew’s @-mentions, nor am I disposed to cite “confronting homophobia” as their primary motivation here.

(And for the love of Dog, do not tell people to drink bleach. I don’t care how horrible they are.)

Third, a number of these people who trolled Andrew have also participated in The Chant during Fire games or have defended those who do. The Chant is still heard around Toyota Park, despite the Fire’s explicit promises to do something about it.

There’s a pattern here: people wanting credit for addressing difficult social problems without actually doing the work. (And in some cases, making the problem worse.)

But even if I were to assume good faith on those pushing back on Andrew, I would still have problems with individual confrontations as a means of creating social change.

Obviously, straight and cisgender allies can help further the cause of queer acceptance. Straight and cisgender supporters who confront their fellow fans on homophobic or transphobic behavior help establish and enforce social norms. But if Andrew is any indication, there are enough people who will just get defensive when confronted and double down on their noxious behavior. And because the stakes for straight and cisgender allies are much lower than it is for queer people, they’re more likely to bow out of a confrontation sooner.

(To say nothing of individuals who want to be perceived as allies but actually aren’t. Or those whose allyship is conditional, and immediately revoked if they don’t receive adequate praise for doing the bare minimum for occasionally being a decent human, or when discussing LGBT people that they don’t like.)

And for queer folks, engaging in this dialogue is, to put it mildly, fraught. Dialogue with people who hold power over you— specifically coercive power, whether it’s their willingness to use physical violence against you or the knowledge that the cops would probably side with your attacker simply because of who you are— is an inherently unequal proposition. Dialogue can’t happen when you’re under threat. I can’t just Agree To Disagree with someone over my fundamental right to exist in public, because Agreeing To Disagree means they can go on with their lives and I can’t.

Queer people understand this in every confrontation we find ourselves in. If I’m at a Fire game and another fan starts calling me a “tr*nny,” what exactly am I supposed to do? Talk to him nicely and hope he stops? What if he’s not interested in “dialogue?” What if he becomes violent? Will other fans nearby have my back? (Spoiler alert: probably not, and there’s a very real fear that one asshole could incite a mob.) Will Monterrey Security step in? (Spoiler alert: lol.) Will the cops show up and help me? (Spoiler alert: there are reasons why trans people avoid cops like the plague.) These aren’t hypotheticals here. These are some of the main reasons why I stay home and watch my team on TV.

Dialogue is about changing hearts and minds. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about that. I’m not interested in changing Andrew’s mind. Or yours, for that matter. I’m interested in changing power dynamics. I don’t care if Andrew ever has a change of heart about queer people. I just want there to be actual consequences for his behavior— especially if he ever decides to escalate beyond Twitter trolling.

My problem with The Chant has never been about the people doing it. Assholes are going to do what assholes are going to do. My problem is with Section 8 and their long-standing collective desire to pretend it wasn’t happening until the thinkpieces started rolling out and they couldn’t ignore it anymore. My problem is with Sector Latino for giving those assholes a safe refuge when Harlem End folks finally started calling them out and they chose to move rather than stop being assholes. My problem is with the Fire front office for promising to actually, finally do something about it, and then not following through. My problem is with the league for pointedly looking the other way while making a big deal over their corporate diversity initiative that does absolutely fuck-all for marginalized fans.

People do what they think they can get away with.

A while back I read this blog post about Reddit and why it sucks. The author has extensive experience in online community management, and he put it like this:

My favorite visualization of online communities is the community bar. I’ve used, managed and built online communities going back into the 1980s, many of them sports related, so it’s natural to look at those communities as sports bars. The thing I’ve always told people interested in community management is this: if you’re running a sports bar, and you have a gang of bikers move in, you have two choices. You can either eject the bikers, or you’re running a biker bar. I never set out intending to put my time and energy into a biker bar, so I always worked to prevent the rowdy elements from taking over my communities, because I knew that would cause the people I wanted to be around to leave and find some other place to be.

(Emphasis mine.)

Confronting hate isn’t easy. Facilitating social change isn’t easy. Making space for marginalized people isn’t easy. And not everyone is up to it.

There are plenty of Fire fans who envision this community as inclusive. But for the most part, they assume it’s already achieved this state, and only needs occasional maintenance and upkeep. This is not true. If Fire supporters want LGBT fans to feel part of this community, they have to put in the work to make that happen. And it’s hard work.

It cannot and must not be about confronting individual homophobic fans and appealing to the better angels of their nature. It has to be about creating space and reforming structures. It’s about pushing Section 8 and the supporters groups into adopting Codes of Conduct. It’s about talking to the club front office about moving their LGBT advocacy out of the marketing office and having them address real logistical issues, like more responsive security and more gender neutral restrooms. It’s about directing more of our collective fundraising and community service work toward local LGBT resource organizations like Howard Brown and Center On Halsted. It’s about all of us acknowledging our accomplishments so far, and being honest with each other about how far we still have to go.

This is all hard work and it’s possible that this community just isn’t up for it. That’s fine. But if we’re not, then we have to stop pretending that this is something we actually care about. We have to stop pretending that Pride Parade floats and the occasional Twitter arguments are enough. We have to stop calling ourselves inclusive, because it just won’t be true.

As a writer I admire the heck out of once put it: “When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.”

I hope that making space for LGBT fans is a priority for us. I hope that we’re up for the work that’s required. But I’m a bitter old queer, as well as a Fire fan. In both respects, I know better than to get my hopes up.

Yr Obdnt Srvt,

James Bridget

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