cw: homophobic & transphobic speech
I’m James Bridget. I’m a lifelong Chicagoan and I’ve been a fan of the Fire since they were founded more than twenty years ago. I’ve been writing about this team for about five years, an editor for this humble website for a year and a half, and the editor-in-chief since last month.
I’m also queer. I’ve had to do the whole Coming Out thing twice— once when I was thirteen, when I told people I wasn’t straight, and then again more than two years ago, when I told people I wasn’t a boy. I actually started telling people I wasn’t a boy three years ago— it took something like eight months to work up the nerve to go public with it. It took me so long to come out, and so many years grappling with this question I could barely put into words, because I was scared. Being any flavor of LGBTQ in this country means having to live in a society that is actively hostile toward you. And we do it anyway, because we get to a point where the pain of having to live a lie outweighs whatever consequences await— even if it’s death.
I believe in the power of stories. I believe it’s important to tell stories that are honest and faithful to their subject, regardless of whether I’m writing journalism or fiction or telling a friend what my day was like. In order to tell stories honestly and faithfully, it’s important to provide context. Because stories don’t happen in isolation— there’s an entire history and web of connections that underpins everything. That’s why I felt obliged to write this short introduction— to give you some context.
It’s also why, every time you’ve scored a goal for the Fire this season, I’ve taken a moment to remind our readers of that time when you called Will Johnson a “faggot” in the middle of an MLS game. Because context is important for understanding a story.
And because I want to be as fair to you as I can, I think it’s important to dive deeper into that context.
“I would like to sincerely apologize to everyone who watched tonight’s match on NBC Sports Network. The language I used came during a heated moment and does not reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian community. I made a mistake and I accept full responsibility for my actions.”
I’m going to return to this statement in a little bit, but for right now I want to note two things. First, for a lot of fans, this was Good Enough. You made an apology and you accepted your three-game suspension. For a lot people, the case was closed. And second, this wasn’t all you had to say on the incident.
A few days later, you said this in an interview:
“I was frustrated about how the game was going. I was frustrated and we were exchanging some words and I said the wrong thing. I made a mistake. It came from somewhere that I didn’t know was in me. I don’t use that language. And it came out and it was the worst possible timing on a big stage.”
I want to pause here and note that, per this interview published by our friends at Center Line Soccer, neither the league nor the club required you to participate in sensitivity training. Instead, representatives from the You Can Play Project— which MLS and member clubs partner with every June for Pride Month— gave a talk to players in the Earthquakes’ locker room. I have been unable to confirm whether or not you were there for that talk.
When asked what your next steps were, you said this:
“I’m going to use this for good. That’s what I’ve decided to do. People that know me know what kind of person I am. I’m discussing a lot of different options to get out into the community and show people who I really am and I will do several things to let people know that it was a mistake.”
I’ve been doing some research to try and uncover what your follow-up was. You said you were “discussing a lot of different options” to engage with the community, presumably in an effort to make real amends for what you did. I have not been able to conclusively determine what kind of follow-up actions you took after the press release and the league-mandated suspension. It’s possible I’m just missing something— I would love to hear which of those options you ended up going with.
In this same interview you also made it clear that, if people still have a problem with what you did after the apology and the suspension, you’re not especially bothered by it.
“If this is the only thing they focus on, then they are going to believe what they believe. But if they really want to know who I am, then stay tuned.”
Once again: “They are going to believe what they believe.”
Ok then, Alan. Here’s what I believe.
I believe you are not, and never were, actually sorry for calling Will Johnson a “faggot.” I believe you were only sorry you got caught. (The line “it came out and it was the worst possible timing on a big stage” is instructive here.) I believe someone wrote that Sorry If You Were Offended press release for you. I believe you went into those subsequent interviews more focused on putting a PR crisis behind you and never having to think about it again than on repairing the real damage you’ve done to queer soccer fans throughout the country. I think you are either abysmally unaware of the kind of violence LGBTQ people deal with or you’re just wholly unconcerned.
What you do has consequences beyond what you plan for and what you see, and those consequences are largely borne by other people. When you hurl homophobic slurs at your opponents, you make it easier for others to do the same to people I care about. When you say the things you say, you help create a world that is more hostile for people like me.
You embolden your new fans in Chicago who fill my Twitter mentions with garbage every time you score a goal. You give confidence to that young man who threw a brick at my head from a moving car while I was walking home from the Red Line one night. You make it statistically more likely that someone will try to kill me.
Your new fans in Chicago— some of whom gleefully use homophobic and transphobic speech to defend you whenever I criticize the Fire for signing you— continue to insist that you’re not really a homophobe. I don’t know you, I don’t have the faintest sense of your interior life, and I have no idea what song your heart sings when no one is around to hear. You can never know what anyone really thinks or feels. You can only ever judge someone by their words and actions. Which is why, per activist Jay Smooth, this is a What They Did conversation and not a What They Are conversation.
What I know is that you called an opponent a “faggot” in the middle of a game, released a bare-minimum public apology mandated by your employers, and then quickly moved on with your life. Whether or not you are a homophobe, in some moral absolutist sense, is beside the point. You engaged in homophobic speech, and, beyond cursory league-mandated consequences, you hardly gave it a second thought.
Now I want to circle back to your press release apology. This line, in particular.
“The language I used came during a heated moment and does not reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian community.”
Yeah, I don’t buy this for a minute. You didn’t say “fuck.” You didn’t call Will Johnson an “asshole.” Swears I can understand tumbling out in the heat of the moment. “Faggot” isn’t a word you just blurt out unless it’s already in your vocabulary. There’s only two real reasons why that word would be in your vocabulary— either you’re accustomed to being called one, like I am, or you’re accustomed to calling other people one.
Some of your fans in the Chicago Fire supporter community think that what I’m doing is an act of hate. I know you won’t sympathize with me on this, but I would hope that, in the abstract, you can appreciate how absurd it is that reporting a fact is considered “hate.” But it leads into an important point, one which people criticize me for when I talk about you. It broaches the question of whether or not I hate you, personally.
The short answer is I don’t hate you, Alan. If for no other reason than you’re just not worth it. (No offense.)
To elaborate on that— this isn’t a personal vendetta. I would beat the same drum for any player for a team I supported that engaged in bigoted speech or behavior. I would make these same points if the Fire signed Lee Nguyen. I would make the same points if the Fire ever signed Marc Burch— although I would have also noted that Burch made good faith efforts to engage with the community, something which I cannot say about you (yet). And if, by some horrific twist of fate, Jaelene Hinkle signed for the Red Stars, you can rest assured that I would never shut up about her. All this to say— it’s not just you.
I feel like it’s extraordinarily hard to be a person in the world unless you try to believe that people can change. Against all my instincts, I’m willing to try to believe that you are not the sum total of what you did that night. I’m willing— I’m hoping— to be completely wrong about you.
Here’s the thing, though. Your words aren’t enough. Not now. Not five years later with no apparent follow-through.
An activist friend of mine said something last week that’s stuck with me. She said solidarity with marginalized people isn’t a moral choice that begins and ends within your heart. It’s not about Being A Good Person. It’s about, as she put it, “making a material commitment to shared struggle.” And that focusing on thinking the right thoughts and having the right opinions allows you to overlook your own privilege and your own blind spots, and how they interfere with the important work of liberation for all people. It’s not about Being Right. It’s about Showing Up.
I’m not looking for you to be perfect. I don’t expect you to never fuck up. I would never ask that of anyone. I do ask people to make good faith efforts to do better and be better when they do fuck up. I expect them to do the work required. I expect them to not skip out on that work by insisting that they’re A Good Person and thinking that’s enough. I haven’t seen that from you. Not yet.
If you’re interested in actually doing that work, I have some suggestions.
We’re holding a fundraiser for Center On Halsted through the end of June. Center On Halsted is the largest LGBTQ community center in the midwest, and they offer a range of support services for queer folks in Chicago. They do good work, and they offer real, material benefits for people. If you’d rather not go through us, you can donate to them directly.
Howard Brown is also a worthy local organization. They connect LGBTQ folks— people who tend to have difficulties accessing health care— with necessary and comprehensive health services. They’re always accepting donations and volunteer labor.
There’s also the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois. They do good work addressing several issues, but part of their mission involves helping provide free or low-cost legal assistance to transgender and gender-nonconforming Illinois residents. Their website details several ways you can support their mission, either through donations or volunteer work.
There are a number of other ways for you to engage with the LGBTQ community if you are genuinely interested in repairing the damage you did five years ago. I’m happy to offer other suggestions, if you’d like. Someone in the front office should be able to put you in touch with me.
I don’t think you really reckoned with the damage you caused when you called Will Johnson a “faggot,” and at this point I don’t think you ever will.
But I’m ready to be proven wrong. If I am, I will do what any good sportswriter would do— provide context, including whatever new information becomes available. And if I’m not wrong, do us faggots a favor— fake an illness for Pride Night on Saturday.
Fire Til I Die,
James Bridget (Pronouns are They/Them or She/Her)