Just eight miles from the State Legislature, where last month Republican lawmakers introduced a bill targeting transgender athletes’ participation in school sports, a large crowd began to gather on Saturday night. They had come out to see the North Carolina Courage take on the Portland Thorns at Cary’s Sahlen’s Stadium.

The June 26 match, which fell on the National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL’s) annual Pride Night, felt like a rainbow swirl of a rejoinder. In the dirt parking lanes around the stadium, fans in Pride gear helmed trunk-propped pong games as the black and brown and pink, blue, and white stripes of “Progress” Pride flags intermingled with the North Carolina state colors and crest.

Meanwhile, Olivia Rodrigo’s anti-teenage-doldrums screed “brutal” blasted over the speakers as Jessica Turner and Mary Pruter—vice president and president, respectively, of the Courage’s supporters’ group The Uproar—surveyed the incoming crowd, beckoning newcomers over to a pregame picnic. A mix of folks ambled by: parents and children, hyped youth soccer teams, millennials wearing local band shirts, embracing couples.

“I think, for the women’s game, it’s a little bit more diverse in the types of people that come out [for games],” Turner says, comparing the crowd turnout to that of men’s soccer and other men’s sports. “Women’s soccer is more likely to be an LGBTQ-friendly or safer space. I hope that we’re creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable.”

June marks both Pride Month and the end of the first third of the NWSL’s 2021 season, back to its typical schedule after an off-kilter pandemic year.

It’s no exaggeration to call these pro athletes some of the best in the world. Four Courage players—Samantha Mewis, Lynn Williams, Debinha, and Abby Erceg—are heading to the Tokyo Olympics with the women’s national teams for the United States, Brazil, and New Zealand.

And anyone who follows sports with the simple understanding that “soccer” does not therefore equate to “men’s soccer” knows that women’s sports participants’ commitment to advancing the game extends past the field. (It’s also important to remember that not all athletes in “women’s sports” identify as women.)

The WNBA led the way last year in protesting racial injustice and police brutality with a focus on honoring the memory of Breonna Taylor, and the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) has long fought, publicly, for pay equity. And it’s true that between players and fans alike, women’s soccer is—as several friends and I have phrased it—“super gay.”

“Some of the foremost soccer players in our country are queer women,” Turner says. “They’re out and they’re proud. I think that also creates a safer space for fans, for other players, for people to say: I see myself in this person being out and proud and living their life in the best, fullest way.”

The current Courage roster gives the impression of being a synergistic collective, made up of queer players and straight allies who materially support inclusion and anti-discrimination through fundraising initiatives like Playing for Pride. The match against the Thorns marked the Courage’s debut of Pride-themed jerseys; the team also had Pride Night shirts for sale, benefiting the LGBT Center of Raleigh.

The league’s, and the Courage’s, history with LGBTQ+ support, however, is more complicated.

One local flashpoint: the 2017 controversy over former Courage player Jaelene Daniels (then Hinkle), who, citing her Christian faith, refused a spot on the U.S. Women’s National Team because she didn’t want to wear a Pride jersey during Pride Month. Fans were hurt and haven’t forgotten, and players have recently become more vocal about that moment’s broader implications.

Courage forward Lynn Williams—who was just named as an alternate for the National Team’s Olympic squad and who, with a placid vengeance, netted the team’s two winning goals over the Thorns on Saturday—has called attention to the team’s past shortcomings, both in her podcast with USWNT and Courage teammate Sam Mewis, and in her post-match comments on Saturday.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Williams said, referring to the team’s first time playing in Pride jerseys. “I think I can speak on behalf of the team to say: we should have done this—worn the Pride numbers—way sooner. The whole past year we’ve learned from our mistakes, and hopefully we can continue to rectify those mistakes.”

Turner and Pruter agree that during this past year, COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement energized the Courage players to be more intentional and intersectional in their activism.

“There is a sentiment in the team of understanding how these oppressions are overlapping or interlocking,” Turner says. “You can’t be advocating for Black Lives Matter and not for equality for the LGBTQ community. Those things interact.”

In this way, supporters’ groups like the Uproar also serve as a check on the team’s institutional commitments.

“We’re always pushing the club to speak out more and to really be thoughtful about what they’re saying,” Turner says. “What are you projecting out, and how are you backing that up as well?”

Fans will notice that the Courage’s jerseys are available for purchase online in gender-neutral sizing; this is a result of the Uproar’s push. Gestures like these help to collapse the space between player and fan, signaling mutual investment in common causes and affirming women’s soccer spaces as spaces for everyone.

This Pride Night had an onward-and-upward feel, too. After a 0-0 halftime standstill, a blissfully cohesive and Courage-dominant second-half performance secured a 2-0 win over Portland.

From the 66th minute on, when Williams headed in her decisive second goal after a trademark assist by Carson Pickett, the fans were wild, throwing a call-and-response “NC! Courage!” into the humid night air. When the team made its usual post-game lap of the field to thank fans and bid adieu before the Olympics-bound players jet off, several players were cloaked—like their supporters—in Pride flags.

Between player numbers and fabric banners, rainbows on rainbows, the stadium resembled a hyper-local Pride parade: a scene that felt both remarkable and yet totally normal at the same time, and a refreshing comedown from the corporate and consumer Pride performativity that often characterizes Pride Month.

It’s the fans, coming out in droves across the North Carolina Triangle, that make the sport what it is. Regardless of whether or not it’s officially Pride Night, most Courage games feel beautifully open and, yes, “super gay.”

Uproar member Eboni Christmas encapsulated the vibe with a tweeted photo of her newly acquired Pride jersey—Brazilian Courage player Debinha’s number 10. “I have pride in my teams,” she wrote. “And now, I have a jersey that shows they have pride in me too.” 

Support independent local journalismJoin the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Comment on this story at arts@indyweek.com