By Dan Woog
When you grow up in Minnesota, you play hockey. If your family is “masculine and sports-oriented,” you play lots of other sports too.
Ryan Adams was a hockey player, a soccer goalkeeper and a varsity tennis star.
But, like so many gay men, he knew as young as 4 that he was different. He left the macho environment of hockey after Bantams, a level of youth hockey, and stopped playing soccer in high school. Looking back into the haze of adolescence, Adams can’t even remember what year he quit. The mix of sexuality, sports and “a bit” of bullying was too much.
It did not help that for as long as he could remember, his father made anti-gay jokes. The effect was so strong that for a couple of years after coming out Adams could not even go to a Pride parade.
“I’ve evolved so much since then,” he says in wonderment. His family has too – including his dad.
Coming out was complicated. Adams had a full military ride to a ROTC program at a Catholic college, ranking third among 46 cadets. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still in effect. The Air Force was overstaffed though, so he was allowed to leave without paying back his tuition.
Exploring the gay world online, Adams found a new life in Nashville. It was a big, important change. But at 21 he moved back to Minneapolis, and began living his life openly and proudly.
He found a Facebook group of LGBT people involved in social and athletic activities like bowling and raising money for AIDS causes. When he learned of a coed LGBT soccer team – and heard about the Gay Games and World Outgames – he realized what he’d been missing. The young man who had been turned off by the sports world wanted back in.
The Twin Cities Jacks became a major part of Adams’ life. Founded in 2007, they’re the only LGBT soccer club in Minnesota. They field teams in local, national and international tournaments; host social outings for LGBT fans; promote the game, and educate other soccer organization about homophobia in sports. Players of all skill levels are welcome. Allies are encouraged too.
Adams, who had earned a master’s degree in sports management and now works full time for a college marketing organization, rose quickly through the volunteer ranks. “I wanted everyone to have a chance to live healthy lives, and make friends,” he says.
He notes that despite increasing openness, “we’re still in an era when a gay adult may be playing sports for the first time in their life, or be out as an athlete for the first time. Lifting that emotional burden is so important. It’s amazing to play a sport as exactly the person you are.” What was once a “hindrance” for many, he says, “now draws us together.”
That sense of fulfillment and camaraderie has opened many eyes. TC Jacks’ outreach to allies has helped straight soccer players experience the world in a new way. A lawyer and his wife who moved to Minnesota from rural Iowa had known only one gay person ever. But they found the Jacks, and became passionate, devoted friends of the LGBT community.
The Jacks use their popularity to influence the broader soccer world. Minnesota United FC begins play in Major League Soccer this year. The Jacks are helping team officials become “socially responsible” – beyond simply sponsoring one Pride Night a year – and have engaged supporters groups too. “They’re incredibly LGBT friendly,” Adams says.
Beyond the Twin Cities, Adams has taken on leadership roles too. He served the International Lesbian & Gay Football Association in an interim role, and has begun a soft launch for an organization called US LGBT Soccer.
The goal for that group is to offer a home for LGBT players, coaches, administrators and fans around the country. A unified organization can provide a national association for clubs; offer resources and best practices, so that new teams and leagues do not have to reinvent the soccer wheel; tie together LGBT supporter groups of professional clubs; recruit, train and aid LGBT referees; partner with pro leagues to combat homophobia – and create an LGBT national team to represent the United States in foreign tournaments.
There are not many sports with such outreach to all members of their community. There are not many team sports with such global appeal as soccer, either. There are not many people with the energy and vision of Ryan Adams.
But there are plenty of Ryan Adamses in the LGBT sports world – men and women who understand the power of athletics to provide community, competition and fun to everyone, in a healthy, open and affirming environment. As a new year dawns, their work endures.
Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach and gay activist. His latest book is “We Kick Balls: True Stories from the Youth Soccer Wars.” He can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected].