Finding Safety in Women’s Sports: One Recreational Soccer League’s Mission to Become More Gender Inclusive

By Jennifer Ferguson

Soccer is known as the beautiful game, the world’s sport, and I was one of the many kids in Indianapolis in the late 1980s who fell in love with it. Although it’s been 35 or so years since I kicked my first soccer ball with the Northeast Youth Soccer League in Lawrence, Indiana, my passion for the game is still alive and well. Soccer is a huge part of my life. I’ve played at a variety of competitive levels, in multiple states and even in a few foreign countries. I’ve coached, I’ve officiated, and I also worked in Major League Soccer for a time. I now live in Chicago, and currently play in several adult recreational soccer leagues in the city. 

Every week, I step onto the field alongside players with diverse, fluid sexual orientations and gender identities. Most of us have been playing sports alongside LBGTQ2S+ athletes for our entire lives, often unknowingly. But visibility is increasing for these athletes, and with it, unique challenges to our antiquated binary systems. 

For all our DEI advancements in sport, and despite the resounding success of our superstar women’s professional athletes (Isn’t it amazing what happens when resources are allocated more equitably, when representation is prioritized? Television rights deals are generating record-breaking viewership, and girls’ participation in youth sports is on the rise, but I digress.), entitlement and privilege for cisgender male soccer players in recreational coed leagues still reign supreme. With a few exceptions, many coed leagues continue to rely on outdated stereotypical gender rules in their organizations. A coed team’s makeup is rarely 50/50 for “men” and “women.” The percentage of men on the field is generally higher; rules vary, but it is often a 3:1 ratio. Contributions by anyone other than cisgender males are consistently undervalued. Representation leans hyper-masculine, meaning other gender identities aren’t welcome.

Referees, whose responsibility is to control the game, are overwhelmingly men. Team captains for coed teams are also usually men. In my experience, the notion that “women” or anyone who identifies with womanhood are somehow weaker or softer has persisted, even in soccer. Women are passed over for free kicks or penalties. I recently saw a man take the ball away from a woman attempting to set up a corner kick. If a woman is new to a coed team or pickup game—as a substitute player, for example—men are often reluctant to choose her for their team or pass the ball to her. Women have traditionally had to work twice as hard as to prove themselves on the field to receive equal treatment. During a recent scheduling mix-up at a popular soccer facility in Chicago, a men’s game was booked at the same time as one of our women’s games. The men’s game was allowed to proceed, and the women were dismissed without ceremony or apology. Both teams had paid to be there. Both teams were on the schedule. One was given immediate priority. The message was clear: men’s games take precedence, and their playing time is more valuable. 

The women I play with could give countless examples of how they have faced sexism in their soccer careers, and we still encounter daily condescending language, oversights and microaggressions. If a player happens to be trans or non-binary, however, matters become even more complicated. Most recreational leagues limit their product offerings (and their language) to men’s, women’s, and coed—heteronormative classifications that erase the existence of anyone with a non-binary identity. Within these gender classifications are sub-categories of advanced, intermediate, beginner, and specific age groupings, such as 30+. Why not experiment with using only these qualifiers, instead of relying on gender identity? It matters how we run our leagues, organize our facilities, hire our personnel, and choose our language. Making sports environments safer and creating equitable opportunities for athletes of all gender identities is an urgent need, as draconian laws that target trans people and police their bodies—such as bathroom bans and student athlete bans—are resulting in very real harm and very real violence. Trans people are over four times as likely to suffer violent victimization than their cis peers, and murders of trans people in the United States have nearly doubled between 2017 and 2021*. 

When I asked Liz Vondran, an athlete and non-binary volunteer with Women’s Sports Chicago (WSC), what they believed people generally misunderstand or get wrong about non-binary and trans athletes, they answered: “That we’re a threat. Trans people are being portrayed as dangerous, or pedophiles, or groomers, or threatening to vulnerable cis women. And it’s just not true. When you look at the statistics, trans folks are more likely to be abused, neglected, homeless, drug-addicted, murdered, assaulted. Dehumanizing people makes it permissible to perpetuate violence. Transness is real and valid, and that probably feels threatening to some people, to their own identities and social systems.”

During interviews with non-binary soccer players for this post, safety was mentioned in every single conversation. Any time a player of any gender takes the field, there is a risk of bodily injury, which is why we are forever signing waivers. But there are other risks for both women and non-binary players in coed leagues: the risk of being bullied or dehumanized with hurtful comments or misgendering. There is the risk of unwanted attention or physical touching. And there is the risk that someone’s prejudices will become manifest in verbal abuse or physical altercations. Leagues regularly post statements about commitments to players’ safety, and that discrimination, hate speech and violence will not be tolerated, but these are empty words without real structural change, like requiring referee antibias training or providing gender-neutral restrooms.

Historically speaking, women have had to be proactive and innovative while carving out safe spaces and creating opportunities in a world still catering to patriarchal values. Sports are no exception. When Elyse Cleveland and Veronica McAllister, co-founders of Women’s Sports Chicago (WSC), first started the league, it was to create a space for women to play soccer and be taken seriously as athletes. “We were trying to get out of the male space, but the bigger motivation was [that] nobody’s doing this for women. And even today, no one’s really doing it on this scale, for women,” McAllister shared. In time, however, it wasn’t just cis women who were signing up. “Players joined because they felt safe, whether they were trans players or non-binary. When we realized other people were finding safety here, we thought, ‘let’s intentionally provide [safety].’ We became something more than just a women’s space.”

WSC’s mission is to prioritize and empower women, non-binary and trans athletes by providing recreational sports for women of all ages and skill levels. Anna Poeht is a trans woman who recently joined the league. “I was nervous about joining,” she admitted. “But it’s been so chill. I’ve met a lot of other trans folks and a lot of [people with] different sexual orientations and backgrounds. I do worry sometimes, because there’s all these larger social dynamic reasons to be nervous as a trans woman in this space. But I’ve found a lot of true acceptance from my teammates and even the other teams. The players have been nothing but spectacular, and I’ve felt really received and welcomed.”

My teammate Becca Levine, who identifies as non-binary and trans masculine leaning, has been playing with WSC for several years. “There’s safety in women’s sports,” they said. “When [queer or femme folks] move through the world, we are constantly worried about our physical safety.” Though Becca also pointed out that even using the title “women’s sports” leaves a lot of people out. “A simple shift [in word choice] brings affirmation and humanity to people who don’t fit into the ladies and gentlemen category,” they said.

This past autumn, at one of my women’s games, I overheard a comment directed toward trans and non-binary players on the opposing team. The comment came from the sidelines as the players were warming up: “I thought this was a women’s league.” The words came from a cis white woman, who went on to assume he/him pronouns when referring to the trans and non-binary players. Her words forced me to examine my own biases in that moment: Did it matter how other players in the league presented? Veronica acknowledged that she knew there would be cis women in the league who would misunderstand or be unhappy with her decision to include trans and non-binary players. But, she said, “We created a safe space, so why not share it? Why not make it for anyone who is not welcome in a dominant male space?”

Unfair advantage and safety are common arguments against trans and non-binary athletes’ participation in women’s sports. The reality is that every recreational athlete will eventually face someone who is bigger, smaller, faster, slower, stronger, or weaker than themselves on the field, regardless of gender. Grouping players together based on their gender alone is inherently sexist and problematic. Generally, players want to play at a level that fits their body size or ability, regardless of how they identify. WSC offers divisions based on skill level, and Veronica shared that they are working on adding a division for older women. “[WSC] really became successful when we realized we [needed] to cater to all types of women [athletes], the woman who just wants to have fun, the woman who wants to be cutthroat competitive, the woman who wants to learn. That’s when we started seeing growth.” 

Sorting players with more thought and intention could be helpful to recreational leagues, to “level the playing field” so that no one person or group is overly dominant. Taking physical ability, skill level, experience, and age into consideration (as opposed to gender) when forming player categories may take more time, or pose logistical challenges, but it could yield a more equitable and satisfying experience for participants. What makes a soccer team formidable has little to do with gender, and more to do with individual ability and fitness. When my friends and I play pickup soccer together, we randomly number off to divide teams. If it’s apparent that one team is “stacked” and the competition isn’t even, we redistribute people to create balance. 

When I initially sat down to collect my thoughts on gender inclusion in recreational soccer, and how my observations might translate into a wider and much-needed discourse, I panicked. Wait! We don’t need another cis white woman’s voice. Who am I to speak about this? It’s not my place. But a good friend reminded me that sometimes our audience looks like us. Feminists have plenty of transphobic, “gender critical” cis women in their ranks, and underneath those biases and prejudices, there is a potent opportunity—a chance to embrace curiosity, to center the humanity of others with empathy and compassion. Rather than calling one another out, how do we call one another in? Until athletes of all gender identities and expressions are truly welcome in recreational sports leagues, how can we make these environments safer and more inclusive for women, trans and non-binary athletes?

Gender is a dynamic and ever-changing spectrum. Our understanding on this topic—indeed on any topic—is never final. We should always be striving to learn more about each other and be teachable when we (inevitably) get it wrong. Those of us in privileged majorities are called to do the work of stopping harm and building more just communities. I think the founders of WSC would agree that if what we seek does not exist, we must attempt to build it ourselves. 

In my conversations with my non-binary teammates and colleagues, several ideas have been put forth about how to improve our recreational soccer leagues, which I believe are universally relatable for organizations. We can avoid assumptions and respectfully ask about pronouns. We can gently correct our friends when they make mistakes, knowing that it takes time to de-program the binary conditioning that many of us were taught. We can hire more diverse staff to increase representation. We can offer training for staff and referees and recruit more women and non-binary folks to be referees. We can feature a spectrum of gender identities in photographs used for league branding, marketing, and social media. We can request roundtable discussions with league representatives and bring disparities to their attention. We can petition. We can volunteer. We can fundraise. And we can step outside of our comfort zones to write very long blog posts that aim to raise awareness, expand our own education, and make us better advocates and allies. Athletes of all ages and gender identities deserve safe access to the social, emotional, and physical wellbeing that recreational sports offer.

FOOTNOTES:

For further reading on how to be a better LGTBQ2S+ ally:

Understanding Nonbinary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive

Glossary of Must-Know Gender Identity Terms

Being an LGBTQ+ Ally

Why Pronouns Matter

*Lark Lewis and Jordan Reynolds, “Happy Pride. Don’t be a TERF,” National Women’s Law Center (blog), June 21, 2023, https://nwlc.org/happy-pride-dont-be-a-terf/

AUTHOR BIO: Jennifer Ferguson is a freelancer and creative expert extraordinaire with degrees in graphic design and writing. She was recently inducted into Anderson University’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Jennifer enjoys accumulating books (more than she could ever possibly hope to finish reading) and playing soccer year-round. She lives in Chicago with her partner, Craig, and their two cats, Sylvie and Bruce.

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