By YAEL AVERBUCH
I know what it feels like to be different. As a tall Jewish girl on an all-boys team, from age 11-14, I never fit in. I showed up to every game anticipating my opponents’ strange looks and questioning whispers. Sometimes they didn’t even bother being discreet. “They have a girl on their team!” They would point and laugh.
I also know what it feels like to be accepted and supported. My teammates at the time were a rag-tag bunch of young guys. Our games were strewn with yellow and red cards, vulgar comments and all kinds of shenanigans. But they were always the first to defend me. They respected me as a player, valued my contribution on the field, and committed to “having my back” should anyone from the outside pass judgment.
I have played with LGBT athletes throughout my career. From growing up in Montclair, N.J., to attending the University of North Carolina, to my professional experiences throughout the U.S., Russia and Sweden, I have had teammates of different races, religions and sexual orientations. I have played for spectacular teams that have won National Championships, professional championships, and competed in the UEFA Champions League in Europe.
What I’ve found is that the best, most successful, and most enjoyable team cultures are cultures of unconditional inclusion. When everyone feels supported off the field, the focus can shift to what goes on on the field. That’s when a team can enjoy extraordinary chemistry. One of the most beautiful elements of soccer is the sport’s diversity. The teams that can best mesh that diversity of player personalities and talents on and off the field are able to make the most of each individual’s strengths, which in turn strengthens the team.
As the only girl on a boys team, I couldn’t hide that I was different (well, I could have opted for the then-in-style bowl cut, but my ponytail was too sacred). Although I played a sport with all boys, I didn’t feel the need to look like everyone else in order to fit in on the field. The fact that my teammates accepted me, as a girl, and supported my role on the team made me feel comfortable to just be myself.
When I think of my LGBT teammates across cultures and my career, I know that in a lot of places it remains much more acceptable or even necessary for LGBT athletes to keep their personal lives a secret. Although there has been significant movement toward greater equality, both here in America and globally, there is room for progress when it comes to these issues. I don’t claim to be an expert. I am simply a teammate who knows what it’s like to feel different, and who knows what becomes possible when everyone on a team is supported in spite of their differences and embraced for what makes them unique.
Different cultures treat LGBT issues differently, yet the need for team members to feel supported is universal. As athletes, we all want the same basic things—to be respected, continue to improve our abilities and to win. It’s very simple. I do my best to respect each of my teammates as a human being, with a unique set of tools and personal battles. It is on the platform of this respect and openness that we can work together to accomplish our mutual goals.
There are LGBT athletes in every country, and the need for progress transcends country borders. I understand the importance of being an ally because, like every one of us, I have desperately needed an ally from time to time, on and off the field. Creating an environment of support for LGBT athletes is about more than wearing a shirt with a rainbow flag or sending a tweet. It is about participating in an open dialogue, and seeing teammates as individuals. We can’t change the world all at once, but the soccer field is a great place to start.
Yael Averbuch is a midfielder with the Washington Spirit and a member of the United States Women’s National Soccer team.