By Velvet Wahl

Pride nights have become widely hosted as sports teams work towards making LGBTQ players and fans feel welcome. Most major sports teams in Arizona have had, or plan to have, Pride Nights to show their support for the community. 

The Phoenix Suns basketball team had a Pride Night in May and the Arizona Coyotes hockey team had theirs in April. Both teams had Pride-themed merchandise and the Coyotes wrapped their sticks with rainbow tape during warmup. The hockey team even had members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus sing the National Anthem.

"This is really about us opening our hearts as an organization and saying, 'Look, this is an initiative we want to support forever, and we want to do it well,'" Coyote’s player Lyndsey Fry told Coyote News. "We're not going to do everything perfectly on 'Night One,' but this is a step in the right direction."

The Suns were the first NBA team to sign ONE Community’s UNITY pledge back in 2016, and the Coyotes signed the pledge last September. The pledge aims to “advance workplace equality and equal treatment in housing and public accommodations for [LGBTQ] individuals and their allies,” according to ONE Community’s website.

The Diamondbacks have a Pride Night on June 11 at Chase Field, a dedicated microsite (dbacks.com/pride), and trans-inclusive merch.

Despite these efforts to support the community, many LGBTQ people still feel scared to come out to their families and peers, and this fear can be heightened in competitive sport environments.

A study published in 2015 titled “Out on the Fields” found that 70% of all American participants said that they believe homophobia is more common in American sports than anywhere else. A little over half said they believe that LGB people are only accepted a little in sports culture, if at all. 

The study, commissioned by Bingham Cup 2014, Sydney Convicts, and Sport Australia, surveyed almost 9,500 people; 2,064 of those were Americans. Athletes often agree that it can be harder to come out in sports, and the fear of retaliation stops a lot of players. 

“I've had a couple of gay men in my life who didn't come out until after their youth hockey career was over because they didn't feel safe to talk about it in the locker room,” Fry, who is openly lesbian, told Coyote News. “You think about some of the words that get thrown around in youth hockey locker rooms. Imagine how a gay teammate might have felt, or who may have decided to quit because they didn't feel like they could be who they were without being bullied or rejected."

The use of homophobic slurs continues to be used in competitive sport environments, even if it’s not connected exclusively to homophobia. “Out on the Fields” found that 89% of gay men and 82% of lesbians reported experiencing harassment through slurs. Arizona sports teams are not innocent when it comes to issues of harassment by teams and fans.

Just last year, Arizona soccer team Phoenix Rising had issues with a player using a derogatory name towards one of San Diego Loyal’s openly gay players during a USL Championship game. Rising’s head coach, Rick Schantz, dismissed the issue and caused Loyal to walk off the field in retaliation, forfeiting both the match and their chance of making the playoffs.

Both the Rising player, who denied using the slur, and Schantz were put on leave. Afterwards, Schantz apologized and told the website OutSports that the incident opened his eyes. Schantz was later reinstated.

The incident seemed to have opened the eyes of Phoenix Rising as a whole. They increased their outreach with the LGBTQ community and have added pre-season trainings on inclusion and allyship. They even had the Phoenix Gay Flag Football League play their championship match following their opening home game this year. 

“What transpired and took place last year in San Diego was not reflective of the core values and who we are as an organization, and we use that moment. We're a better organization today than we were last year or even yesterday,” Phoenix Rising General Manager Bobby Dulle said.

This year, Rising signed ONE Community’s unity pledge alongside San Diego Loyal at their first match of the season. They will have a pride night on June 5 where the first 2,500 fans who arrive will receive a pride themed armband and have the chance to obtain a pride themed shirt and scarf.

“We certainly understand that things were done and communities were hurt, one action or one game is not enough,” Dulle said. “We need to continue to learn, to educate, to be an ally to support and include everyone.”

He said that the team has embraced the training and outreach, and wants to be role models for youth in sports.

“If we can be examples for even one kid to come out and have a better experience and have the weight of the world lifted off his or her shoulders, that means that we're making some positive strides,” he said.

However, some of Phoenix Rising’s fans have not been as receptive.

After announcing their opening night with San Diego on Twitter, Phoenix Rising went viral for responding to a tweet that has since been deleted asking “When is straight pride night?” 

Their response: “We’ll let you know when we have a**hole night and we can honor you at halftime.”

“For people that aren't on board with it, we're okay that, if they feel so different, that they don't want to support us,” Dulle said. “These are core values for us, that we want to be inclusive, that we want to make sure that everyone, whether it's front office employees, whether it's players or fans, that they feel comfortable, and they feel included.” 

Women’s basketball team Phoenix Mercury, who will be having a Pride night on June 11, has also dealt with social media backlash over their LGBTQ players.

Center player Brittney Griner, who just returned from playing in Russia, faced criticism on social media after posting a TikTok video welcoming fans back to the season. Comments ranged from criticizing her voice to calling her a man. The team condemned the comments, calling them vile on Twitter.

“That’s why our athletes continue their work as activists and to bring visibility to marginalized groups. The work continues. We won’t be bullied, intimidated or deterred,” the tweet read.

As sports teams work on making connections with the LGBTQ community and navigate through fan reactions, LGBTQ organizations in Arizona are happy to partner with and educate them. Executive Director of Phoenix Pride, Mike Fornelli, said that more companies and corporate sponsors have reached out to Phoenix Pride for diversity and inclusion training.

“We don't want to have people that are just sponsoring Pride to monopolize on it. We truly want them to be diverse and inclusive and we have those conversations before we even agree to any kind of sponsorship and offer those trainings to them,” Fornelli said.

He believes that incorporating Pride nights into the sports season is a great way to raise awareness.

“I think that every sports team, whether they know it or not, or whether the players are out or not, have LGBTQ members either on their staff or on their teams,” he said. “Major league sports has always been kind of that weird genre and the fact that they're embracing it and wanting to show that they are diverse and inclusive, I think is really great for our community.”

More information on Pride Nights:

Phoenix Rising Football Club

Diamondbacks

Phoenix Mercury

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