On Saturday, March 19, the Orlando Pride front office told supporters to remove their banner that read a single word: Gay. The actions of the Florida-based club now have fans doubting Exploria Stadium’s status as an LGBTQ+ ally.
It unfolded on Orlando’s first matchday of the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup. Fans were raving to see their club step onto the pitch for the first time this year and take on the Washington Spirit.
The Orlando Pride social media team promoted the group stage fixture before the game. They did this with several pictures posted to their social media channels.
Images showed players wearing outfits representing the LGBTQ+ community and supporting women. In one picture, Erin McLeod and Gunny Jónsdóttir held up a ‘Protect Trans Kids’ sign. The picture reminded viewers of the ongoing transgender rights issues facing the United States.
It seems as though the connection between player and club is not the issue that occurred over the weekend. The problem appears when you enter the home of the Orlando Pride.
Exploria Stadium is well-known for its designated rainbow-colored section of seats that honor the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. But now, in an apparent change of character, the stadium is making headlines for removing a banner that supported gay rights.
The banner had a solid black background with white lettering that said “gay.” It was present during the Washington Spirit’s pregame video, which indicates that it was up well before kickoff.
Removing the banner could have occurred before the teams entered the pitch. Yet, the front office didn’t request the banner’s removal until the match began.
Due to House Bill 1557 in Florida, instructing sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels of primary school classrooms may become prohibited. But when did Exploria Stadium begin following the same guidelines as an educational institution? It’s a football pitch, not a classroom.
The Orlando Pride front office told the Black Swans Drinking Club their reasoning was due to the political nature of the banner. In a statement that followed during the Orlando Pride and Washington Spirit match, the supporter’s group shared their perspective of the banner removal.
In response, chants of the word “gay” frequently filled Exploria Stadium throughout the match—including during the 49th minute that honored the victims of the Pulse shooting.
House Bill 1557, dubbed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, received attention after it passed through the Florida House of Representatives last month. At that time, Orlando Pride released a statement to reinforce the club’s stance on supporting the LGBTQ+ community.
The stadium itself—owned and operated by Orlando City Soccer Club—didn’t post a statement and didn’t update its codes of conduct.
A problem that goes beyond a banner
Could the leadership within the walls of Exploria Stadium fit the blame for two iconic LGBTQ+ players’ reasons for leaving?
Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris shocked the NWSL when they departed the Orlando Pride and signed with NJ/NY Gotham FC.
“We want to be in an environment that has like-minded individuals where we know we are going to be taken care of, and we feel valued and appreciated for what we bring every day,” Krieger told Nets Republic.
“What a great opportunity for both of us to start a new chapter, and for our child to see more diversity and see more people like us,” added Harris. “You think so much about soccer and when you have a child so much changes. You start to think about what schools your child will grow up in, what type of environment?
“Are we safe as a family? Are we part of a community that values being inclusive? What are the political views here? All those things are very much what Ali and I shift towards.”
After the recent Orlando Pride coaching staff change, maybe only one option remains. They must clean house in the Exploria Stadium leadership. The disconnection between the club and players does not match the same prerogative as their stadium.
Orlando is known for its strong LGBTQ+ community, but the banner removal suggests Exploria Stadium is not a welcoming atmosphere.
The club’s response
On March 22, three days after the game, the Orlando Pride released a statement in conjunction with the Black Swans Drinking Club. The club recognized the error that occurred and apologized for its mistake.
Issues of miscommunication happen every day. In this instance, the apology not only allowed the club to own up to its mistake but also become more open to its fan base and players.
Sure, not everything can be solved with a statement. The club’s initial actions are still alarming. After all, one can’t help but wonder now if Exploria Stadium is a safe place for the LGBTQ+ community.
Unfortunately, the club’s response seems to be another example of an organization trying to save face when confronted with a politically sensitive topic.