By David “Dirk” Smith, M.Sc., SDL (He/Him)
Our own Managing Editor of Sports, David “Dirk” catches up with current president of the Rain City Soccer Club, Salem Lemmon to learn more about how Salem is shaping the club in building a more inclusive environment within LGBTQ+ sports specifically for trans/nonbinary/intersex athletes.
Dirk Smith (DS): Tell me about your work with the soccer club, how did you get involved and all that?
Salem Lemmon (SL): Rain City Soccer as a club has been around since the late 1990s and was officially founded from a grassroots program in 2000. Ever since it’s been the one and only queer soccer club in the Seattle area. I moved to the Seattle area two years ago here for work and just hit the ground running. I have been visiting the area frequently for a very long time, Seattle is a unique place. It’s beautiful. It’s great. It’s expensive. It’s full of the most unique people I’ve ever met.
DS: It’s one of the top five US cities I would like to live!
SL: And that list is getting shorter every single year! So, I was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania and then moved to Pittsburgh which was as big as the city as I never wanted to live in to begin with. Then I got into a career field that took me to Southern California for 14 years, which was entirely too long and entirely not the direction I wanted to go. I mean, Southern California is great, it’s fantastic, but it’s a different personality and a different mindset. I lived in the LA County area, which is massively huge and has some of the same issues that all major cities run into So for me, Seattle was perfect in the fact that one, it’s very outdoor oriented as the Pacific Northwest is, two, it’s a much friendlier smaller town, and three, it’s much more reminiscent here for me of living in Pittsburgh.
DS: How did you get involved with soccer?
SL: I’ve been playing soccer since I was four, so I am going on 31 years of playing soccer and it has been an underlying part of who had been my whole life. it’s been a passion that I’ve had from the very beginning. I was lucky enough to get introduced to it as a sport in the middle of rural Pennsylvania, which is a different mindset, right? The running joke that we have, when you’re from the middle of nowhere, is the closest you’re gonna get to the World Cup is watching it on a big screen TV [laughs]. It’s mostly true and it also means that when we learn and grow, the focus is more on education and community building. It’s about building skill sets more than competitiveness.
DS: Were you able to channel that into Rain City?
SL: One of the running jokes that I have in the club, which is absolutely true is I have zero competitive bones in my body. I don’t care if we’re losing by 40. I don’t care if we’re up by 15. I’m just here to have fun and have a good time. So, getting to know the formative years of my soccer career with that kind of background was really impactful for me because it allowed me to follow up and ask questions, regardless of following a specific outcome. Soccer, to me, has always been about building a community. I knew that I was queer from a very young age probably as young as 10 or 11, I knew I was different. Heteronormativity is a thing that exists in the world that we live in. I grew up in a family that was different than a traditional structure, so leaning into who I was, was as natural as breathing and allowed me to shape my life.
DS: What kind of barriers has heteronormativity in sports created?
SL: One of the issues that we’ve run into in the soccer space, and we’re seeing this more nowadays, in male soccer spaces than then open soccer spaces is transphobia, homophobia and this attacking of queer people in what’s perceived as a heteronormative space. That’s one of the biggest barriers to sports. Sports are treated as if it is a heteronormative space where queer people are trying to function. Whereas it is a space of everyone, where there are people of all different backgrounds and diversities and a shared love of sport, it can be the one passion that unites everybody.
I was fortunate enough to play in and after college, and I’ve been playing on adult leagues ever since. But the more that I went into competitive soccer, the further I got away from community, inclusiveness, being able to find peers or being able to find people that I wanted to spend time, and the fewer representation that I saw in the queer people that I did play with at a college level and beyond. We’re not out. It’s something that if you’re functioning inside of a team building space, at a very young age, we’re taught not to try to highlight our differences because we’re trying to highlight commonalities. For a lot of us “weird” players, that means trying not to take up space, which really conflicted with me. The lesson that I got from my father was that space is not a finite concept. There’s no such thing as taking up too much space because you’re not taking away from the next person.
DS: How have you been able to build/rebuild the community and inclusiveness in Rain City Soccer Club?
SL: So, the reality is, how can we challenge some of these assumptions and some of these aspects in informative ways that are developed in understanding and structuring what that is and what that looks like. In a space where queer people are trying to play in sports and realize, for most of us, we were introduced to sports at an extremely young age, sports are an aspect of how we could identify ourselves with, something that we grew passionate about, that we could follow, but then told we are not welcome in the adult spaces. We’re the outliers and the exceptions to rules rather than the rule and that is very hard for a lot of people. One of the stories I hear most in my sphere is “I got away from soccer for so long because it was so unhealthy for me that the negative aspects outweighed the positive benefits.
For Rain City Soccer Club, we have, depending on any time of active season, anywhere between 12 and 15 teams inside of the club that are 100% Queer players who play in heteronormative leagues. That is part of that aspect of giving people a safe space to do sports, while also functioning in the world of sports at large. So, a lot of that is reeducating referees, reeducating leagues, reeducating outside companies and different aspects of things. And then the inverse aspect of that is creating a safe space and also challenging the norms the way that they exist.
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DS: Can you share more about your work in this regard?
SL: It’s a twofold process. One, to create a safe space where queer people can function outside of the negative and nasty rhetoric, especially when we’re talking about trans men and protecting trans men, especially in locker rooms, and especially when we’re talking about trans women and their attacks that are happening on them in sports places all over the world and the language that is being used around them. The inverse aspect of that which is “how do I change the world at large.” As a club, one of the ways that we’ve come about doing that, especially in the Seattle area is offering something that we call Skills Clinic and also an event called the Kickabout.
Our skills clinics are hosted about once a quarter, we’re trying to do them a little bit more frequently, it’s a non-funded model that we offer completely for free. It’s a space where people can come and learn from queer players that have been playing for a long period of time, or former coaches or former athletes who are willing to teach people basic skills anywhere from entry level skills to intermediate and advanced. A place where they can hit the ground running and learn skills that they can take with them anywhere they want to play.
The secondary aspect and our biggest aspect, where I got my feet wet here in the Seattle area is our Kickabout program. Our Kickabout program is a weekly scrimmage that runs 52 weeks out of the year and it’s a low-cost barrier model. What that means is if you can donate money goes directly back into the program and if you can’t, it’s free to anyone.
DS: It’s interesting you mention that I’ve observed that athletic development has never been much of a consideration when it came to building safe and inclusive spaces.
SL: Soccer has one of the lowest income barriers of entrance into sport, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. For some people, gear, shoes, cleats, jerseys. All of those are barriers where they cannot join a team. Frankly, one of the issues that we’ve seen is many adults who want to learn a sport as an adult have no way of learning without spending thousands of dollars on coaches, trainings, leagues, or preparatory schools that will give them an opportunity to learn and catch up developmentally.
Kickabout, we joke all the time when we do our weekly round ups, there is no queer card, no one is checking anything and one of those aspects is creating space for stealth players. One of the things that we’ve noticed is for people who are trans, especially if they’re self, they don’t always feel welcome in queer spaces. They know that they stand out in heteronormative spaces, so those juxtapositions between the two are heavily difficult, because one of the aspects is how do I create a safe space for someone that their safe space is their own anonymity.
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DS: How has the Kickabout program been doing?
When I signed on, the Kickabout program, was coming straight out of the pandemic, we were struggling to have any kind of attendance or any kind of consistency that was coming across in any way, shape, or form. We were running about every third to fourth week as we could make up enough donations to get the next field rental while also pairing with the aspect of having enough turnout. Our average turnout back then was between 9 and 14 people on a consistent basis. When I took charge, I asked “does this model still need to exist? Are the needs for this being answered in other places? And is this a program that we want to continue?”
My response was that I can’t do any worse than what we currently are. Not to say that the job prior had been bad but coming out of the pandemic with people moving and people leaving the Seattle area made it detrimental to us. For years prior it was the same people over and over again, which was fantastic. But that model has to change and has to be reflective of the world at large. The reality was that more people are moving into Seattle and moving out of Seattle than ever before. Fewer people who are born and raised here are staying into their adulthood.
A year later, it is wonderful to see that Kickabout has become a weekly event, 52 weeks out of the year, but our average attendance is between 60 to 70 people. Plus, there is a huge need and want for it that it has grown exponentially and will continue to do so. The whole purpose and intention behind all of this has been the reality that no matter what we look at, no matter what we develop, no matter what we see, people have space to take up themselves if they want it.
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DS: You mentioned an important point about the need to change and adapt to the world at large and how it reflects within the community at any given moment. A lot of organizations fail because they refuse to adapt, whereas you’ve helped Rain City Soccer Club thrive.
SL: It is easy to make something easy. It is very hard to make something simple. When people want to do grassroots, they tend to burn really high, really hot, and really fast. Then the rest of the world continues on without them. The hardest thing is persistence. That was the conversation that we had around our teams and everything we were doing. I’m not interested in making the numbers look good, that will either happen or it won’t. What I’m interested in is offering consistency. Our friendly tournaments, our pride season, our Kickabouts, our skills, clinics, etc. When people can predict when they are and it’s something that people can plan for, they can attend.
It’s giving people the space to take it up in whatever way makes sense to them. That’s that kind of intentionality, we’re going for because I think one of the things that is been largely lacking in queer sport spaces and in queer spaces at large, is the ability of intersectionality. That people can be deeper than just one thing. That someone like you and someone like me, who have a million things going on at a million different plates, I don’t have to set one down to pick up another. Now, if you’re the president of a club, you do have to set some of those extra passions around because it does become a bit of a full-time job running and managing all these aspects. But that then frees it up from every member inside of the club so they can focus and enjoy what they came to do. That transparency should be at our events, you are welcome to any of them that you can come to, if there are ones that you see that are a cost barrier, reach out to the club, and we will get it funded for you. It’s about removing those barriers.
DS: Wonderful, thank you for your time and efforts, Salem! It was great to chat with you! Visit www.raincitysoccer.org to learn more!
Check out our full discussion, here!
Photo Credit: Lizzie Rutledge (@justanotherelizabeth)