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  • Writer's pictureMichaela Alfano

A Greater Meaning to Pride: Christen Westphal and Madison Pogarch

On June 28, 1969, a revolution began at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City. A police raid of a popular gay club sparked the final torch for what became a movement. It was not the first time the police had raided this particular bar, but this time, the clubgoers decided that enough was enough. Six days of protests, known as the Stonewall Uprisings, resulted from the raids. Movement trailblazers like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie are just a few of the names that brought LGBTQ+ rights to the forefront.

Their actions sparked a movement showing that pride is more than just a month. It's more than a parade. It's bigger than rainbow numbers on a jersey. For NWSL players Madison Pogarch and Christen Westphal, it's more than all of that. Many strides have been made in a league where pride was barely celebrated just a few short years ago. But there is much more to do.

San Diego Wave FC Celebrates Pride | Photo Credit to San Diego Wave FC

Past Mistakes

Just last year, the Orlando Pride issued an apology to its fans after an incident where a banner inscribed with the word “gay” was banned from the stadium during a match. With a few players in the league still opting not to wear collective pride shirts or sit out the pride game, there is still a long way to go. There are also laws in states like Florida, where the Pride play, that are actively putting the lives of LGBTQ+ players and fans in danger. It brings to light a conversation around expansion, and where to expand in order to keep player safety the main focus.

Last season, Jalene Daniels was cut from the North Carolina Courage for once again refusing to participate in pride. Even after being given a second chance, she continued to preach her homophobic beliefs. She is most known for refusing to play in a match for the Courage when the club decided to wear LGBT-supportive rainbow kits. After being re-signed by the Courage, the team faced a lot of pushback for aligning their support with someone whose views are harmful to so many members of the league. The backlash from the supporters' groups, and even players in the league, led to her being cut yet again.

Another similar experience was that of Sydny Nasello, a draftee who was picked up by the Portland Thorns. Nasello was let go by the Thorns before officially being signed after transphobic tweets were found on her Twitter. Both Nasello and Daniels have essentially been banned from participating in the league again. Daniels opted to retire for the second time while Nasello went to Spain and was signed by UD Granadilla Tenerife.

More recently, Angel City F.C. signed Katie Cousins during the 2021 season through the 2022 season. Yet again, she was a player who refused to participate in a pride game. She then made homophobic remarks on her social media before ultimately being let go by the team before the 2023 season began.

Katie Cousins reposting a homophobic post to her Instagram story prior to the Angel City pride game

Several former coaches in the league, who have since been banned from coaching in the league, were said to have made homophobic comments on multiple occasions to their players as well as staff within the league. The list includes Paul Riley, who coached at Portland before heading to North Carolina. Many allegations were brought to light about him when Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim came forward about their experience.

With so many issues like this that have come to the forefront in the league, it is incredibly important to shine a light on pride. It is necessary to make LGBTQ+ players, staff, and supporters of the league feel like they have a safe space within the sport that they love.

The Growth of Pride

For Westphal, the growth of pride has been essential to see. Having played in the NWSL since 2017, when she was drafted to the Boston Breakers, reflecting on the growth from simply wearing rainbow letters to having full-blown pride fests has been massive in terms of players feeling more comfortable in the league.

It is crucial to create a space where players can be as open as possible in their authenticity. Growing up, there were not many queer athletes who young kids could look up to, which Westphal mentions is something that she hopes can change. Visibility is one of the most significant parts of growth in pride, which is why both Westphal and Pogarch want to open up the conversation in the league for things to be better.

Pogarch and Westphal walking in on a game day | Photo credit to @maddiepogarch Instagram

“It's being able to be my whole self in hopes that it can inspire and give somebody the space to be able to do the same,” Westphal said.

Westphal wants to see the continued growth of pride as an event, not just a quick social media post to check off a box for allyship. The more they continue to use their platform, it allows players to advocate for the queer community, transgender rights, and everything in between. She added that it's come a long way from just the players simply wearing a t-shirt to it becoming a space for them to advocate for the community.

Looking ahead, Westphal wants to see the conversation become more diverse in welcoming others. The league has grown tremendously in speaking up on issues over the last few years, which is something she wants to continue to do so that the NWSL can honor those who came before and continue to do right for those who will come after. Pogarch added that while they continue to advocate, ensuring that they don't whitewash pride is another essential component. It is important to remember where pride began and to honor the one who started it all.

“We're about fully being yourself, however, that shows up for you and be an uncomfortable thing for everyone else. That can be how they express themselves and we fully celebrate that,” said Pogarch, “And we don’t want to whitewash what pride is and you know, to only keep it where people are comfortable.”

When players are comfortable in their authentic selves and have support from their team and the league, it translates onto the field. It makes them confident in who they are, pushing them to their fullest potential. This is why pride is so important and much more than an item on a to-do list.

Pogarch expanded on the need to see queer people in spaces being their true selves. It’s why she finds it so important to talk about pride. The more we as a society accept queer people, the less coming out has to be a moment. It can just be another day.

"We love that here; we're here for it,” Pogarch said. “Continue doing you. I think the league is really doing a great job. They're continuing to support the important things. I'd just love to see more of it."

Going forward, there is more work to be done, but continuing to use their platforms to push for advocacy is incredibly important to both Pogarch and Westphal. While bringing out the drag queens is a great way to grow the community, continuing to have conversations and raise money for organizations is also a much-needed step. Uplifting players' voices who are advocating is a crucial step to the growth, which requires the support of players and the league.

“For me, that's what pride is, being able to be proud of ourselves and offer that safety, to someone else who I think is struggling with it,” Pogarch said.

Using Their Platform

Last year, Westphal and Pogarch decided to put their words into action and take advantage of their platform. While playing on separate teams, the duo started a fundraiser to raise money for the Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis support to the LGBTQ+ community. With June also being mental health awareness month, it felt like the perfect organization to donate to.

The Trevor Project’s work is critical and essential to support the queer community. Mental health issues are, unfortunately, more prevalent among LGBTQ+ youth than their peers, with this group about four times more likely to attempt suicide and nine times more likely to report high levels of depression than their peers

"Pride month is a celebration,” Pogarch said in an Instagram caption launching the campaign. “It is also a chance to be a visual embodiment that it is not only safe to be your whole self but also liberating. It's a reminder that you're loved, accepted, and more than enough as you are: in your entirety. A crucial message to those who are still on their own journey of acceptance."

They ultimately raised awareness for the Trevor Project and funds to help support their efforts. Both Pogarch and Westphal discussed that mental health played a critical role in their coming out, as it does for many people in the queer community, so picking the Trevor Project just felt right.

Pogarch and Westphal during their campaign for the Trevor Project in 2022

“Obviously finding an organization who supports the queer community, but supports them to a level of mental health as well, and takes the extra steps that offer services for them,” Westphal said. “I think two of those things were pretty much a pillar for us when choosing an organization.”

Coming into pride month this year, the pair, now on the same team, decided they wanted to support the local San Diego community through their pride campaign. After a team visit to Our Safe Place in Chula Vista, Pogarch recalled that they beautifully stumbled upon the perfect place to raise money. The Trevor Project was an incredible fundraiser for them, but the duo knew they wanted to make a more direct impact in the community they play in.

OSP is a collaborative program with San Diego Youth Services and the YMCA of San Diego County. Each partner provides a drop-in center, and San Diego Youth Services also provides a mental health clinic. OSP provides a safe place for one of San Diego's most vulnerable populations: LGBTQ+ Youth. TOSP offers a wide variety of services for youth and their families to combat these challenges, including, but not limited to support for coming out, depression, family relationships, gender identity, safe dating, and transitioning.

While Pogarch never plans to start a fashion line, the idea of creating a shirt that meant something was a cool concept to her. In February of 2023, conversations began with OSP and their staff on how they could raise money and in what capacity.

The process that went into making the shirt was a lot more complicated than either Westphal or Pogarch expected. Finding a saying that sent the right message, was inclusive, and reached fans even outside of San Diego were three musts for them.

Pogarch says it was vital that this shirt made their efforts of inclusivity and visibility seen. They wanted the words on the front, "The Future Is Inclusive" to hit the nail on the head.

Westphal and Pogarch modeling their shirts as they walked in for a game day | Photo credit to @maddipogarch Instagram

“The future is going to be inclusive and there are more people who are coming out and who are confident in themselves,” Pogarch said. “We want to create more space for more of that to happen. That was really the message from the front, is that we want people to be able to be themselves. Coming out does not have to be, again, this massive thing.”

Although they didn’t want the shirt to have San Diego branding, it was important to make sure that their support for OSP was seen. They placed the OSP logo on the left sleeve, which Pogarch said was intentional because the heart is on the left side, and since their logo is a heart, it felt right.

For the back, they wanted it to draw the eye in but still keep it simple. While rainbows symbolize pride, the pair decided they wanted the colors not to be the bright rainbow colors commonly seen. Instead, they chose to find more unique colors that played off the rainbow to make the design more creative. The quote on the back read, "Love is a terrible thing to hate," in color, with "queer rights are human rights" underneath.

Pogarch opened up about religion playing a role in her life growing up, which ultimately got in the way of her journey to be her full self. There is a lot of opposition that the queer community faces, especially in the eyes of religious people. In a community where love is so prevalent, what is there to hate was the sentiment that continued to play in Pogarch’s head as they created the shirt.

“I always came back to the conclusion that I'm myself, I'm choosing to love this person because I love this person and it's not for any other malicious thing,” Pogarch said. “How could love ever be so wrong?”

Love is beautiful, and they wanted to stress that, at the baseline, minimum, queer rights are human rights. Love is not wrong. We are all humans, and that was what they wanted to push with the shirt overall, especially the back design.

Living Authentically

Now, Pogarch and Westphal are happily living together in San Diego while playing on the same team. Their journeys have taken them time to get to where they are in being their most authentic selves, they now get to do that. Growing up there were not many queer role models or people that Westphal felt like she could look up to, so being able to embrace the platform she has now to be that for the younger generation means more than words.

Pogarch and Westphal for the San Diego Wave | Photo credit to @maddiepogarch Instagram

“I just wanna make sure that I can do, I can help provide that, even if it's just for one person, just feel a little more comfortable in who they are and feel a little more at ease for that part of themselves, then that would be, huge for me,” said Westphal.

Being a good role model is foundational to both players as they continue to strive for better in the NWSL and their daily lives. With so many young kids who may be struggling with their queer identity, having people like Pogarch and Westphal who are open and confident in who they are is a game changer.

In the words of Christen Westphal, “I'm gay, and it's okay. You're gonna be okay.”


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