Last year, LGBT soccer club the Falcons celebrated their 20th anniversary. The occasion was marked with a dinner and, in January, several founders and longtime players were inducted into the Falcons Hall of Fame. Before the club’s founding in 1989, local gay soccer players traveled to New York City to play with the Ramblers. It eventually became apparent that the number of players trekking up to the Big Apple warranted a Philadelphia team.
Like other amateur sports clubs, the Falcons’ purpose is predominantly recreational. According to longtime club member Raed Nasser, the Falcons, which had 150 members last season, are about playing soccer and educating and helping each other. Potential Falcons are encouraged to check out a few practices, no matter their skill level. Experienced players embrace newcomers with camaraderie to the thrice-weekly practices. Board president Ian Hannigan’s favorite aspect of the club is the pick-up games: “Everyone is just there to play and have fun.”
Though not the most popular sport in the United States, soccer is easily the most revered sport in the rest of the world — translating to a diverse team that attracts players from around the globe. Soheila Nikhour, current treasurer and past president, was born in Iran and moved to the U.S. 30 years ago. According to Nikhour, “Players from other countries bring their language, culture and style of soccer.” Despite outward cultural differences, soccer is an international language that bonds teammates. Each player, no matter his or her origin, contributes to the rich spirit of the club. A traditional Falcons Thanksgiving tournament used to pit older players against younger ones; now, the international members scrimmage against native U.S. members.
When Nikhour joined in 1999, there were only three female Falcons — two of whom were heterosexual. Though women had only begun to join in 1998, they have since become a grounding force in the club, with three female teams across three competitive levels.
Kharina joined the Falcons two years ago, after briefly playing soccer with a group of straight men. Born and raised in Brazil — where the gay community is mostly about nightlife and going out — she couldn’t resist her yearning for gay fellowship. She beams, “The Falcons changed my life!” The new level of community she has experienced keeps her active. She met her current girlfriend through Falcons friends, and her sister — also a lesbian — played with the club while she lived in Philadelphia.
Numerous couples — same- and opposite-sex — have met through the club. Of these pairings, at least three straight and one lesbian couple have given birth to “Falcons babies.” And while many LGBT club members seek out and prosper in the gay-friendly sports environment, the club is very inclusive of straight players: Zack Rivera was recently honored as the first heterosexual Falcon elected to the board. Here, being part of a community with non-LGBT friends and allies is just as important as being surrounded by LGBT peers.
Tournaments tend to be all female or all male — transgender players choose where they compete — and the Falcons are scheduled to play tournaments in Toronto, Rehoboth Beach, Del., Washington, D.C. and New York this year. The Falcons ladies play in the Tri-County Women’s Soccer League and just returned from an indoor turf tournament in D.C.
The Falcons will host the annual Liberty Classic during Memorial Day weekend and wrap up the summer with a friendly club tournament. For now, they are savoring their emergence from indoor practices at 12th Street Gym to outdoor practices in Fairmount Park.
Beginning their third decade, the Falcons avoid stagnation by adapting to the club’s ever-evolving composition. Longtime players like Nikhour recognize the Falcons are a microcosm of society, where players’ sexuality is not as easily discerned as it once was and barriers that once divided people — and athletes — continue to crumble. This diverse club of soccer players is brought together by the love of a game and thrives because of the members’ love for each other.