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Queer people say it’s important now – more than ever – to create safe spaces that foster joy and community. WUSF’s Daylina Miller takes you around the greater Tampa Bay region to some of these events and meet-ups to showcase queer joy and stories of hope and resilience.

This soccer meetup helps queer people touch grass, and find community

 a light skinned woman wearing black shirts and a red tnak top kicks a soccer ball into the air as she's defending a soccer goal post.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Sarah Smith started the "Florida Queer Soccer" meet up through Instagram to connect gay and trans soccer players of all experience levels. They met at Bennett Park in Bradenton recently, but hold meet ups all over the Greater Tampa Bay region and beyond.

In the latest installment of our occasional series, "Queer Spaces," we meet with a group of soccer players who gather to get back to their roots — tuning into both nature and their queer bodies.

On a soccer field in Bradenton on a recent Tuesday evening, Sarah Smith stands with her hands on her hips watching as the folks around her lace up cleats, sneakers — even Converse.

"OK, I guess we'll just pass … we'll see how many people show up and then we'll assess field size. You guys are all early birds; I love you for it,” Smith tells about five players so far who have shown up to play.

Smith is a queer cis woman who, two years ago, started the "Queer Soccer Florida" meetup. Tonight they meet on a field at Bennett Park in Bradenton, but they also get together in other areas across the Tampa Bay region.

"Everyone wants to play sports. In Florida right now, like trans people are being like so taken out of sports so unnecessarily, and sports are necessary," Smith said. "I played sports my whole life growing up; it like triggers little dopamine in my brain. And if I don't get that, I'm having a stressful week. I want trans people, I want gay people to have that."

Here, Smith and a small group of players from around the area are playing a casual pickup game of soccer. As dragonflies flit over the field, they start by asking each other's names and pronouns, then form a circle and practice passing the ball to one another.

One of the players, Nate, says activities in nature can be healing, especially for those who are queer.

"You go out into nature, and there's no expectation to be anything or be anyone. You can just commune with nature and just be in your natural state,” said Nate, who is nonbinary. They didn't want to give their last name because they say they fear for their safety in a state pushing trans people out of public spaces.

 A brown skinned nonbinary person chases after a soccier ball on the field.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
M was one of about ten players who recently attended a Queer Soccer Florida meet up in Bradenton.

M, who is nonbinary, also did not want to give their last name. They recently came out as trans, but grew up playing sports on gendered teams. They came out to find community in a place that respects, but doesn't care about, their gender.

“With all the anti-trans rhetoric going on in the state, it's been really hard for me to find a place where I feel comfortable. The soccer field can be gendered, always, you know, split into man and woman and stuff. So spaces like this where that doesn't matter, doesn't play a role in anything … It's really important to someone who's trans like me.”

Alanna Kilroy, a queer cis woman, recently moved to Florida from Colorado and is eager to make friends outside of dating apps and bars.

"I don't drink or smoke weed or any of that. And that's like, the whole kind of vibe here. So yeah, I just thought soccer would be a good way to meet other people in the community and just bond,” Kilroy said.

Smith agrees. She said there should be more queer spaces that center joy.

 Three soccer players are viewed through the white netting of a soccer goal post.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
About ten players came out for this soccer meet up, just enough to play against another unrelated group using the field at the same time.

“I think it's so uniting to do childhood games and activities, like playing soccer. You know, you get to, like, heal that inner child, make some friends, Smith said.

"I just don't think being gay has to be about consumption. It’s about community. And so many people are locked off from that because they don't live in the city, or they don't go out and they don't drink. "

Back on the field, there are now about 10 players kicking around the ball. Another group wanted to use the field, too, so they asked to play a friendly game against them.

Some of these folks have played on school or community leagues, and others haven't kicked around a soccer ball since grade school. But all of them get the opportunity to pass the ball, or attempt to kick it into the goal post netting. Here, it’s not about experience or skill level, but about camaraderie.

Smith said when you first come out the closet about your sexual orientation or gender identity, you feel really embarrassed about everything you do. How you act, what you say, what you wear.

“Everything you do is like,’ I haven't done this like this before.’ But with soccer, like every single pass, you just have to get like exposure with looking goofy, being embarrassed," Smith said. "It’s exposure therapy, you know? I think it's good."

 A man wearing black shorts and a black tank, and with a look of intense concentration on his face, kicks  soccer ball.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Matthew Viera kicks a soccer ball at a recent queert sports meet up in Bradenton.

With close to 500 anti-LGBTQ bills having been passed nationally, several of them in Florida, some queer people feel less and less safe in public — especially of major cities.

"Queer people are some of the strongest people that I know," said Matthew Viera, a trans man who also came out to play soccer this evening. "And no matter what weird ... legislation gets passed, stuff like this is always going to exist, because queer people are really good at banding together."

Sarha Smith said she gets really jealous when she hears about queer rugby teams in places like South Florida. But she's channeling that jealousy into this meetup.

"We shouldn't have to go to Fort Lauderdale to be gay. We can be gay in Sarasota,” she said with a laugh.

She said her meet up is intended to make sure people don't have to commute to be themselves.

Follow Queer Soccer Floridaon Instagram.

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.