June 18, 2016: a date, and a game, that will go down forever in Orlando City history. Not for the final score, but what it meant and represented for the entire Orlando community.
Just one week after the Pulse night club shooting, the Lions hosted the first professional sporting event in the city since the attack, the deadliest crime on the LGBT community in American history. For a few hours at Camping World Stadium that night, the city of Orlando came together to honor the victims, thank the first responders, and start the healing process.
That night was neither the beginning nor the end to what Orlando City has done to drive the idea of accepting lifestyles and offering inclusion to those in the community since the club arrived in 2010.
For as long as Phil and Kay Rawlins have been involved with Orlando City, the club has stood for much more than winning and collecting trophies. Actions in public and in the community have always been held side-by-side with actions on the field.
“I think the one thing that’s struck me from time to time, living in Orlando, is just how supportive of a community we live in, where everyone is welcome regardless of their background, their sexual orientation, color,” Lions President and Founder Phil Rawlins told The Mane Land. “We’re a very inclusive community, and that’s something that we want to support and it’s something that Orlando is getting increasingly known for, and in a positive way. So it’s something that we support, not only in the community, but in the fan base as well. We want everybody to know that coming to an Orlando City and Orlando Pride game is a safe place to come and a supportive place to come, and as a club we’re supportive of all.”
Earlier this month, on Nov. 12, Orlando City became the first professional team in any major league in the United States to be the main sponsor of an LGBT community event when it participated in the Orlando Pride Parade.
The Pride Parade is an annual event held in downtown Orlando, which normally takes place the first weekend of October — this year’s event was postponed and rescheduled due to Hurricane Matthew. For more than a decade now, the event has grown into one of the largest pride events throughout the entire state, generating large crowds and uniting the entire LGBT community.
Orlando City has been participating in the event for the last several years, but this was the first time it had been the presenting sponsor.
“We’ve always had people in the parade and people that supported the LGBT community throughout central Florida,” Rawlins said. “And I think this year, with the Pulse tragedy and the shootings as soon as that happened one of our many commitments was not only to do the t-shirts and the seats in the stadium, right after Pulse we committed to being the presenting sponsor. It’s important that we raise awareness and continue to raise awareness and continue to support the LGBT community because it’s a community that sometimes is under attack and not often understood by everybody, and we have a significant portion of our fans that are part of the LGBT community and we try to give back and support them.”
One of the commitments the club made after the shootings was that it would include 49 rainbow-colored seats in the new downtown soccer stadium to honor each of the 49 people killed, a tribute that goes a long way in showing just how much the club cares about making sure those lives are never forgotten.
Any team can issue statements of sorrow and say they understand, but Orlando City has always gone the extra mile to take make sure an important part of its fan base always feels welcome — especially when it comes to having members of its own in the LGBT community.
“As a club, we’ve always been a very inclusive and a very open club to all strands of society, and everyone is welcome,” Rawlins said. “We try to take a very open and welcoming attitude to everybody in the community that wants to be an Orlando City or Orlando Pride fans. Not only do our fans know that, but our players know that, our staff knows it. We have five or six staff that are openly gay, and people that are involved in the Pulse tragedy. So it’s important that we as a community, as an internal community, come together to support our staff, players, and community at large.”
Soccer has always been an inclusive sport, alongside the NBA, in the United States. Both have had strong voices in driving communities towards inclusion. Over the last couple of weeks, in light of recent political events in this country, the status of the LGBT community and those involved has become a bit clouded. There’s far less certainty about what’s ahead compared to the last several years, which have lifted the LGBT community leaps and bounds ahead of where it was decades ago.
“It’s more important now than at any time that people in that community feel safe and feel loved, and feel secure, and that there are people out there that support them and want to take care of them,” Rawlins said. “It’s a really important time right now to be doing that.”
And you can count on Orlando City to be there.