PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Portland’s first LGBTQ+ football league is about to launch – and its organizers say it’s about more than just the sport.

The Oregon Alliance Flag Football League says it’s also about building a community that breaks stereotypes and builds friendships.

For years, the organizers wanted to build a league in the city, but were disrupted by the pandemic. Now, years later, they say these challenges made them stronger today.

Derek Spears, the commissioner of Oregon Action Alliance, says he hopes to bring together a team that is unlike any other.

“Get us all together to build another sense of community and a space of belonging with each other,” he said. “It’s that love and that comradery that you feel when you play sports and you get competitive, but you build this space with other people.”

Spears has been in flag football leagues like this for 20 years, starting in Atlanta. He joined after finding out he was HIV positive.

“That was a devastating space in my life, because I was already dealing with so much shame being me and to layer it on through everything,” Spears said.

Portland, OR First LGBTQ+ football league launches for first time since the pandemic
(Courtesy: The Oregon Alliance Flag Football League)

When he joined the league, he found not only the “endzone,” but a group of people whom he looked up to, and who wanted him for who he was.

“I was just accepted, and I met people who I wanted to emulate. They became role models,” he said. “People who started the league became role models for me where I didn’t any more. …This was a place that literally saved me years ago, so it’s why I extended it back out.”

For the past several years, Spears and the team in Portland have been travel-only, going to different cities and even winning the National Gay Bowl.

But then the pandemic hit. Some friends moved away, and one took his own life – rattling the team. The next year, when they returned to the Gay Bowl, they wore jerseys printed with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 988.

“That year it was important to remember him, so it was challenging. It still is, but it takes me back to why we’re doing this,” he said. “You can use that as a space to understand what the core mission is.”

For Spears, they mission is to use the league for fun and to advocate for people who don’t have or cannot afford the healthcare they need. He wants to use the money the league raises through dues to help any one in that situation.

“Let’s see if we can take a little bit of that off to relieve some stress,” he said. “We’re going to do that, because those things are important to people.”

Bringing a community together on the football field is a result Spears said he’s already satisfied with.

“I win just being on the field with them, which is something I always take to tournaments now. And I win when we win the whole thing,” Spears said. “At the end of the day, I still won because we got to be around these dudes we just got to go playing football for a couple hours.”