The hit show Ted Lasso recently concluded its third and final season on Apple TV+. I think the most valuable of the ambitious comedy’s accomplishments may be its image of non-toxic masculinity, lived out in community by the players, coaches, fans, and staff of the fictional soccer club AFC Richmond.
A show that confronts toxic masculinity must inevitably also address homophobia, for each is the other’s evil cousin. Both are tools of patriarchy, called upon because a system that intends to keep one gender identity in power over others is built upon the theory of gender essentialism. This theory posits that certain things are simply true of men and others of women (this schema doesn’t typically account for non-binary identities at all). It requires stereotypes, and when the masculine stereotypes go unchallenged—things like fearless bravado and emotional impassivity—we have what is often called toxic masculinity. But some of the stereotypes that make up this vision of masculinity are indeed very challenged by queer and genderqueer identities; in comes homophobia to disparage or erase these identities so that gender essentialism, and the patriarchal system it upholds, can survive.
In the final season of Ted Lasso, the team is beginning to gel into a community that rejects toxic masculinity. They have already embraced mental health therapy, confronted various forms of misogyny, and learned to respect the “unimportant” members of the team’s staff. This is no small feat for a men’s sports team (recall that the former US president’s brag about sexual assault was explained away as locker room talk). But the specter of potential homophobia looms as the club’s final hurdle, or in video game parlance, its final boss.
The show introduces this challenge just how you might expect: one of the members of the club (Colin) is gay but in the closet, unsure of if or when to come out to his teammates. The first player to learn of his sexuality is his best friend Isaac, who accidentally discovers sexual text messages from men on Colin’s phone. Isaac immediately becomes angry and standoffish toward his friend, and as a viewer we are left to wonder if he is simply being homophobic.
Eventually Colin stands up in the locker room and reveals the truth to his teammates. This scene is the club’s true faceoff with its final boss. Around the room, one after another of the footballers voices their support, culminating in an insistence that the players don’t care that he’s gay. They mean it in a good way: we won’t treat you differently than we did before, we won’t make fun of you, etc. And indeed, as they make this declaration, we can see the relief and reassurance on Colin’s face. The dragon, it would seem, has been slain.
But the show’s central figure and namesake, coach Ted Lasso, raises the team’s eyes to a new moral horizon. He tells a convoluted parable about a childhood friend who was a Denver Broncos fan in a town of Kansas City Chiefs supporters. The weakness of the analogy is part of the joke, but it still resonates with the team. Ted explains that when his friend came out as a Broncos fan, Ted’s message was “I don’t care that you’re a Broncos fan,” and he meant it in a good way: I will still be friends with you no matter what team you cheer for. But when the Broncos reached the Super Bowl two years in a row, that friend celebrated alone, without Ted’s friendship… because ultimately Ted was true to his words and didn’t care.
Returning from his memory to the question of Colin’s sexuality, Ted revises the team’s answer and says, “Colin, we don’t not care. We care very much. We care about who you are and what you must’ve been going through. From now on, you don’t have to go through it all by yourself.”
When I watched this scene, I was reminded of the various ways churches communicate to (or don’t) and care for (or don’t) their LGBTQ+ members. Of course there are those churches who guzzle the entire cocktail of patriarchy, gender essentialism, toxic masculinity, misogyny, and homophobic theology. This article is not meant for those churches. But what about the congregations making real efforts at hospitality, at inclusiveness, at solidarity?
In the worst case of these churches, there can be an unwillingness to even have a conversation. These churches may say “All are welcome,” but there is no visible statement of LGBTQ affirmation anywhere on their website, and for a new visitor, there is no way to determine if queer clergy, trans congregants, or same-sex weddings have a place in the community. This sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” protocol is very harmful (and it’s often just an attempt at a more palatable patriarchy). I don’t think we go too far to tell churches like this to do better.
But I wonder if many churches who are doing better could still learn something from this Ted Lasso locker room scene. A congregation might have an official label like “open and affirming,” but could the message to queer folks actually amount to “We don’t care that you’re lesbian or gay or bisexual or trans”? In other words, we won’t discriminate against you, and we won’t make sour faces at you when you walk in. But will we march with you? Will we write letters to our representatives to oppose legislation that harms you? Will we invite you to share the story of your faith and sexuality in our gathering?
It may be time for some churches to move from “We don’t care that you’re gay” to “We do care about your sexual identity—and we’re with you.”
I don’t have a list of 10 easy steps for how to center and celebrate queerness in your congregation. Sure, endeavor to have LGBTQ+ folks in leadership positions. Learn from queer theology together when you can. But I think the most important step is that we will all need to listen and listen well to those in our communities who are different from us.
In Ted Lasso, Colin and Isaac get the chance to have one of these messy conversations. Isaac apologizes for his aloofness toward Colin and says he was hurt that Colin hadn’t trusted him enough to come out to him. Colin offers that he hadn’t withheld the news due to any trait in Isaac, but his own fears.
Later the two are playing video games and Colin says to his friend, “I love you, boyo.” Isaac (seemingly still dealing with some deep-seated and latent homophobia) flinches. “You can’t say it, can you?” Colin asks with a smile. Isaac pauses before replying, “No… but you know I do, yeah?”
Isaac is on a journey, and as he gives himself grace (and Colin does the same), it seems their friendship is back on the road to flourishing. Our churches might follow their lead.
But unlike Isaac, we can say it.