‘Everybody Is Welcome Here’

After a year of cobbling together seed money, Lightner formed the Portland Community Football Club in 2013 with grant funding and donated equipment from Nike. The club was a rarity because everybody had a place. Nobody got cut. Lightner emphasized developing skilled players more than turning out stars. Families paid $50 to join, but less than that was OK. Not paying a dime was fine, too.

At his first practice, held in a worn corner of a public park, 50 kids showed up. Soon it was 75. Then 100. The club played during the winter, spring, summer and fall.

“Coach Kaig became a constant in our lives,” says Shema Jacques, one of the program’s early stalwarts. Jacques, now a 22-year-old Marine, first picked up the basics of soccer in a Rwandan refugee camp but honed his game at P.C.F.C. “From the start, I could tell he believed in us. He would be there for us for anything we needed. I had never experienced someone being like that before.”

Lightner was open about being a transgender man to everyone in his life except the players and families of P.C.F.C., and the dissonance ate at him. So on that rain-swept day in 2017, he gathered every player who had shown up for a chat before practice.

“I want you guys to know about me, and I also want you guys to know that I’m still me,” he said. “I’m still the same person I was five minutes before you all knew this, right? I’m still the same guy who comes out here, gets you guys to be better soccer players, gets on you when you’re not playing hard, loves you no matter what.”

He saw nothing but acceptance as he looked into his players’ eyes. One of them was Jacques.

“Suddenly, hearing that, it all made sense,” Jacques said. “This is why he knows what it is like for so many of us — not being accepted, trying hard to fit in. I actually felt more connected to him as he spoke, and I am not alone. He was still the person I looked up to and wanted to be like.”

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