You might be tempted to dismiss cheerleading as a bit of pom-pom waving on the sidelines of sporting events, but you’d be wrong.
Spend a bit of time with cheerleaders, and you quickly realise that these are dedicated athletes, hard-working, finely drilled teams, who combine gymnastics, acrobatics, and infectious enthusiasm and elevate it to an art-form.
In the LGBTQ world, one of the shining examples of the positive impact of sport is the squad from CHEER SF - the community-based cheerleaders of San Francisco.
I caught up with Sara Toogood, events team coordinator for CHEER SF, to see whether I had what it takes to pick up the pom-poms and nail the routine.
The club has been established for nearly 40 years. Is there still a need for an LGBTQ cheer squad?
To answer your question about the need for an organisation like ours, we should look at firstly, the volunteers who comprise CHEER San Francisco’s performing and production teams, and secondly, at the mission and purpose of the organisation and the Cheer For Life Foundation.
Volunteers are drawn to CHEER SF not only because of the deep connection that is fostered among other people within the program – members of the LGBTQ community and allies enjoy our welcoming and inclusive environment – but because of the connection with the LGBTQ community. The mission and purpose of CHEER SF and the Cheer For Life foundation is to use cheerleading as a vehicle for fundraising for needy health and wellness-related causes in the LGBTQ community and beyond. Past beneficiaries and community partners are not limited to LGBTQ charities. Our donations and spirited supports have also extended to organisations that focus on other at-risk populations – breast cancer, leukaemia and lymphoma, burn survivors, foster families, and also the well-being of our four-legged friends.
Volunteers are drawn to CHEER SF because of the opportunity to do something unique and uplifting to support others in our community.
If you think back to when the club was formed, it was at a time when not many people were publicly supporting and advocating for the LGBTQ community. In what ways is Cheer SF currently focusing the club’s motivational energy?
CHEER SF was established in 1980, when our community was stunned and saddened by the new AIDS epidemic, and public support and advocacy was taboo. Fortunately, times changed! Education and diversity and respect and inclusion gained favour. Tons of grassroots organisations have popped up to support different and specific needs within the LGBTQ community – including health, wellness, disenfranchisement, job equality, marriage equality, homelessness, mental health, and immigration equality.
CHEER SF actually selects its beneficiaries very specifically, and we are determined to focus our efforts on helping these small, local, grassroots, organisations grow and thrive. Instead of making annual donations to large, national non-profits with tons of public and private funding, we focus our donations on smaller charities, where our amounts are the most impactful.
Our current beneficiary is the Edgewood Center for Children and Families, whose targeted programs change the lives of abused, neglected, and traumatised children in the Bay Area.
You’ve got a performing squad of about 40 – do you hold try-outs for the squad?
Tryouts usually occur once per year in the late summer, after Pride Season wraps up at the end of June. Dates haven’t been released for the 2018-2019 Team Tryouts yet, but here’s an insider’s tip – you can begin to volunteer with CHEER San Francisco any time! Head to Cheersf.org and navigate to JOIN to learn more about the Performing Volunteers and Production Volunteers – roles such as support crew, the ‘business’ side, tech and marketing, community relations – that we are seeking year-round.
There are no set cheerleading skills pre-requisites like many school, rec, or all-star teams have. There’s also no set number that the squad seeks to maintain. The only limitation, really, is that you must be at least 18 years old to participate. Desire, drive, and dedication are the most important qualities you must possess.
How does the club navigate gender identity?
‘Cheerleading’ usually conjures to mind the most stereotypical images your mind can create. But is it really that binary? Let’s start with the uniform. The cheer skirt. The bow. Fine, you got us there. We offer the option of wearing a bow and a skirt to any female-identifying performing and production members and pants/shorts to any male-identifying performing and production members. In that way, yes the options are binary, there are two choices, but we are certainly trans-inclusive and respectful of the identity and the apparel choice of each individual.
But if you’re just talking about apparel, try this exercise with me – imagine a group of people in a retail ad. Your eye can quickly scan and differentiate ‘male’ and ‘female’ just by apparel. Now, look at a snapshot of the entire CHEER SF cheer squad in motion. Your eye has a hard time finding the length or shape of the garment. You’re too struck by the sameness, synchronicity, and unity. Our uniform is exactly that – uniform. On our outsides, we represent what is on our insides – a lot more similarities than there are differences.
If someone was interested in trying out for Cheer SF, or one of the other LGBTQ cheer squads across the US, what advice or guidance would you give them?
CHEER SF is one Member Team of the Pride Cheerleading Association – the PCA. There are currently 10 Member Teams, and the number is growing rapidly. Teams currently exist in the following cities:
- San Francisco
- Los Angeles
- New York City
- Salt Lake City
- Washington, DC
There are teams in development that you can join in:
- San Diego
My advice/guidance is practical, physical, and philosophical.
Practical: Contact them electronically. Each team has a Facebook Page and an active website. Contact PCA directly on email@example.com if you are having a hard time getting in touch with one of our Member Teams, or if you are looking for a team in your area.
Physical: Try something cheerleading-like – dance, gymnastics, yoga, acro, kickboxing – and see if you like it. If this is a totally new experience for you, your body will thank you for the workout, and your mind will thank you for trying something new. Even if it doesn’t feel like the right physical fit for you, don’t stop there. Each PCA team has behind-the-scenes needs to support the organisation – marketing, tech, community relations, finance, legal. You could be the Most Valuable Cheerleader on a PCA Team, and never execute a cheer, a stunt, a jump, or booty-shake.
Philosophical: Come to CHEER SF and PCA with an open mind, and an open calendar. Be willing to take on new and exciting commitments and to see and experience things you never thought you would in this lifetime. It will brighten your world, and the worlds of those vulnerable, at-risk people in the communities we support.
What are some of the goals and aspirations for the club in the months ahead?
We’ve just launched our annual crowdfunding campaign, Holiday Cheer. Each CHEER SF volunteer has a classy.org fundraising page. Per-person fundraising goals vary from hundreds to thousands of dollars, which will amass in our Cheer For Life Fund, and then go toward our annual Primary Beneficiary donation. After you find your favourite cheerleader’s page and drop some dough, come see CHEER SF at:
- Santa Skivvies in December, where we will support the scantily clad, and the SF AIDS Foundation.
- Sin City Classic in January in Las Vegas, where we will be cheering and competing at the largest annual LGBTQ multi-sport event in the world.
- Imperial Court Elections in February, where we add spirit to the longstanding traditions of the Imperial Court.
- Union Street Easter Parade in April, where we will parade and perform publicly to entertain and fundraise for our Primary Beneficiary, the Edgewood Center.
- Pride season – starting with Long Beach Pride in May, going through San Francisco Pride at the end of June, we will be riding the rainbow wave all over the map, raising money for local charities in the cities in which we perform.