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Shaley Howard poses with the Portland Timbers FC billboard featuring her image.

In 2015 I had the honor of being on a billboard for the Portland Timbers FC. If you are not from the area, you should understand that we are football (ahem, American soccer) fanatics, so any chance to represent our team is a big deal.

Every five years, the Timbers FC holds a contest where a few lucky fans win the right to represent the team on a billboard. Thousands of people compete for the honor, but only a couple are chosen. For one week, all Oregonians have a chance to vote for their favorite image.

When I was up for the win, I carefully watched the votes tally every day, comparing myself to the other candidates. I felt weirdly anxious, as if I was vying for some dream job. The following Saturday, I received a phone call letting me know I’d won… by a landslide. I was going to be on the next Timbers FC billboard! One might think, “Wow, that’s pretty cool, but not extremely noteworthy.” What made this monumental, though, is that I am a masculine-presenting, butch lesbian.

The Timber FC is part of the American professional men’s soccer club. When I won the billboard contest in 2015, they already had ample visibility, not to mention an enormous legion of loyal fans—the Timbers Army. They certainly did not need my help with promotion. So for this mainstream football club to have, and even encourage, putting a masculine butch lesbian on their billboard—it was a watershed moment. I’m not even close to the usual person a male sports club would want to represent them. And yet, the people of Oregon and the Timbers FC did just that. They chose me to become part of their campaign.

The billboard went up in a high-traffic area in Northeast Portland. When I went to see it in person, I couldn’t stop smiling. And crying. I was 47 years old at that time and had spent years living in a homophobic world filled with prejudice and discrimination. As a young butch lesbian, I had always felt like an outsider. I’d been stared at like some abnormal freak, misgendered always, and occasionally even called derogatory names. All because I was different. Yet years later, there I was: a 30-foot-tall, butch lesbian on a billboard holding two axes, representing the Portland Timbers FC. I felt like righteously proclaiming, “That’s right! I’m here, I’m queer and not going anywhere!”

Shaley Howard smiles and poses with a billboard of herself. On the billboard Howard poses against a plain white background. She wears a black tank top and fitted jeans. Her muscled arms hold two axes behind her neck. Howard has short blond hair and looks calmly into the camera.

Shaley Howard poses with the Portland Timbers FC billboard featuring her image. (Photo provided by Shaley Howard)

It’s been almost ten years since that iconic billboard went up. I am still extremely proud and love my Timbers FC. However, nowadays, when I look in the mirror, a slightly different image greets me; still muscly in places, but a lot more sag happening.

In talking with a friend the other day, I mentioned how hard it is, so many years after the billboard went up, that people still gush over that image and often post it as if it happened yesterday. “I truly loved the experience and was incredibly honored,” I said, “but it happened so long ago.” 

My friend quietly responded with, “It’s actually not about you.”

Internally, my ego exploded in response, “Of course, it’s about me! It’s my image,” I thought.  But then it hit me: my friend was right. In many ways, that billboard had never been about me. It was about Oregonians (and the Portland Timbers FC) proudly welcoming everyone. It was about acceptance, tolerance, and inclusivity—things I’d always longed for throughout my life.

If that eureka moment wasn’t enough, literally the day after my conversation, I received a message from a stranger. She told me that years ago, when moving across the country to Portland, she’d felt lonely, insecure, and unsure if she was making the right decision. But she told me that when she saw that Timbers FC billboard, “I knew I was home.” Any city that chose to proudly display a 30-foot billboard featuring a masculine butch lesbian was a city in which she knew she would find acceptance. Not only from the LGBTQ+ community but from the straight community too. It was all of Oregon that decided that an image of me could mean so much to so many. It screamed, “We won’t stand for intolerance—everyone is welcome here.”

That’s the importance of being visible and seen. That image that I so proudly posed beside years earlier turned out to be a symbol of inclusivity, love, and pride. It was never about me, the individual. It was about everyone.



Shaley Howard
Shaley Howard
Shaley Howard is a small business owner, an award-winning activist living in Portland, Oregon. Howard is the author of Excuse Me Sir! Memoir of a Butch.