Feature

Grassroots Game Changers

Queering of the national sport from below

Next May will mark twenty years since the tragic suicide of Justin Fashanu. He was the first professional English gay football player to come out to the public. He was also the only one to date who has done so. In both men’s rugby and women’s football queer people are represented. Yet on the benches of the national sport, homosexuality remains a taboo.

Lately there have been attempts by the Football Association (FA) to come in contact with gay professional players, but not one person has come forward. In the sport that has been uniting Brits for decades, LGBT people are still on the margins. As the UK population is increasingly becoming queerer by the year, professional football is falling behind.

The Gooners

Dave Raval is a football referee, dedicated Arsenal fan and chairman of Gay Gooners, Arsenal’s LGBT supporters club.

“Everyone kept saying ‘When is a player going to come out?’.” he said. “And we thought ‘well actually, that is the wrong question’. The first question is ‘when are the fans going to come out’?”

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Dave Raval knows his way around the gay football community. He is a referee in the GFSN cup, Arsenal fan, and chairman of Gay Gooners.

Photo by: Elin Wibe

"The first question is 'when are the fans going to come out?'" Dave Raval

And he makes an important argument. In the country where the most searched term on Google last year was ‘Euro 2016’, the changes for gay football are happening amongst the grassroots. The Sunday amateur teams, the recreational after work kickabouts, the supporter clubs.

Founded in 2013, the Gay Gooners have become the largest LGBT supporters club in the world with their 600 members. The group was started after a few of its founders had been campaigning against homophobia in football. Through founding Gay Gooners they found a voice to say “We are here, we are part of the football family, we deserve to be recognised and treated fairly. Just get used to us really.”

According to a report released by Stonewall earlier this year, nearly half of LGBT people don’t feel welcome at public sporting events. Further, one in ten who attended a live sports event last year had experienced discrimination. Amongst black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT people, the number doubles.

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Gay Gooners in the London Pride Parade 2013 (by jpl.me via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Dave and the rest of the Gay Gooners want to do something about these statistics. Part of the way they are doing this is by having a banner on display in the stadium for every home match.  Whilst the laws and regulations regarding homophobia in football are changing, there is still a way to go. Referees now have to penalise homophobia with red cards, but according to Dave there is still a bit of training needed to enforce that. He stresses that despite the changes in regulation, attitudes need to change:

“And you can’t do that from only one side, we need to work together”

Supporter clubs are increasingly taking their share of the responsibility, and Dave mentions one specific example:

“Brighton has a large LGBT group living there. In 2013 there was a lot of well documented homophobic abuse by away fans visiting Brighton, sadly including Arsenal fans”.

The events he is talking about were such a problem that the Brighton and Hove Albion Supporters’ Club (BHASC) together with the Gay Football Supporters’ Network (GFSN) began recording the incidents to put pressure on the football authorities. What they found was sadly not surprising. The report showed that at the end of the season, members of BHASC had been victim of homophobic abuse by 72% of their opponents.

"In two years, it went from thousands of people shouting wild homophobic abuse, to almost none." Dave Raval

“In 2015 the club said ‘We don’t want that this time!’ What happened next was they sent an email to anyone who had a ticket, saying this is not acceptable” Dave explained.

“Lots of people tweeted. The football family said let’s not let this happen again. And it didn’t. In two years, it went from thousands of people shouting wild homophobic abuse, to almost none.”

Although progress has been made, homophobic language still builds walls between LGBT supporters and the possibility of feeling welcome on match days.

But the major issue today is according to numbers from the Kick it Out campaign strikingly prevailing in the professional realm, where reports of incidents are increasing. Whilst in the grassroots and amongst supporters it’s decreasing.

Dave said the issue has many sides to it:

“If you ask clubs why players haven’t come out their answer historically has always been abuse from fans. Particularly away fans. But now I think that has diminished. Now there are 30 groups like Gay Gooners around the country. So it’s less of an issue”.

“Some people say there is an old culture that is homophobic amongst certain managers and senior people in clubs, though this is also changing”.

His remarks are well timed. Greg Clarke, chair of the FA, has been subject to critique from several holds after he allegedly told John Amaechi, ex-professional basket player and high-profile gay athlete, that he was not going to risk “getting fired for equality”.

Dave thinks the main thing making football a ‘different sport’ when it comes to inclusivity of LGBT players, is the global nature of the sport.

“People would be more likely to come out in League One or League Two than in premier league”, he said.

But whilst the professional leagues and their 4000 professional players are seemingly lacking the diversity management needed to make the sport for everyone, in Queer Britain the roots are rising.

‘Obviously’ gay friendly

It is a breezy Sunday afternoon on Barnes Elms Sports Trust, and Matthew Hall, Chairman of London Falcons FC and about to play the London Leftfooters FC in the GFSN cup.  Founded in 2006, The London Falcons is an LGBT friendly football team. They can adorn themselves with titles from both the GFSN cup and the London Unity League, a league intended to bring LGBT footballers together. The Falcons are already a force to be reckoned with this time around, after being crowned champions of the league last season.

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Matthew Hall is chairman and team member of London Falcons FC, a LGBT friendly football team.

Photo by: Elin Wibe

Matt had just come out of a relationship and wanted to expand his social group when he stumbled upon gay football teams. Which is arguably what Sunday Sports are about. Playing and being social. It shouldn’t necessarily have to be about social justice. Matt recalls one of their new players questioning why they were a ‘gay friendly’ team, saying “Why wouldn’t it be gay friendly?”. It should be obvious.

Looking out over the field with his team warming up, he does a headcount of roughly 50/50 straight and queer players. As his team mates’ comment reflects, it should be obvious for teams to be gay friendly. But if people do not feel safe in their environments, it is yet to be.

“Football is just an extension of society, and it is society’s responsibility to ensure people, either they play football or not feel safe” he said.

According to Stonewall 11% of LGBT people have been discriminated against taking part in sports. So it is clear LGBT friendly teams are necessary. For Matt it is important that these teams should not be exclusively for queer people. Rather, they should be a space for everyone:

“There is a duty. Football is a very important part of this country’s culture. So it is incumbent for football to lead and set the way in terms of shaping society’s attitudes.”

“This is just people standing up saying they want equality of opportunity.”

And the story of the Falcons seems a much more positive story than that of professional teams.

“It suits a lot of peoples’ agenda to project it negatively” he reckons. “In football governance, there needs to be done a lot more. I don’t think they’re doing a particularly good job at the moment”.

“This is just people standing up saying they want equality of opportunity.” Matthew Hall

He is clear on that the major issues for LGBT football are within management:

“The impact a bunch of guys who sit around the table in London have on you walking out on a Sunday is very hard and indirect to measure. But it is an incredibly important part of the game.”

“Not just in terms of LGBT inclusivity but in terms of equality generally. The women’s game, incorporating more BME in football. I do think it is concerning that there seems to be so much fundamental resistance in changing the game management structure. “ he says, giving a nod to the comments made by FA chair Greg Clarke. “That’s the sort of thing that is really worrying and holding the game back.”

The Football Family faces critique on lack of diversity also beyond LGBT people

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Photo by: Elin Wibe

There were “only very isolated incidences” where he has experienced homophobia playing for an LGBT friendly team, Matt says. “We had one team in a match in Manchester a few years ago who really started throwing around homophobic language.”

“I’ve had more positive experiences”, he says, “the positives experiences definitely outweigh the negative”.

He recalls a game he played for Village Manchester FC years back. They won, and the opponents had asked what village they were from. When clarified that they were from the village, the opponents had to their amusement answered:

“We just got beaten by a gay football team?!”.

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The Falcons played their way to the quarter finals in the GFSN cup.

Photo by: Elin Wibe

The Falcons beat the Leftfooters 9 – 2. They shake hands before scattering to their respective Sunday activities. Like the Gay Gooners, their protest consists of simply being there. Being visible and creating a safe space for people to do what they love. And by being there they are changing the game, challenging preconceptions of what a gay player is. It is hopefully only a matter of time until the rest of the  Football Family follows. But with the fate of Justin Fashanu in clear memory, it should happen sooner rather than later.

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