Gay Men in Football – Are Rainbow Laces Enough?

I’ll be honest; that’s a loaded question. Football still has a problem. We all want to see increased acceptance from players and fans alike and yet all too often we see conflicting signals has to how tolerant the football pitch really is.

There is no shortage of grassroots initiatives and high-level discussions that often make headline news. For example, Emerald is the sponsor of the London Unity League champions London Falcons FC (see more here) and even Lloyds of London is hosting an event on homophobia ‘on the pitch’ looking at rugby and football (here). Yet we still have no out professional players at a senior level, and sometimes equivocation from the sport’s leaders. Any attempt by clubs to bring a more inclusive atmosphere to their supporters are often met with sheer bloody outrage from the fans. When clubs signed up to the Stonewall rainbow laces campaign (which involved players wearing rainbow laces for a match) some of the social media responses from fans were unrepeatable and verging on hate speech.

Stonewall published some of the politer ones in order to make the point about why visible gestures such as this are still needed:

Let’s not forget that people don’t have to hide behind social media to insult and judge others. Homophobia on the terraces is still there, as can be seen in the chanting and insults that come from opposing fans at most Brighton and Hove Albion games. While action is now being taken to kick out the few hard core instigators (as happened when Brighton were recently away to Leicester), what do you do when you have thousands chanting the same insults? The problem has not been ‘dealt with’ as Leicester stated after the arrests.

All credit to Ryan Atkin, who came out earlier this month as football’s first gay professional official, and Sophie Cook who until recently was football’s first out trans member of staff, as Bournemouth FC’s official photographer (she left to stand for Parliament). For Ryan, in one way life may well be tougher when he is on the pitch, but he will be happier for being out. And it will be interesting to see how he fares compared to out gay rugby union referee Nigel Owens, who refereed the last Rugby World Cup final in 2015. I suspect that Ryan may find his reception less welcoming, but I hope I am wrong.

The fact is that it is difficult to come out whoever you are, but sometimes the longer you leave it the harder it gets. Take Colin Jackson as an example. At a time (in 2006) when he felt that he wasn’t ready to come out, he denied being gay and took another 11 years to admit the truth. Sport has changed a lot in 10 years, and in some sports (diving, horse riding, hockey) being gay or lesbian is now just part of who someone is, rather than being their defining feature, no matter what the Daily Mail would have us believe.

Much has been done in terms of talking and initiatives in football. Yet it has a long way to go to catch up with those sports that are leaders in diversity. At national, European and world level, the FA, UEFA and FIFA need to take this by the scruff of the neck and drag it forward. Football is a great and glorious sport that can be both exhilarating and crushing at the same time. The sport itself can be dogged in controversy from time to time (World Cup anyone?) yet it has the power to unite and lead. It should be better at leading on the issue of gay players in professional football.

Notes: Dive In details, Falcons website