Ryan Atkin this week came out as the UK’s first openly gay professional football official – a huge step in the right direction for LGBT representation in the sport – but there’s still a long way to go before acceptance of all on and off the pitch.
‘DOES YOUR BOYFRIEND, DOES YOUR BOYFRIEND, DOES YOUR BOYFRIEND KNOW YOU’RE HERE?’ – the regular chant heard in the away end at Premier League new boys Brighton and Hove Albion is indicative of a poison on the terraces. You might argue that it’s harmless, just a cheeky jab at the Brighton’s famous gay community, but if the intention is to wind the home fans up, then what does that say about the attitude of the away fans towards homosexuality?
Ryan Atkin came out this week in an interview with Sky Sports. The 32 year old will take charge of matches in the sixth tier of English football this season, as well as acting as a fourth official in the National League. He says he’s never encountered homophobia himself, but is under no illusions that it’s absent from the game, “the biggest challenge that I might face as an openly gay referee would potentially be dealing with homophobia – that could come from players, spectators and yes, possibly some of my own refereeing colleagues”.
Atkin points to the work that initiatives such as Stonewall’s ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign have done to promote awareness and inclusion at the top level of sport, and despite the hamfistedness of FA Chairman Greg Dyke’s backing – he suggested gay footballers should all come out at the start of the season, perhaps as an addendum to the retained and released list, Greg? – the support of top brass is clearly vital to the cause.
The outcome of this heightened support and awareness have seen higher profile names speak up about their sexuality. Thomas Hitzelsperger, formerly of Aston Villa and West Ham, came out just after his retirement, while the FA Vase final last season saw Cleethorpes Town’s Liam Davis become the first openly gay footballer to play at Wembley. At the top level, incidents of homophobia on the pitch seem a distant memory, with Robbie Fowler’s ‘bum gesture’ aimed at Graeme Le Saux the last serious incident to provoke censure.
Off the pitch, however, is a different story. With the next two World Cups being held in Russia and Qatar respectively, FIFA have potentially set the cause back at least five years, former president Sepp Blatter advising any gay fans that wish to attend the tournaments to “refrain from any sexual activities”. “You know what these pinkos are like – can’t keep their hands off each other. It’s like they’re rubbing it in our faces!” He probably thought.
The BBC held a survey in 2016 to gauge fan opinion on homosexuality in football, and the results were mostly positive. 82% of supporters said they wouldn’t care if one of their team’s players was openly gay, while 71% of fans believe more should be done by clubs to tackle homophobia in football. All gravy. However the darker side of the stands was also represented, with 50% of respondents saying they had heard homophobic chanting at a match, while 8% said they would stop following their team if one their players came out as gay. Now, taking Old Trafford as an example, 8% would roughly equate to 6,000 supporters; double the average away allocation. To the credit of Chris Sutton (and he is an extremely dour man), he was one of the first to condemn this 8%, suggesting they had “no place in football”.
Ironically that’s a phrase used liberally by those who belong to the 8%. The official Twitter accounts of football clubs raising awareness of the Rainbow Laces campaign received plenty of responses from ‘outraged’ fans who think ‘politics don’t belong in football’ and that different coloured laces in football boots were somehow an affront to their masculinity.
This came to the forefront again over the summer, when Newcaslte United supporters group Gallowgate Flags unveiled a new rainbow flag to be displayed at the Gallowgate End of St James’ Park on matchdays this season. The flag was created to show unity with LGBT members of the Toon Army, and enhance the feeling of inclusion at the stadium, that no matter who you are, whatever your preference, you’re still welcome to come and scream abuse at Paul Dummett for 90 minutes. The response on social media was largely positive, though the criticism the flag garnered suggest the 8% are alive and mouth-breathing in the North East: “what next a flag for ginger dwarfs?” screamed Glenn, into his whey powder; “Typical gays! Always wanting attention and to be heard!” replied Carl, wanting attention and to be heard.
That unpleasant section of supporters exists at every club, and the for as long as society marginalises its members based on their sexual preference, this aspect will remain at football grounds. Laws have been brought in by the FA to punish supporters using homophobic language at the match, so the power is in our hands. Great strides have been made in the past 30 years to make the game more inclusive for all, and slowly but surely those that take part feel more comfortable and confident to be who they are both on and off the pitch, but to truly make football inclusive for all we must work together.