Did you hear the story about the gay footballer who came out in the English Football League with the support of his team and supporters? No, probably not. Because to this day, it hasn’t happened.
But huge strides forward were taken this weekend in the sixth tier of the domestic game as non-league Altrincham FC donned a kit replicating the LGBT+ Pride rainbow flag for their Vanarama National League North clash with Bradford Park Avenue.
Homosexuality has long been cast as a taboo subject in football, but as Football vs Homophobia – a campaign set up ten years ago to address the topic – celebrates its February Month of Action, Altrincham put their full support behind the project.
Dedicating their match to the campaign, a rainbow kit was created and the usual sponsor’s logo was replaced by the logo of Football vs Homophobia, before the matchday shirts were auctioned off to raise money for The Proud Trust, a regional organisation which offers support to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans young people in the North West.
During the last few years more and more Premier League and EFL clubs have backed the campaign by changing their laces to rainbow-coloured laces, doing wonders to move the discussion along, but Robins’ chairman Bill Waterson said they didn’t want to do something subtle. In his words, the shirt was ‘a loud statement that gets the message across that homophobia has no place in football’.
On Saturday, the J Davidson Stadium was awash with media and despite drawing their match with Bradford Park Avenue 1-1, news of their initiative has gone global, with hundreds of countries picking up the story about little Altrincham.
Football clubs and media outlets across the world took to Twitter to share news of the campaign and weigh-in with their support for a wonderful cause. This example, from Spain, pays tribute to the Robins’ kit as well as their use of the #footbALL hashtag, which promotes equality for all in football.
La primera fotografía está hecha por @RipleyPhoto. Estas fotografías son del partido de Bradford (Park Avenue) AFC contra el Altrincham FC. Cómo dice el equipo de la vestimenta, el Altrincham FC, es un Fútbol para todos, usando el hashtag #FootbALL. ¡Qué genial Idea! pic.twitter.com/WX1uhoFzVm
— ¡El Show de Nicolás! (@ShowZoyNiko) February 17, 2019
For Football vs Homophobia, the campaign has been a huge success, with many other non-league clubs trying to find out ways they can become involved. League Two club Exeter City also dedicated their match against Bury to the project on Saturday with players warming up in FvH t-shirts.
In December, Watford FC recreated the LGBT+ Pride flag in the stands at their home game against Manchester City to support the Rainbow Laces campaign but more clubs need to follow suit to challenge behaviours and remove homophobia from the terraces.
Unfortunately, while the changed shirt has been met with rapturous support, there are reminders on social media too of just why the campaign is necessary, with hundreds of homophobic comments in response to the news.
And when it was suggested to Crystal Palace’s Proud and Palace account on Twitter to follow Altrincham’s rainbow shirt example, a response from the club’s official LGBT community came that they play in red and blue and that’s the way it should stay.
Well for me, Altrincham play in red and white but saw it as a worthy enough cause to make a one-off change. It would be good if a league club could make such a bold statement.
To this day, just one footballer in the top four English leagues has come out as gay while playing the game, while sportsmen and women in numerous other sports have been able to do so without any problems.
Many will ask why it is important for players to do so? Others will say ‘everyone’s gay these days’ and ‘no one cares anymore’. But if that’s the case, why can’t footballers do it too? They would be seen as a role model to young LGBT players, as was the case with Swedish semi-professional Anton Hysen and MLS star Robbie Rogers.
Through the years, I’ve had many heated discussions with fellow journalists on the issue, with many saying if they are gay and happy, why does it matter? Why do they need to put their private life in the public domain? And to so many levels I would agree.
However, the fact players cannot still bring the topic of their same-sex partners up, or be seen in public together without fear of repercussions makes it an issue. Most other sports barely blink now when someone announces their sexuality, and as has been reported before, homosexuality is football’s last taboo.
As a gay sports fan and journalist, I’ve found myself in situations where I couldn’t be myself for fear of jeopardising either my career or work opportunities. Having moved to rural Cumbria back in 2009, I was nervous about how the local sports clubs would react to news spilling out that a gay person was reporting on them.
When people hear that I’m gay the standard response has been ‘but you like sport, you can’t be gay’. There are many stereotypes out there for the LGBT community to fit into, but I didn’t arrive as an easy tick-box exercise. And many don’t.
For my first few months covering non-league Kendal Town FC, I was wary of anyone finding out I was gay in case it would prevent me getting stories or interviews that had previously come without issue. My fears were eased though after returning from a weekend in Brighton.
I’d been to Brighton Pride with a group of friends. I hadn’t told anyone in Kendal that was why I was going but the following weekend at the match I was asked the ‘how was Brighton, see many boys you liked?’ question, before being reassured that everyone knew, but no one cared.
My anxieties soon trailed off but they are anxieties that heterosexual people don’t, and probably can’t empathise with. Professional footballers have additional worries, of course, commercial projects and sponsorship deals could be scuppered too.
That’s not to say heterosexual people don’t have any fears or anxieties, it’s just that on this topic, unless you have dealt with a coming out, to or from friends, family or teammates, it’s very difficult to understand the internal battles someone goes through to find the courage to do it.
In the stands you still hear homophobic comments and even at yesterday’s match, I overheard an away fan asking his friend if the home team’s players will be swapping their purple shorts for pink underwear after the match. It’s subtle comments like that which make it difficult for other gay fans or even players, to make their true identity known.
The Football vs Homophobia organisation has done a lot for its cause in the last ten years, but on the evidence of the derogatory comments on social media in the last few days, there is still work to be done.
I’m not asking a footballer to out himself as gay tomorrow. Neither am I saying that people shouldn’t be against homosexuality. Many religions do not agree with same-sex relationships and many others just don’t want to know about them and that’s fine.
All I’m hoping to see, and I believe other LGBT people will agree, is for people to show more respect. Live and let live. Maybe one day soon a Premier League player will have the courage to come out but for now, I can only applaud the work of FvH and Altrincham for bringing the discussion to the table once more.