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August 21, 2015
It seems as if there is no week in which a British elite athlete comes out as an openly LGBT+ person. The last one, Rugby League star Keegan Hirst, who confessed to have been on the verge of suicide after having to live his homosexuality in secret, being even married with two kids. Before him, England’s football captain Casey Stoney or Olympic diver Tom Dailey also grabbed headlines with their respective coming out stories. The stories of Hirst, Stoney and Daley have all three elements in common. First, the three athletes are top performers in their respective sports, with Daley being even a World Champion and an Olympic medallist. Second, the public reaction to their coming out has been extremely supportive and positive, from the media, the fans and, if reports are to be believed, also team mates, coaches and officials. Third, after each one of these, there is one recurring question: Will we ever see a top male footballer coming out in England? Not for the moment, it seems, but perhaps the first steps are being taken to make this easier.
The FREE project research has reminded us of how masculine and hetero-normative top professional football in Europe is. However, in our research we have also found positive stories of inclusion and fight against homophobia in the game. In this post I would like to focus on the efforts of fan groups in England to make football a safer environment for both players and fellow supporters. For example, in our Loughborough conference we listened to a paper that presented the (mostly positive) experiences of a Norwich City transgender supporter.
I recently attended the football supporters’ congress, organised in Manchester by Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation. It was a positive surprise to find out that one of the workshops of the congress was focused on the development of a community of LGBT+ fan groups. Under the generic name of Pride in Football, LGBT+ fan groups of different clubs in the professional game are coming together to build a support structure that could ensure an inclusive football experience in the stands. Their objective is to work together to ensure that as many clubs as possible in the English leagues have an LGBT+ fan group if the supporters want to stablish one. This is still a small organisation, but it has grown from only three clubs to twelve fan groups, which is encouraging for it seems as if supporters are also feeling free to ‘come out’ in the stands. What is more important, English football stakeholders are supporting the development of Pride in Football. For example, the Premier League has recently provided some funding for a ‘strategy day’, where LGBT+ fan groups came together, in Birmingham, to discuss their next steps.
These are all small steps, but having an inclusive atmosphere in the stands can only be positive for football in general and, hopefully, this will lead to players feeling safe to come out when they are still at the peak of their professional careers. There needs to come a day in which, like Hirst, Stoney or Daley, any top male football player can play with pride, and for this to happen the role of the supporters should not be underestimated.