Homophobia in football: How non-league clubs are becoming fierce LGBTQ allies
The relationship between football and homosexuality has been so problematic it makes the average UKIP member appear enlightened by comparison.
Graeme Le Saux was called a poof simply for reading The Guardian.
Sepp Blatter laughed off the brutal homophobia of World Cup 2022 hosts Qatar.
Then there’s the tragic fate of Justin Fashanu. It pushed a generation of gay players so far back into the closet they found themselves exploring Narnia.
But things are moving forward.
In February 2018 a small step was taken when players from every single Premier League club appeared in a new Kick It Out video specifically tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic abuse. It felt like a victory. Not one player had the courage to sign up for a similar PFA-driven campaign back in 2010.
But the first four tiers of British football are still playing catch-up when it comes to championing the LGBTQ community.
If you want to see where progress is being made, then look to the part-timers of the non-league. They are the ones paving the way.
And few have done more for the cause than Dulwich Hamlet. The South London side who are currently plying their trade in the seventh tier Isthmian League Premier Division.
They made a super-powerful statement in 2015 when they staged a highly-publicised friendly against amateurs Stonewall FC, the country’s leading gay football team.
The match, whose profits went directly to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, was a huge statement from a British club, professional or semi-professional, in tackling homophobia.
Dulwich, sadly now struggling for their survival, were also the first non-league team to sign up for the Rainbow Laces campaign. They also recently played a friendly against the Met Police in support of LGBT History Month. Their support is far more than a token gesture.
Dulwich’s community liaison lead (and lifelong supporter) Mishi Morath says he’s proud that Dulwich aren’t just paying lip service to the issue.
“I am very conscious of wanting to do more than just put a banner up, or an anti-homophobia message in the programme,” Mishi says. “It is about changing perceptions in football, challenging negative comments and making all welcome. From the work we have done I know we are a safe place for LGBT fans. I sometimes see a couple or two holding hands, or arm round waist at our matches, without anyone batting an eyelid.”
But Dulwich aren’t the only non-leaguers making their mainstream counterparts appear behind the times. Renowned for their record-breaking run of FA Cup giant-killings and twice being denied promotion to the Football League, Altrincham have been a strong force in non-league football.
More recently Altrincham turned their attention to promoting inclusivity within the beautiful game, dedicating a match against Sutton United to the Football vs. Homophobia initiative. They have also proudly been selected as one of four Fans for Diversity clubs by the Kick It Out campaign. Their supporters team, Alty FC, recently proved their dedication to the cause as well. They took on LGBT-inclusive side Village Manchester FC for a friendly.
These are the sort of allies we need to see in all divisions.
Altrincham’s Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Jordan Tyms, says smaller attendances possibly make it easier for non-league teams to stamp out homophobic abuse, but their smaller resources can in fact make it much harder to embrace the LGBTQ community as a whole.
“Other clubs will be doing great work all over the country, but they don’t necessarily have the opportunity to showcase it,” he says. “I think there is definitely a willingness to support inclusion and diversity and the LGBT community but sometimes it comes down to priorities. Greater support from the leagues and The FA would help.”
Of course, non-league football is also breaking boundaries on a more personal level.
Not one of the 4000 professionals registered with the PFA has come out (although both USA international Robbie Rogers and ex-Aston Villa defender Thomas Hitzlsperger both did after retiring). But one particular Northern Premier League Division One South player has proven that yes, gay British footballers do exist.
Liam Davis is the man in question. The Cleethorpes Town midfielder who made headlines in 2014 when he was accidentally outed by a local newspaper.
It’s at the grassroots level where football’s thoroughly awkward relationship with the LGBTQ community appears to be making the most progress. So, next time you’re looking for something LGBTQ-friendly to do on the weekend, maybe it’s worth checking out what your local non-league team is up to. They may be more inclusive that you’d imagine.