Eight years in the Upton Park stands, and Jim Dolan had never heard anything like this.
A fan behind them spent most of the match showering players, the referee, the linesmen — anyone and everyone on the pitch, really — with homophobic abuse. Not merely slurs. “Vicious, horrible abuse.”
Dolan had listened before to his gay friends who said they stayed away from soccer matches because of that sort of behavior. But he never heard anything that made him reconsider his place at the match himself.
“For the first time, I felt helpless,” he recounted. If he challenged the screamer, “would everyone around me support me? Or would they join in with this guy?”
He fired off a few tweets. Across England, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender fans of other clubs had organized supporters groups. Would any West Ham fans want to do the same?
I met Dolan at Upton Park on a chilly, windy Saturday afternoon at the end of February, a season after he sat through one fan’s abuse wishing he could do something.
By now, he has. The positive response to his initial tweets, with the help of an outside network that supports gay soccer fans, turned into a fledgling supporters’ group of gay and lesbian West Ham fans. On this day, before West Ham took the pitch to face Crystal Palace, the fans who call themselves Pride of Irons would become the latest LGBT group to earn the official support of the club they love. Pride of Irons swelled to more than 40 members by the time they met with club officials in December, and now West Ham welcomed the members onto the pitch, where club chairman David Gold joined them briefly to chat and take pictures.
The concept of organized fan groups is instrumental to English soccer — clubs like West Ham list dozens of supporters associations on their web sites. Gay and lesbian fans have surely been a part of them in the past. But after decades of watching the progress that has taken England to the world’s forefront of LGBT equality fail to expand its reach into the country’s most popular sport, LGBT fans have spent the last two years coming out.
Groups like Pride of Irons have sprouted at clubs across the country, taking a central role in the fight against anti-gay discrimination in soccer and blasting a simple message: We are fans too.
Members of Pride Of Irons meet with West Ham chairman David Gold (center) at the group’s February launch event.
CREDIT: TRAVIS WALDRON
“Does he take it up the arse?”
“Does your boyfriend know you’re here?”
“We can see you holding hands!”
Most of the chants that ring through the terraces of English stadiums and provide the cadence of a soccer match are innocent enough. They hail local heroes, become club anthems, or aim banter at rivals. It isn’t uncommon to hear obscenities in them, but they usually don’t rise to level of targeted discriminatory abuse.
Every now and then, though, they turn homophobic.
Fans of all types are eager to point out that the caricature of the English soccer hooligan that showed up in movies of the past does not accurately portray a typical fan today, thanks to concerted efforts from the British government, law enforcement, and the Football Association, the sport’s governing body in England, that long ago rooted out most violence. And fans both gay and straight say too that instances of outright homophobia are also rare, or at least far less common than they once were. It is relatively easy now to attend a match without hearing blatant discriminatory abuse leveled at other fans, officials, players, or coaches.
But even when homophobia isn’t orchestrated and obvious, even at the places where clubs have taken strong stances and discrimination rarely occurs, there are fears that gay fans cannot be open about who they are.
“If you’re going to The Emirates with your boyfriend or girlfriend of the same sex, would you hold hands?”
asked Dave Raval, a media coordinator for the Gay Gooners, a group of LGBT supporters of Arsenal F.C. “Many people wouldn’t. Homophobia exists on many different levels. That’s why we’re taking a stand.”
If you’re going to The Emirates with your boyfriend or girlfriend of the same sex, would you hold hands?
The most glaring example of reticence to come out is Robbie Rogers, the American who was playing in England when he announced he is gay and promptly retired in 2013. Rogers thought it “impossible” to come out while playing, citing the potential for abuse from both other players and fans in his decision to quit (months later, hereturned to Major League Soccer, the American league). Rogers’ concerns were not restricted to English soccer, but fans there say the sort of abuse he feared has kept more gay fans from coming to soccer matches.
The Football Association now has taken a special interest in combating discrimination of all forms — namely, racism, homophobia, sexism, and the abuse of disabled people — throughout the sport, from the professional level to the grassroots, where the use of homophobic language is an even bigger problem, according to officials. The FA has a five-year action plan aimed at increasing diversity within the sport and at encouraging more reporting of discrimination. And in recent years it has expanded its efforts beyond the fines and suspensions it has issued players, managers, and other club and FA employees who exhibit discriminatory behavior.
The FA now uses education programs to show its members what discrimination looks like and how they can prevent it. It is currently developing online anti-discrimination training for its 327,000 coaches and referees and conducts field training and education sessions too. At every level of the sport, any player, coach, referee, or club official found to violate its policies must go through one-on-one education sessions.
“Fining people and suspending people is one thing,” said Chris Gibbons, an FA Inclusion Education Adviser, who came to the organization after working for Stonewall, the UK’s largest LGBT charity. “But what we want to do is change attitudes and behavior, and get people thinking differently about what they do, what they say, and how they treat people.”
Though racism and sexism may remain the most visible forms of discrimination in English soccer, homophobia is one of the FA’s key targets, and Gibbons has “been really impressed at the response we get from participants, whether at the grassroots or the pro level.” The organization has worked alongside clubs in the Premier League and the leagues below it to help them improve their own efforts (one example: it held a two-day training session in December for pro and grassroots clubs to educate them on how to promote LGBT inclusion in the sport). The FA has also updated its transgender policy to handle players who transition on a case-by-case basis rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all model.
But the Football Association, as governing bodies go, isn’t all that powerful — at the professional level, the clubs are strongest — and there is one major area of the game it lacks the jurisdiction to reach: the fans.
Policing fan behavior is largely left to clubs and other fans, who can report abuse through an app developed by Kick It Out, an FA-partnered anti-discrimination organization. Many of the clubs have taken action, but groups like Pride of Irons are filling the gaps, adopting the organized nature of soccer supporters’ groups to confront abuse simply by making themselves more visible. The hope is that this will push soccer to a more inclusive place.
Members of the Gay Gooners march at the London pride festival.
CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE GAY GOONERS
Before there was Pride of Irons or any of the other LGBT fan groups that have formed since, there were the Gay Gooners.
With more than 250 members, the Gay Gooners, whose name borrows a popular moniker for Arsenal fans, is the largest LGBT fan group in England. They earned Arsenal’s official sanction in the spring of 2013, when the club brought them onto the pitch before a match and unfurled a rainbow banner to hang from the stadium terrace. They have a direct working relationship with the club.
I was supposed to meet members of the Gay Gooners at The Rocket, a pub near Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, before a match in early March. By the time I walked in — after showing the bouncer a just-bought Arsenal hat and a match ticket to prove I wasn’t an opposing fan searching for trouble — the place was packed. We never found each other.
I went back after the match in the off-chance I’d find them then, but instead, a fan who noticed my American accent asked why I was there and invited me to watch the League Cup final — Chelsea and Tottenham were tied nil-nil early on — with his friends.
“He’s a journo,” my new-found friend announced as we approached the table, “doing a story about gay footballers.”
Most at the table smiled and demurred. Jack Gilhooly did not.
“If he’s a good football player, I wouldn’t care,” Gilhooly, a 25-year-old Liverpool supporter from Kent, said. “If he’s shit, I’d say he’s shit. What do I care.”
“It doesn’t bother me if anyone’s gay,” he said. “If they’re good at football, or a fan, or they support a team — support your team. It doesn’t matter what they do. That’s their private business. You’re just a football fan.”
Another, an Arsenal fan who only called himself Sunny, chimed in.
“I don’t care if they’re gay. The only thing they could be ashamed of is if they played for Tottenham,” he yelled, referencing Arsenal’s hated North London rival.
An impromptu discussion broke out between four fans — Sunny the Arsenal supporter, Gilhooly the Liverpool fan, a Chelsea supporter and a now-off-duty security guard, a Tottenham fan. They agreed that only “small-minded people” would care if a footballer or fan was gay. “There’s loads of gay players” already, Gilhooly reasoned.
The issue of gay fan groups, though, caused more contention and mystery, and hung on a simple question: if no one but the small-minded care, why do gay fans need to segregate themselves from the rest?
“We don’t self-segregate,” Raval, the Gay Gooners’ media coordinator, responded when we met later that week. “We self-identify.”
“Everybody asks, ‘When is a player going to come out?’” he continued. “But there are far more fans. When are the fans going to come out?”
Ask members of these groups why they exist and a common thread emerges.
For years, organized supporters’ groups have given fans of the same club a social outlet around the sport: people to go to the match with, people to drink with before the match, people to gather with inside and outside the grounds. At The Rocket, an Arsenal supporters’ group from Germany sat in one corner; at the Emirates, the terraces are lined with banners from supporters’ groups (like Arsenal America) from around the world.
Our message is, you’re welcome here. Football is ours as much as it is anyone else’s.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender fans have surely long been a part of this culture too. But only recently have they organized together, to let other LGBT fans know that they are there, that football can be their game too.
“Our message is, any LGBT fan, you’re welcome here,” said Chris Paouros, a co-founder of Proud Lilywhites, the group for LGBT supporters of Tottenham Hotspur. “Football is ours as much as it is anyone else’s.”
“For me, it’s about awareness,” Dolan, of Pride of Irons, said. “It’s about, I’m a fan, you’re a fan, let’s be a family. It’s not your club, it’s not my club. It’s everybody’s. We want anyone who wants to come support football to know they’re not the only one.”
Providing that social outlet is the area, perhaps, where the fan groups have accomplished the most already.
Meet with six members of the Proud Lilywhites and they will, on first glance, appear to have little in common. The two dozen Pride of Irons members at their launch match were old and young, black and white, man and woman. But these groups provide their members a link that they’ve never had with other football fans.
“I came to the stadium one night for a match, and I just happened to look up and see the banner,” Jaime Wildman, a Gay Gooners member, told me. “I thought, ‘Way cool. I have to get in touch with them.’ Now I’m hooked.”
Chris Painter takes the train to London for Tottenham matches. Before he met members of Proud Lilywhites, he made the trip a couple times a season. This early-March match against Swansea City, he said after a quick calculation, brought him closer to a dozen this year.
“I’ve come much more often over the last two or three years because of this group,” he said. He doesn’t sit with other members in the stands — he has his own tickets — but they routinely meet for dinner or drinks before a match, as our group has at a diner down the street from White Hart Lane on this night. “I come more because I’ve got people I can socialize with. People like me.”
That sense of welcoming has shown early signs of progress for inclusion in the game. Between the launch of the Gay Gooners and Pride of Irons, similar groups sprouted across English soccer — at Everton, the Rainbow Toffees; at Manchester City, the Canal St. Blues; at Norwich City, the Proud Canaries, to name but a few — and today, LGBT fans are more visible in soccer than they have ever been before. Recent weeks brought the launch of new groups at Charlton Athletic and Leicester City, the club that completed a mad-dash escape from relegation to remain in the Premier League this season.
The groups themselves are a sign of growth from the earliest efforts to organize gay fans, as they have launched in large part with the help of the Gay Football Supporters Network, a social and advocacy organization that links more than 900 LGBT fans across the United Kingdom. GFSN, which formed in 1989 and long predates the rise of individual club fan groups, launched its Fangroup Coordination effort in 2014 to help form groups at different clubs. GFSN FC is often instrumental in helping connect burgeoning groups like Pride of Irons with the clubs those fans support.
Visibility alone isn’t the end goal of many of the fan groups. The biggest have also taken on an active and public role promoting equality inside and outside the sport. The two groups that support opposite clubs in London’s biggest soccer rivalry have worked together to do just that: in February, before Arsenal and Tottenham met on the field, the Gay Gooners and Proud Lilywhites played a five-a-side match and competed in a pub trivia contest as an effort to raise awareness of LGBT fans. The Gay Gooners have marched together in pride parades; Proud Lilywhites members are active in community education initiatives focused on LGBT inclusion.
Classic fan associations are not just social networks. They also provide the type of organization that gives supporters a voice within their club and the sport. At Cardiff City, for instance, fans have protested owner Vincent Tan’s efforts to change the club’s colors from blue to red. Liverpool supporters, in an increasingly common display across England, have challenged rising ticket prices outside their stadium. Newcastle United supporters, distraught with a second-half performance that nearly left the Magpies facing relegation, called on the team’s owner to sell the club and carried banners into the stands in its final matches, declaring, “We don’t demand a club that wins, we demand a club that tries!”
The LGBT groups have given gay and lesbian fans a similar voice, though many of them haven’t needed to be so adversarial. Many English clubs, working in concert with fan groups and outside organizations like Football v. Homophobia and the FA-supported Kick It Out, have undertaken efforts to promote LGBT equality and inclusion on the pitch and off.
Arsenal and Tottenham are again illustrative.
Arsenal has for years had an LGBT member on a fan committee that meets with the club multiple times a season, and in the past two years, its efforts to promote LGBT equality as part of its Arsenal For Everyone initiative have expanded and become even more prominent. Arsenal welcomed the Gay Gooners onto the pitch to unfurl a new banner this season during LGBT history month. Manager Arsene Wenger has spoken out in support of openly gay players, and last year, some of Arsenal’s most prominent players were featured in a pro-equality video that gained international attention.
At Tottenham, the club’s board meets with the Proud Lilywhites, which unlike the other groups is an official supporters’ association and thus an official part of the club, at least twice a year, and the club also held an event on the pitch to promote their launch (a Proud Lilywhites banner is also visible inside Tottenham’s White Hart Lane stadium). Both clubs have featured the groups’ messages in their match day programs. The Lilywhites just completed their first full season, and the expectation is that it will continue to grow and the partnership will only evolve.
“When we look back on our first full season and what we wanted to do, I think we’ll say we did a hell of a lot,” said Simon Gray, the organization’s communications director. Now, he added, the Lilywhites want to “increase membership, increase engagement, increase our presence. It’s where do we go next. You’re always pushing.”
Leviathen Hendricks, GFSN FC’s coordinator, pointed to Norwich City, Newcastle, and numerous teams at the non-league level, as examples of clubs that have also embraced inclusion proactively.
Clubs like Tottenham and Arsenal, where anti-discrimination activists say there is a “culture of inclusion,” might have taken up many of these efforts on their own. But there and elsewhere, the existence and visibility of the fan groups has no doubt amplified the message and made it easier to do more. And at times, the Gay Gooners and Proud Lilywhites have pushed the clubs and their fans farther and seen tangible results.
In 2013, when Arsenal traveled south to Brighton & Hove Albion for a cup match, its supporters collectively showered their opponents with homophobic abuse — a common occurrence at Brighton, the city known as Britain’s “gay capital.” Before Arsenal returned for another FA Cup match this year, the Gay Gooners coordinated with the club to put a stop to homophobic banter before it began. The week before the Brighton match, Arsenal published a message in its match program warning fans that it did not tolerate such abuse. Then it emailed every fan with an away ticket to reiterate the message. The Gay Gooners and the club worked with local police and Brighton stewards to urge them to take homophobia seriously.
“On the actual day, there were three or four incidents of one or two people chanting, but the stewards, with police behind them, immediately stomped it out,” Raval said. “So in two years, we went from 3,000 fans chanting to three or four. That’s massive.”
The Lilywhites have experienced a similar effect.
“If we stand back and don’t say anything” when abuse occurs at Spurs matches, said Gray, “more people now will come to our defense. That’s a powerful thing.”
There is progress yet to make.
Younger fans like those I met at The Rocket may have no problem with gay fans or players, but Dolan, of Pride of Irons, observed that the chants that are common in Brighton have spread to other grounds too, perhaps in part because LGBT fans have made themselves more visible.
“This ultimately rides on the straight fan, to prove they’re larger than the vocal minority,” Dolan told me.
And there is, of course, still the question of when a player in top-flight English men’s soccer will come out publicly. Pinning all of the blame on fans is unfair, just as it was in the United States, where largely supportive crowds have greeted openly gay players in different sports (Arsenal Ladies and England international Casey Stoney came out as the first openly gay player in the English women’s league last year. In an email, she called it “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made” and said that the “overwhelming majority” of fans “have been very supportive”).
The Football Association seems committed to smoothing the path for an openly gay player. It is “working hard to create an environment where if they do decide to be open about their sexual orientation, they know they will have our full support, the support of their clubs, fans, and teammates,” Gibbons, the FA Inclusion Adviser, said of players who might consider coming out.
But given the instances of homophobic abuse that have come from fans in the past, the supporters’ groups remain a crucial part of the effort, which includes the FA’s work and the expansion of a network of gay soccer teams and players across the UK. If one of the goals is to make it easier for a gay player to come out, the overarching idea is to normalize the concept that LGBT people exist in all parts and at every level of soccer.
“We want to be there all the time, so there’s that continuous drip, drip, drip about gay football and gay football fans,” Raval said. “So people just get used to it, and it’s normal.”