At the beginning of the 2021-22 season three of our team arrived at Elland Road early ahead of the game against Everton to deliver LGBTQ+ training for the match day stewards for the first time, in a session organised with Sue Watson, Head of match day security.
After meeting the senior steward pitch side, our team headed off to different locations in the ground to cover more stewards in the training - Maz to the West Stand, Wiggy to the Bremner Suite, and Mick to the concourse under the Kop. “I normally sit there so it was fantastic to engage with familiar stewards, and lovely when a couple of them came and said hi during the game” said Mick.
Wiggy’s session was filmed for the ‘Story of the Game’ video on the LUTV Website here.
Important topics covered were
Why tackling prejudice against LGBTQ+ people in general is important; and why it is especially crucial in an environment like Elland Road
What MOT is and what we do, including the range of work we do with the club
What negative behaviour they might come across from fans in the ground; (Chanting, Yelled-out comments, so-called ‘Banter’, and aggressive behaviour
How this could be challenged, and what actions they should take (building on their existing training and guidance); and what the club could be doing more broadly.
This was driven home with our own personal stories. Maz recalled how she had reported homophobic abuse aimed at Patrick Bamford from a Leeds fan at a home game. “I was left feeling intimidated after reporting it, and it was poorly handled - for the first ever time I was left wanting to leave Elland Road during a game. I was pleased though that the stewards were really interested at the session in how they could have improved the handling of that situation, and use that to learn for anything similar in future.”
Wiggy talked about the work of Marching Out Together and how “with that and the club’s response I have gone from being a dormant fan to a season ticket holder. There’s also the positive impact our flag has on LGBTQ+ fans: we know from feedback that many feel safer, and some have even been encouraged to come out to family and friends because of our visibility in the ground”.
And as the elder statesman of the group Mick was able to explain how positively things have changed since his experiences of crowd trouble all the way back to the 60’s and 70’s
All three sessions were really positive, with the stewards engaging well, listening and asking questions, showing clear support for the message we were trying to get across, and showing a strong commitment to tackle homophobia and other forms of exclusion.
One steward said ‘Homophobia is as bad as racism and we should treat it the same’.
Another stressed ‘We need to take action straight away, including removal from the ground if we need to, so it doesn’t escalate, and then the club can follow up, taking further action as needed’
This all became very real when a member reported a fan shouting homophobic taunts at players during the Burnley away game. The club helped identify the person involved, and then invited them to Elland Road to meet with one of our team before the next match. “It was a bit uncomfortable for everyone at first” said Maz, “but when I explained how those terms actually feel, they understood and took responsibility for behaving more inclusively in future. They had actually been abused at matches themselves - but we all agreed that two wrongs don’t make a right”.
“The very last thing we want is for anyone to be barred from matches, and the way the club supported us and arranged the meeting was perfect. A lot of these issues come from lack of understanding and insensitivity, rather than real bigotry. By meeting and talking we can share first-hand – as fellow fans – why it matters so much, and usually that’s all it takes.”
Last season saw a number of incidents where homophobic chanting hit the national headlines. This included an occasion when ‘Chelsea Rent Boy’ chants were aimed at on-loan Izzy Brown during our away fixture at Luton - from our own travelling support. As the new season got under way in August 2021 Liverpool FC had to condemn the same chanting by their own supporters; and our own members had to deal with homophobic remarks at both the Everton and Burnley matches.
When we post our concern and condemnation on these occasions the response is interesting. The vast majority by a big margin are ‘Likes’ and supportive comments… but there are also always some negative ones.
These range from a small number which are directly hostile and abusive, to those which misunderstand the origins of the chant, to those who feel we are making too much of what is simply “football banter”.
Similarly during LGBT History Month in Feb 2021 we raffled a signed Rainbow Laces shirt on behalf of an LGBT charity in Leeds and one fan contacted us for help having suffered abusive comments on social media.
The hostile messages in both cases are from a small minority of homophobic fans who do not represent the bulk of the fan-base, and certainly are out of step with the values and support we have received from the club and the majority of fans. The abusive language sadly demonstrates why groups such as ours are still needed, and why we continue to work to help members of the LGBT+ fan-base feel supported and safer in the face of such prejudice.
Some fans believe that these chants simply relate to a jibe that Chelsea loan out (“rent”) a lot of their players and so had no homophobic base. Unfortunately this is not the case: the chant goes back decades and uses “rent boy” (male prostitute) as a term of abuse. It is fundamentally homophobic: that is, it is based on a judgment of homosexuality being somehow wrong, a source of shame or embarrassment, unacceptable, and of a lower worth or merit than the ‘straight’ majority.
This kind of prejudice is no more acceptable in relation to LGBT+ people than it is to people of a different races, of any faith group, of women, of those with physical or mental impairments… or of ANY group in society.
The argument that it is ‘banter’ or a ‘harmless joke’ is also misplaced. To hear chants that use your sexuality as a root of abusive humour is not fun at all to the person on the receiving end of it, even when said with no conscious intent to hurt or judge.
Imagine a young fan in the crowd who is trying to work out their sexuality and maybe talk to friends or family about it: hearing those chants would make them feel there is something wrong with them. And the friend standing next to them would assume that being gay is a weakness and that it is acceptable to ridicule people simply for how they are. Any LGBT+ fan - who loves the game and club just as much as anyone else - would be made to feel excluded, unwelcome, disliked. Or, more simply, they would just not go to games, and are therefore denied the entertainment, thrills, pride and sense of belonging which everyone else enjoys.
We all enjoy the pantomime elements of going to matches and the humour of the terraces. By all means let’s taunt the opposition supporters for their poor numbers or lack of songs, mock their striker’s comedy haircut or centre-half’s waistline.
But not with homophobic jibes.
Because there may be an LGBT+ Leeds fan stood next to you, supporting OUR team together.
And because those jibes are no more ‘harmless’ than racial, or faith-based, or misogynistic ones.
Because they are just plain wrong, and have no place in our club.
UPDATE MARCH 2021
In February 2021 a Morecambe player was sent off after Tranmere team alerted the referee that he had used a homophobic slur against a teammate.
The FA subsequently issued a 6-match ban and required the offending player to attend awareness training after finding him guilty of an ‘Aggravated Breach’ of the rules.
The Tranmere players’ action, the referee’s response and the FA’s sanction are encouraging and set an important precedent, which may signal a turning point in recognition that homophobia is a problem in football, and must be tackled.
Question: Would it play out the same if the incident had happened in a Premier league game in front of Sky TV cameras, with a multimillion-pound player, celebrity manager and high-profile agent?