A thought for LGBT History Month 2024

Luke Ayling with our group and Jermaine Beckford and Noel Whelan, at Leeds Pride 2022

From Justin Fashanu, to Robbie Rogers and Luke Ayling

In the last week of January I read a great article in ‘The Athletic’ featuring ex-Leeds player (and supporter of this group when it was set up nearly six years ago) Robbie Rogers. If you have access you can still read it here.

The sections where Robbie looks back at his time at Leeds are especially powerful in LGBT+ History Month, as he recalls this as when he had to be “a ‘forbidden’ gay soccer player”. He recalls the ‘casual homophobia’ which was the norm at the time, and how it forced him to live with self-denial, stigma and suppression of his true self. He remembers the ‘gay trope jokes’ which would come out when he said he didn’t have a girlfriend, and the absence of any gay role models in the game he loved: and how he ultimately concluded he couldn’t be a professional footballer andcome out as gay. So he hid, and eventually left the game.

Was Leeds Utd any different toany other workplace? No: he had heard the same things everywhere in his career. And we can be sure that the same prejudice and hurt was repeated in everyworkplace, every college, every bar and bus-ride…

But that’s where this story is relevant to LGBT+HM.

Robbie remembers ignorant comments about Justin Fashanu, who was hounded because of his sexuality and ultimately took his own life. And we can pin that time and take stock of where we have come since:-

·      Robbie himself made history in 2013 when he became the first openly gay professional athlete in major US professional sport

·      More recently we have seen Josh Cavallo in Australia, Jake Daniels and Zander Murray in UK, and Alberto Lejaragga in Spain come out, and all to a positive, supportive and caring reaction within football and across sport (admittedly also - sadly – to some abuse)

·      In the UK, finally, over the last couple of years the authorities have belatedly classed homophobic chanting in football as a hate-crime, including explicitly the ‘rent-boy’ slur; and we have seen the first criminal prosecutions

·      We now routinely see clubs positively  supporting campaigns such as Kick It Out, Rainbow Laces, LGBT+HM and Pride and putting more prominent and increasingly clear messages to their communities that prejudice of all types is unacceptable; and of course we have to mention here Luke Ayling becoming the first active top-flight player to walk with fans at Leeds Pride 22.

·      And within the game the FA and leagues have begun to sanction clubs for homophobic chanting, including a record fine for Leeds Utd last summer. Here again, are LUFCs fans any worse than others? I don’t believe so; rather, the heavier fine seems more like the authorities escalating their action so that it is noticed and the message unmistakable: it has to stop.

In LGBT+HM ‘24 we can see a straight line from the tragedy of Justin Fashanu to Robbie Rogers, to the players who have felt that now they can be themselves, to the increasingly-strong regulatory and legal action. Homophobia hasn’t gone away, but at least with each of these steps the environment is getting better (or at least less-bad?)… and hopefully the pace of change is quickening.

Maybe, we are finally reaching a tipping-point where people will understand why the constant ‘drip-drip-drip of mindless comments’ is so unacceptable, and LGBTQ+ people can live openly as themselves and feel safe – in football, their workplace, and every part of their life.

That’s why these campaigns matter, by prompting conversations and making people think. We all have a part to play in that; and that includes the ‘straight’ majority speaking up for the LGBTQ+ community and calling out prejudice when we see it.

John T, Board member and proud ally


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