clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Arsenal’s Gay Gooners among English LGBT soccer fan groups pushing for inclusion

Trying to make the sport a welcoming place for those who play and those who cheer.

Gay Gooners at the 2014 London Pride parade.

Among the roughly 1000 professional male footballers in the top four levels of the English league system, not a single one is openly gay.

Since Justin Fashanu came out in 1990, no other man playing the world's most popular sport professionally in the country of its birth has come out as queer. That's something the growing number of LGBT supporters' groups across the English leagues are hoping to change.

"People are always saying, 'when is a player going to come out?' " says Dave Raval, a former professional soccer referee who's now chairman of Arsenal FC's Gay Gooners. "We thought, there's a different question, which is, 'when are the fans going to come out?' How can you expect one man, right in the middle of this pitch, surrounded by 60,000 people, to put his hand up and say, 'Hey, I'm the gay one,' when not a single other person has done so?"

The Gay Gooners, founded in 2012, were England's first gay soccer fan group, and they now number more than 600, making them the largest such group anywhere in the world.

These days, though, LGBT fan clubs in English football are increasingly widespread. Other groups include Norwich City FC's Proud Canaries (who were the first group officially recognized by their club), Manchester City's Canal Street Blues, and Tottenham Hotspur's Proud Lilywhites.

While the focus of individual groups varies, with some more centered on activism and others simply on providing a space for members to meet and socialize with other queer fans, all have the same overall goal: normalizing the presence of LGBT fans in a sport where they've long felt excluded.

Even as the UK has made huge strides toward LGBT equality in recent decades, casual homophobia has remained part of soccer culture. "Football is lagging behind the rest of society, and indeed the rest of sport," says Raval. Words that, elsewhere, might draw sideways looks, are often dismissed as harmless banter. "A player falls over and someone says, 'get up, you poof.'"

Of course, to queer fans trying to enjoy a game, homophobic language is far from harmless. Although fans who take part in it often insist such slurs aren't intended as anti-gay — much like defenders of the infamous "puto" chant — the casual use of homophobic language sends the clear message that this sport isn't for them. "If you're a young gay person," says Raval, "those one-liners can hurt you."

Accordingly, much of the activist work taken on by groups like the Gay Gooners and the Proud Canaries has focused on pushing club staff to take such abuse seriously. An oft-cited example of how they've done that is the case of Brighton and Hove Albion FC.

"Brighton has a big gay community," explains Di Cunningham, the organizer of the Proud Canaries. "So that's the poisonous thing fans have latched onto." For years, Brighton supporters have tolerated opposing fans chanting homophobic taunts like "does your boyfriend know you're here?"

"Once 4,000 people start chanting 'I can see you holding hands,' " says Raval, "it's pretty hard to stop." That's what happened when Brighton faced Arsenal in the FA Cup in 2013. In 2015, when the teams were again set to face off for the Cup, the Gay Gooners took preemptive action.

At the urging of gay supporters, "the club put something in the program for the previous home match saying, 'this sort of stuff is not acceptable,'" says Raval. "They emailed that to everyone with the ticket. We met with police and stewards, and talked about how to nip it in the bud."

Nipping abuse in the bud takes cooperation from multiple sides. Stewards have to be trained to deal with homophobic abuse the same way they now deal with racist abuse— namely, by removing the offending fans from the stadium. Education in the form of program notes, or signs and banners in the stadium, also helps. Finally, LGBT fans and allies have to feel empowered to speak up when they hear homophobic language, either directly or through a reporting system.

Those measures have been working. When Brighton played Arsenal in 2015, says Raval, "it didn't happen. In two years' time, it went from 4,000 to zero."

Homophobia doesn't only show up in stadiums in large-scale chants, though — it's also heard in casual conversation between fans. Cunningham recalls two men who sat behind her and her girlfriend in the 2009-2010 season at Norwich, who "just constantly used 'so gay' and 'poof' and 'faggot.' It was part of their everyday language ... and they had kids as well, which was really disappointing."

Before one match, Norwich Pride had set up a booth in the stadium for fans to share reminiscences of Justin Fashanu, who started his career in Norwich City's academy. When the two men started their usual tirade, Cunningham and her girlfriend turned around and spoke up. Although she recalls the moment as "awkward," the couple didn't hear any more homophobic comments for the rest of the season.

Another role gay supporters' groups play is helping get fans who might feel uncomfortable in stadiums into the door. Christine Coveney, a trans Norwich City FC supporter, used to feel intimidated by football. "I thought of football fans as alpha male hooligans," she says. Several years ago, her two sons became interested in the sport and started following Norwich City — which had been Coveney's grandfather's club.

"The boys wanted to go see a live football match, and I thought, 'what am I going to do? I was absolutely terrified to go.'" Coveney found the Proud Canaries online and got in touch with Cunningham, who connected her with a club staff member who helped the family find seats where Coveney felt safe. "He's always looked after us and helped us find a safe seat ... I absolutely love it now."

"My granddad would be so chuffed his great-grandsons were supporting his team now," she says.

Gay Gooners at 2017 London Pride.

After a few years, thanks to their work with clubs — as well as some celebrity endorsements — word of groups like the Gay Gooners and the Proud Canaries had gotten out.

"People started to get in touch with us on social media," says Cunningham, "saying, 'we'd quite like to do that at our club. How'd you do it?'" In response, a number of groups, including Cunningham's and Raval's, formed a loose coalition called the Pride in Football Alliance.

In addition to sharing best practices for dealing with issues like homophobic chants, the existence of an umbrella group gives supporters more clout when working with governing bodies. It's also helped get LGBT fans to England games, an environment Cunningham notes can be especially intimidating to members of the queer community.

"The FA have given us tickets [to England national team games]," says Cunningham. "We go to games in groups and take pictures outside, and then you have this mass of LGBT people sitting together." Sitting in a group at a game both provides a feeling of safety to fans who might otherwise otherwise be nervous to attend, and helps make queer fans visible.

The Pride in Football Alliance is also working with the FA and UEFA to plan for the World Cup in Russia next summer. "I will go to Russia," says Cunningham, "and I know other fans that want to go. There are some anxieties. We're trying to construct various levels of safety to try to ensure that people have an enjoyable time."

Those safety considerations include conversations with police and the UK embassy, but Cunningham also hopes that changing attitudes in England will help protect queer supporters when they go abroad.

"Hopefully we will be accepted by the general England supporters. Hopefully they'll be showing off to their Russian counterparts that they're very inclusive."

Katelyn Best is a writer and journalist in Portland, Oregon. She covers the Portland Thorns for Stumptown Footy, and her work has appeared in Portland Monthly, Excelle Sports, ESPNW, and elsewhere. She can be reached via her website: kabest.me or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BestKabes