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Gay English soccer ref Ryan Atkin tells closeted athletes: ‘The culture is changing’

UK Referee Ryan Atkin is a trailblazer who says he is actively looking for gay athletes to come out when they’re ready.

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool - Barclays FA Women’s Super League
Referee Ryan Atkin during Barclays FA Women’s Super League between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at The Hive Stadium, London, UK on Sept. 15, 2019.
Photo by Action Foto Sport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ryan Atkin — the first professional English soccer referee to come out as gay — spoke to the BBC in a podcast interview about the closeted gay athletes he’s met, and asked them: why won’t they come out?

As the BBC noted, no professional soccer player in the United Kingdom has yet come out as gay, a situation Atkin is hopeful will change.

“It can sometimes be slightly disheartening to think that there are other people who are LGBT who don’t feel that it’s the right time for them or have the confidence to come out,” Atkin said. ”I often speak to people who are not out in sport, and ask them, ‘What are your fears?’ You get a mixture of responses about why they wouldn’t chose or won’t come out.”

”I’m just hopeful that, as time progress, and especially within football, the culture is slowly changing.”

Reading FC Women v Arsenal -Continental Tyres Cup semi-finals
Referee Ryan Atkin issued a yellow card to Jemma Rose of Arsenal during Continental Tyres Cup semi-finals match between Reading FC Women against Arsenal at Wycombe Wanderers FC on Jan. 4, 2018
Photo by Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“Sometimes it’s to do with family — they haven’t told their family, they are living a secret life,” Atkin said. “Sometimes it’s to do with their position within sport or organisations and they feel that they don’t want that sort of media intrusion around their sexuality or their personal life – they want to focus on what they’re doing within the sport. Some people aren’t at that stage of acceptance of their sexuality themselves.”

“So, there’s a number of different factors that go into it,” Atkin continued. “I think for me, you have to have all the stars aligned to feel truly comfortable that you are happy you’ve got the support from your family and friends, which is probably one of the most important things.

“You have to be comfortable in the organization and profession that you work in,” he said. “And thirdly, you’ve got to be ready and understand that the pedestal that some people then will put you on because you are then in the minority. If football was equal and there was a diverse mixture of people, you wouldn’t have people put on pedestals because it would have become — and I use this word loosely — the norm, and so there’s a lot of pressure around that role-model element as well.”

Atkin stressed the importance of soccer being a welcoming place for LGBTQ athletes.

“What we do not want is for parts of the community to feel that they cannot participate in sports because of their sexuality, their race, their gender, their religion or their faith — all of those different characteristics that make up the wonderful communities we live in,” he said.

Since coming out in 2017, Atkin has gone from working as an assistant referee in the English Football League to refereeing in the National League this season.

He’s been named one of Stonewall’s 11 Sport Champions for 2019. But ultimately, Atkin told the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast, what matters on the pitch isn’t his sexual orientation but how well he does his job.

“You’re either good at refereeing or you’re not, and your sexuality shouldn’t come into that,” Atkin said.

”Ultimately, within sport, you want the best people to get to the top, and it should only be through their profession and how good they are that they do progress.”

You can listen to Ryan Atkin on the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast by clicking here.