Gary Ginnaw was obsessed with soccer growing up in Southeast London. Many of his earliest childhood memories involve the game, including England’s gut-wrenching 1990 World Cup loss to Germany on penalties. Ginnaw was a damn good player, too, and loved nothing more than playing with friends for three or four hours each day.

But then he walked away from the game for 13 years, conflicted about his sexuality and whether he could still play soccer as an openly gay man. Though UK society is fairly socially liberal — nearly three-quarters of British adults think same-sex marriage should be legalized — homophobia is prevalent throughout the nation’s most beloved pastime. The only active openly gay professional soccer player in UK history was Justin Fashanu, who wound up committing suicide following a string of scandals. Fashanu was recently inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame.

Growing up, Ginnaw says he always suppressed himself when he was around teammates. But at 18 years old, he was tired of lying, so he decided to quit.

“We’re going back quite a few years now, but I never felt you could play football and be yourself,” he told Outsports. “ I didn’t want to keep lying. I was lying in all parts of my life, and didn’t want to keep lying with that sort of situation. It’s the social side of it. You think about going out with your team, or in the locker room teammates are talking about girls. I just didn’t want to be in those situations. Rather than have to lie about it, I just removed myself completely.”

After his decision to stop playing soccer, Ginnaw says he stopped dwelling on the sport. Life got busy and his social circle expanded. Instead, he became an ultra-marathoner, running 11 of them, including the Chicago and San Diego Marathons. Soccer was a part of his past, much like his closeted self. But as Ginnaw was nearing 30 and newly single, he felt an inkling to return to the field. He sold his home, and decided to start anew. That included going back to the future, and rediscovering the game he loves.

Gary Ginnaw (center) standing as a proud part of the Football vs. Homophobia campaign.

The London Unity League is a competitive LGBT+ inclusive soccer league with nine clubs, including Charlton Invicta. When Ginnaw joined seven years ago, however, they were known as Bexley Invicta. But then Ginnaw’s partner, Sam Timms, whom he met in the league, presented him with an idea. Their home professional club, Charlton Athletic, has an active community trust that promotes diversity and inclusion. Ginnaw met with a member of the trust, forming the beginning of their informal partnership. Charlton Athletic, which enjoyed a stint in the Premier League from 1995-2007, decided to start boosting the LGBT+ inclusive team. The partnership became official in Summer 2017, and “Bexley Invicta” became “Charlton Invicta.” From that moment forward, Ginnaw’s team started playing on Charlton Athletic’s training ground with other community clubs, and membership skyrocketed. Today, Ginnaw says they have 36 players. He’s served as player-manager for the last five years.

The first partnership of its kind, formally aligning with Charlton Athletic has been a boon for Charlton Invicta. It has also allowed them to challenge prejudices. Ginnaw estimates the London Unity League is 60-65 percent LGBT, and about 40 percent of his team’s players identify as such.

One night, Charlton Invicta was set to play against a team outside of the Unity League, and heard taunts beforehand. Ginnaw says the opposing players referred to them as the “gay team,” and warned each other not to bend over. But after a hard-fought match, their attitudes changed.

“After the game, they were shaking our hands saying, ‘Well done. Brilliant. You’ve got some great players,’” Ginnaw said. “So within a match, we actually changed their opinion, because they stopped seeing us gay players, and just footballers. That’s the power of football.”

Though Ginnaw seldom encounters homophobia on the field today, he recognizes he exists in a bubble. He thinks it would still be difficult for a professional soccer player to come out in the UK, given the media onslaught it would generate. When Ginnaw and his partner traveled to the U.S. last year and attended the Seattle Sounders’ Pride Night, they were amazed at the inclusive atmosphere.

“Literally, everyone had Pride colors, everyone had Pride flags,” Ginnaw said. “Sam said to me, ‘This is the most comfortable I’ve ever felt at a football game.’ It just wasn’t an issue. We were together. Over here, we would never kiss at a game. It’s not that sort of environment.”

Still, Ginnaw is appreciative of his current situation. Growing up, he never could’ve imagined being an openly gay soccer player, never mind playing in an LGBT+ league. Today, two other professional clubs also have partnerships with LGBT+ teams: Bristol City and Norwich City. Much like Charlton Athletic, they provide their sister clubs with all kinds of support, ranging from promotion to equipment.

With the sports world currently on pause, Ginnaw says he misses his bonds with teammates, like many LGBT athletes. The London Unity League suspended play March 16, and the fall season currently remains up in the air.

“The inclusion is so important,” Ginnaw said. “If you’ve had a crappy day at work or a crappy week, you can look forward to training and look forward to a match and just forget that’s happened that week. Come along with friends, enjoy it, get active, and take your mind off of it. I think a lot of people are missing that.”

Most of all, Ginnaw is now sees the game of soccer as a way to bridge differences. On Charlton Invicta, openly gay men play alongside straight men, and there’s never a commotion.

They are in it together.

“We’re like a family,” Ginnaw said. “We talk about it quite openly amongst ourselves, but we probably wouldn’t be friends if it wasn’t for football. That’s brought us together. I’ve seen relationships build between LGBT and non-LGBT players over the years. They probably would’ve never met somebody like that in their life before. That’s really, really positive.”

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