The family feel that Dan McFarlane has found among his fellow referees is a crucial factor in his football story.
For this young Scotsman moving up the leagues in his homeland, that sense of togetherness is something he wants more people to know about.
“I think people who aren’t within refereeing maybe don’t realize that it isn’t just about the Saturday,” he says on a new episode of the Football v Homophobia Podcast.
“There’s this awesome element of teamwork and camaraderie amongst your colleagues that really lifts you up.”
At the end of last season, McFarlane took charge of his first game in the Scottish Championship, and he’s been the man in the middle for two more matches in that division so far this season.
It’s the level just below the Premiership, in which he sometimes operates as a fourth official. The next level up for him will be refereeing in that elite tier, where Glasgow giants Rangers and Celtic play.
Meanwhile, off the field, his ambition is not to be the boss, but to follow The Boss.
In 2023, he’s been traveling widely from his home close to Aberdeen, where he lives with boyfriend, Gavin, to watch Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on tour, attending gigs from Atlanta to Amsterdam and various locations in between.
As a true team player who appreciates what an ensemble can achieve, it’s not surprising that he was keen to be part of an LGBTQ network in his sport as well.
McFarlane spotted news of the launch on social media. Having seen the impact made that same month by his fellow Scottish referees Craig Napier and Lloyd Wilson, who individually shared their stories of being gay in the game, he reached out to connect with the Collective.
Now, in a conversation on the podcast episode released in the week of World Mental Health Day and National Coming Out Day, the 29-year-old talks more about his journey with the aim of inspiring others.
His own personal coming out story in football dates back almost a decade, and a night at referee training in Aberdeen.
“We all meet up on a Tuesday to train as an association,” he says. “A couple of my colleagues were making that stereotypical banter at the time and I made a comment to say, ‘what if I maybe had a boyfriend?’, or something along those lines.
“I thought, ‘oh God, what are people thinking, that I’ve just said this?’ Your heart starts to beat a bit faster!
“But ever since then, my referee colleagues, friends and family have been nothing but supportive as I’ve gone through my life.
“I’ve never had any hostility towards it and ever since that day, I’ve had the attitude in a football context that I’ve told the people who I wanted to tell and the rest will find out in the normal course.”
McFarlane feels fortunate to have had an empowering coming-out experience which he says reflects well on the football community in his part of north-east Scotland.
Advancing up the leagues as a match official can bring additional challenges in that regard, but he’s taking it all in his stride.
“We’re reaching a stage in society now where I think a lot of people will have somebody in their family who is LGBTQ.
“They’re going to be nothing but supportive of those people, so why wouldn’t they be supportive to you? But I know it’s not like that in every situation and that’s why we have a Collective for LGBTQ people in football.”
Tuning in to listen
In just over a year, the network group has expanded to nearly 50 members, all of whom work in pro or semi-pro roles, including players, coaches and executives.
Referees are well-represented within the ranks and McFarlane says he has become more conscious in recent years of how officiating across all sports tends to have comparatively better visibility of LGBTQ people.
“After I came out, I noticed it a lot more,” he says. “For people who weren’t confident of being in a team because of who they were but who wanted to stay involved, maybe they thought about refereeing.
“In football, there is pressure in refereeing but I think there’s probably less pressure than on those top footballers who are gay and who might not want to come out, for whatever reason.
“Refereeing seems to be more open in that regard.”
Feeling confident enough to come out in any area of men’s football at the age of 21 is still unusual, even in Scotland which social attitudes surveys suggest is one of the more welcoming countries for gay and bi people.
The trepidation of saying you are different in an environment that is heteronormative and often hypermasculine means that fear factor persists. For McFarlane, the conversations that take place around Coming Out Day help to reduce that anxiety.
“We’ve all been there growing up,” he says on the podcast. “It’s really just about trying to get your head above the parapet so you can see what’s on the other side, when you take that leap.
“One thing I found growing up was that you didn’t know who to talk to about it. You were always talking to yourself which isn’t the best thing.
“Role models are important. Last summer, I feel we made monumental steps with Jake Daniels, Lloyd and Craig, Zander [Murray] as well, all coming out. That for me is a real surge forward and all of us who are involved in this journey are trying to capitalize on that and show the positivity that’s out there.
“But people can be put off because our community does get kicked around like a political football at times. If you’re a young person and you’re hearing what’s going on in the media right now about trans rights and other things, you’re not going to feel inspired and you’re not going to feel confident to be your true self.”
McFarlane says a productive response to that is to engage with initiatives such as the Collective, and campaigns like Football v Homophobia and Rainbow Laces.
“Get involved and you’ll see that there are people there for you when you do take that step forward,” he adds.
“I think we all have a responsibility to have an open ear to people who just need to be listened to. Because it’s all I ever wanted when I was coming through, I’d say.”
Born to ref
Recently, McFarlane spoke in the local media in the north-east of Scotland about pathways into refereeing, with the Scottish FA on a recruitment drive to bolster the numbers in officiating after a drop-off caused by the pandemic.
He’s keen to stress the wider benefits of extended friend groups and the social scene, aspects that go against general perceptions of refereeing life and rarely get much coverage.
For LGBTQ people who might be interested, he hopes they will look to follow in his footsteps. “I’m extremely happy with who I am and how I’m living my life as a referee in Scotland that’s being openly gay and I’m proud of it.
“A lot of my best friends have come from refereeing. They’ve listened to me when I’ve been struggling, when I’ve maybe had an off day, or I second guess myself on who I am — we all get those days.
“But there’s a good spirit, very much like in most football teams.”
He references Roberto Rosetti, the Italian who took charge of the Euro 2008 final and games at the 2010 FIFA World Cup and who is now UEFA’s chief refereeing officer.
“Rosetti says that refereeing is a great school of life, in terms of your confidence, management, and the skills you can build around it to support you away from football.
“It’s all about fairness and equality and that’s what we’re trying to promote.”
When he’s out on the pitch in Scotland, McFarlane is the man making the decisions. But having the support of his colleagues and the Collective off-field means he never feels isolated.
It all works in harmony and continues to give him the biggest buzz. Bruce Springsteen could relate to that.
The LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective is a network group for people working in soccer in pro or semi-pro roles — it’s U.K. based but welcomes interest from anywhere in the world.