Anti-gay discrimination online in rugby league in England has been highlighted. | Paya Mona / Shutterstock

Warning: This article includes an embed of a social media post that shows homophobic abuse and explicit language.

After taking charge of a feisty affair between two playoff-chasing teams in the top tier of British rugby league, match referee Marcus Griffiths would have expected some criticism to come his way.

However, when he later opened up Messenger and discovered a user had sent him virulent homophobic slurs alongside death threats directed at himself and his mother, Griffiths decided others should know just how toxic the social media abuse of officials can get.

He shared screenshots of the messages across his personal accounts, with a caption that reflected his own response — that the abuse only underlined the need for LGBTQ visibility through Pride celebrations.

One of the UK’s biggest Pride events was taking place in nearby Manchester on the same weekend that Griffiths was refereeing Huddersfield Giants’ win over Leeds Rhinos. Two rugby league clubs — Salford Red Devils and Keighley Cougars — took part in the parade through the city streets.

It appeared that one or more controversial decisions that went against Leeds in that game at Huddersfield triggered the discriminatory abuse, which the Rugby Football League (RFL) said in a statement was being referred to the relevant authorities, “digital or law enforcement.”

Throughout the sport, widespread condemnation followed for the way in which a minority of fans continue to disrespect match officials, either in person or online.

On Tuesday, Griffiths returned to social media to show his appreciation for the support given by the RFL, his refereeing colleagues, and “people from across the game”.

The 28-year-old is from Widnes, a town located in the traditional heartlands of rugby league. Super League matches pull in thousands of fans every week in northern England and attendances are up across the board in 2023.

Very few gay or bisexual men involved in the sport have ever spoken publicly about their experiences in the sport but one of them, James Child, is also an elite referee.

Child stepped down from the full-time officials list at the end of last season after a career in which he took charge of a Super League Grand Final and a Challenge Cup Final, as well as games at four separate Rugby League World Cup tournaments.

James Child spent 15 years as a Grade One referee, taking charge of 333 Super League games.

He has commended Griffiths for raising the issue of “abhorrent” social media abuse, something that played a part in his own decision to come out publicly via an interview with the BBC LGBT Sport Podcast in February 2021.

“Fair play to Marcus for doing it,” Child said to Outsports.

“You accept that fans sometimes think you’re poor at what you do or think you might be biased, but what he received just takes it to another level, particularly with the death threats.”

Child is concerned by a shift in how referees are being treated. They have been the focus of heightened criticism from coaches and journalists this season, and increasingly videos of contentious calls are clipped up for social media, in his view “just to get clicks”.

Too often, he says, this results in debates that stray into dangerous territory, with the integrity of officials being called into question. At the far end of the scale is the message sent to Griffiths, and its grimmest element was sadly all too familiar for Child.

“One of the two death threats I got was off the back of me being a video referee. I made a controversial decision in the last few minutes of a game involving Salford which determined the outcome,” he explains.

“A Salford fan then messaged me saying, ‘I’m going to bring my chef’s knives to your next game.’

“I knew my next game would be published on the internet for everyone to see so he would know where I am. You have to cross a car park without any form of protection, and someone could easily conceal a knife. When I spoke to family and friends about it, they said you need to do something.”

That matter was handled by the police, but homophobic abuse continued to be directed at Child from the stands and on social media. Eventually, he decided that talking openly about his sexuality was a necessary approach.

“I thought, it can’t really get much worse,” he said. “But if someone then chooses to throw a word at me, they should know if I’ve spoken publicly about it that I am gay.

“It becomes not just a throwaway remark. It’s meant and said with a purpose.”

There were other reasons for Child to address the matter, too. As he got older, he began to think about how — in his own words — the “macho, straight environment” of rugby league had conditioned him to avoid being visible.

“In years gone by, I’d felt, ‘Why do people need to speak about themselves? Just be who you are.’

“But as I matured in myself, I realized that I probably struggled with my own sexuality and coming to terms with it until later in life. And that’s probably because there weren’t those role models there.”

On reflection, he’s not surprised that in rugby league — with all its combative, masculine overtones — he went down the officiating route, especially when there are so many examples of greater LGBTQ representation among referees compared to players in other sports.

“I’ve often wondered, is refereeing more of an attractive proposition for somebody who might be gay and might feel uncomfortable in a typical team environment?

“A referee works more as an individual and there seems to be quite a number of refs who have gone into it.

“I never actually played rugby league. Did I not play it as a child because I never felt comfortable being surrounded by other young men who were most likely to be straight?

“That’s only me hypothesizing. But it’s good that people now are willing to share their stories and be open about their sexuality. If you see it, you can be it.”

James Child, right, officiated at his fourth Rugby League World Cup tournament in 2022.

He doesn’t think Griffiths going public with this incident of homophobic abuse will deter the potential referees of tomorrow from pursuing their ambitions.

“If you’re going into officiating, you should be going in with your eyes open,” he adds.

“If you make that kind of abuse public, you can put people off — but I’d like to think it wouldn’t.

“The response from the public and the RFL should show that if you’re gay and you want to be a referee, then the support is there and you can do it.

“There’s also a role model in me having been there as someone who got to the top of the sport.”

He is, however, frustrated that LGBTQ inclusion only seems to be mentioned more widely in rugby league when people like Griffiths and himself step forward to address it.

Previously, there was a Super League-wide Rainbow Laces round but clubs are now left to choose if and when they choose to activate such a campaign. He would like to see a more “mainstream presence” with the RFL’s Inclusion Board helping to shape what that looks like.

On the playing side, Keegan Hirst — who came out publicly in 2015 — has recently retired from rugby league and now runs a coaching business targeted at gay men.

In an interview with The Times UK last weekend, Hirst said he is “proud” of how he turned his life around and “embraced” being gay having at one point contemplated suicide.

Child, who now works as a chartered surveyor, hopes other gay players and referees will come to understand how helpful they can be to other LGBTQ people.

“I still buy that it’s not for everybody to come out publicly in a media story,” he says. “But there must be gay players in rugby league who are professional or semi-pro, and you do wonder why they’ve not felt comfortable to come out.

“There’s a way to go in the sport and in society. I did a presentation for Pride Month in June about my experiences and people were shocked.

“The more that people are willing to share those stories, the more other people are educated — I think we all have a responsibility to do that.”

In his most recent social post, Griffiths also called upon all those who love rugby league to take a stand, and stamp out discrimination.

“Referees are human, we make errors, and we’re not beyond criticism, but homophobic abuse is always a step too far,” he wrote.

“Let’s continue to challenge behaviors and remove them from our great game.”