It felt inevitable that the opening scenes of Alfie vs Homophobia: Hate in The Beautiful Game, Gareth Thomas’ recent BBC documentary, would be filmed at Elland Road.
Brighton are the visitors, and cameras in the away end are trained on the adjacent Leeds fans, microphones picking up all the familiar chants, subtitles on the screen ensuring no viewers misses the nuance of several thousand people yelling, ‘You’re Gay As Fuck.’
Where else but Elland Road? Well, anywhere else, probably. Leeds United fans aren’t responsible for all the homophobic chanting in British football, or to make Brighton fans their target. But as James Creegan, secretary of Leeds United’s new LGBT+ supporters’ club Marching Out Together pointed out to me, “Leeds carry a lot of negative history. I don’t know whether Leeds have more or less to learn than any other clubs that chant the same things, but they weren’t doing the things some Leeds fans were twenty-five or thirty years ago. So the reaction to them isn’t the same.”
Leeds United’s reputation precedes it. Whether it’s violence, racism or homophobia, if a film crew wants footage of the darker side of football supporters’, they make sure to cross paths with Leeds fans. Truthfully, Leeds fans have been as guilty as any of all those things. But they’ve also worked harder than most to leave them in the past.
Starting with Leeds United Fans Against Racism and Fascism in 1988, continuing through the club’s own community work led by Ces Podd and an increasingly multi-ethnic team on the pitch, Leeds United and its fans changed Elland Road from a venue that black players sensibly gave a wide berth, to the home of a club that is proud to have had Gerry Francis, Albert Johanneson, Noel Blake, Chris Fairclough, Chris Whyte, Rod Wallace, Brian Deane, Tony Yeboah and Lucas Radebe wearing its shirt.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]”It must be absolutely traumatic to be a gay or bisexual player in the game in Britain today”[/x_pullquote]
Then there’s Robbie Rogers. Rogers only actually wore Leeds United’s shirt four times in competitive games, most of which ended with him on a stretcher. But Rogers was a Leeds United when, aged 25, he reached a critical point in his personal life. One of the reasons he’d moved to Europe, to Holland and then Leeds, was that it would be easier to hide his sexuality from his family in America; in England, he began to understand that he was really hiding from himself.
While living in London during a loan spell at Stevenage, injured yet again, Rogers confronted his fears and used Skype and email to make the distance between him and his family a manageable way of coming out to them as gay. Although he was half a world away, their acceptance of who he really was closed a distance he had felt from them his whole life. Relieved, emboldened, and determined he would no longer live a lie, he told close friends, he even began dating. But, after hearing a coach at Stevenage ranting at players for passing the ball “like faggots”, he decided there was one fear he couldn’t overcome. He asked his agent to get him out of his contract at Leeds, came out publicly, and announced his retirement from football.
“Were you at Elland Road the day he came back?” asks Andrew Tilley, one of the co-founders of Marching Out Together. “The reception he got was fantastic.”
A lot had happened to Robbie Rogers in the year between coming out and visiting Elland Road again. The reception from the world of football had been entirely different from what he had feared, and from what his experiences of changing rooms and terraces had led him to expect. Former teammates, whose homophobic locker room commentary had made Rogers terrified of being found out, had stepped forward to offer support. Clubs he’d assumed would turn their backs on him were offering ways back to playing. And a group of LGBT+ kids who came to hear Rogers speak at an event in Portland, Oregon left him feeling, in his words, “Like a coward.” The kids were all taking positive steps in their schools and communities to fight discrimination; seeing their bravery and determination to help others, Robbie felt like he couldn’t justify not playing anymore. “In the end they were encouraging me, more than me helping them,” he said.
LA Galaxy signed Rogers up, and he returned to playing as the only openly gay male footballer in any top league on the planet. And in December 2013 he visited Leeds, and became the only openly gay footballers to be cheered and applauded by a football crowd in Britain. At Elland Road.
“It was really good to see that day,” says Andrew. “He was applauded all around the ground, and dads were bringing their kids down for autographs. He got a really good reception.”
The report at the time on the BBC’s Football League Show provides a positive counterpoint to the opening scenes of Gareth Thomas’ documentary. Fans approach Rogers outside the ground to shake his hand and welcome him back. Outside the changing rooms, the ultra-macho environment that had Rogers had retired rather than face again, coaches who had worked with him at Leeds greeted him with bear hugs, delighted to see him again. Walking around the pitch, he’s applauded every step, fans coming from their seats to shake his hand and slap him on the back. Even Andrew from Marching Out Together makes an appearance, stopping Robbie to tell him that the gay Leeds fans in the crowd really appreciate what he’s doing.
“I think that’s the sort of reception most fans will want to give LGBT+ fans at Leeds,” says Andrew. “They’ll just see Leeds fans, who like Robbie are part of the Leeds United family.”
A family that, contrary to popular opinion and what you see in documentaries, looks after its own, whoever they are.
That positive experience of Leeds fans at their best is what drives Marching Out Together. When it launched in August, with a co-announcement from the club, the concept of an LGBT+ fans group prompted questions about what such a group might be for, why it was needed, who would join and what it was going to do. So we met secretary James Creegan, treasurer Thomas Thorp, and co-founders Drew Harrison and Andrew Tilley, to find out. Andrew, as well as getting the drinks in, did most of the talking.
“For me,” says Andrew, “the single biggest piece of evidence for why we’re needed is down to the fact that it is twenty-seven years since Justin Fashanu came out and got an appalling reception, on and off the pitch, inside the game and in the media, and nobody has felt it has been the right time to come out in men’s football in Britain in all the years since then. That is a huge sign to all of us that something is wrong.
“It must be absolutely traumatic to be a gay or bisexual player in the game in Britain today. People say you should keep your sexuality to yourself, we’ve all heard that as gay men over the years, but it’s not about being silent about your sexuality. It’s about being about to talk about your life as freely as anyone else can. So when someone talks about their girlfriend or their wife, we can talk about our partners in the same way.
“There was an article in the Daily Star last week about there being two gay footballers in the Premier League, and it was immediately like a witch hunt. The fact that footballers, if they go out to an event with their teammates, are having to hire a woman to appear with them for the evening so the press doesn’t find out is just wrong.
“There is a huge amount of change needed to help support gay footballers. Our one fan group can’t change everything, no question, but the growing number of clubs with LGBT+ fans’ groups might.”
Although Andrew and Drew, friends who have been attending Leeds games together for more than twenty-five years, have been attempting to start a group at Leeds for a long time, Leeds are far from the first club to have an LGBT+ supporters’ group. Long running efforts like the Gay Football Supporters’ Network were joined by club specific groups like Gay Gooners at Arsenal and Proud Lilywhites at Tottenham, and in the last two years the Pride in Football movement has grown to include twenty-eight groups that are formally recognised by football clubs.
“One of the negative comments when we launched was that this might be alright for some metropolitan southern clubs like Arsenal, but it’ll never work up here,” says Andrew. “Well, Bradford have one. Millwall are hardly metropolitan, they have a group. It’s beginning to make a difference and it starts to raise the profile, and maybe it’ll make some people think twice about throwing what they might think of as banter — at best — from the stands, if they think it might cause offence.
“I think we all feel, and Robbie Rogers has articulated this as well, that the massive next step for acceptance of being gay in football will be for a player to feel ready to come out in the UK. But if a player is going to take that brave step, then they need to know that the football authorities will be backing them, structures are in place to support them, that their clubs will look after them, their teammates in the changing rooms will accept them. And they need to know that they’re not going to receive appalling vitriol from the opposition fans.
“Their own club’s fans will hopefully support them. But LGBT+ fans’ groups at as many clubs as possible might help make players aware that, well, if Millwall have an LGBT+ group, and Leeds have one, and those groups have support from the majority of fans and the clubs, then perhaps things are starting to change, and they will get support.”
[x_pullquote type=”left”]”We’re delighted straight people have chosen to join … That is so important”[/x_pullquote]
Support from fans is absolutely key. Marching Out Together can be understood as a new front in the fight against racism and discrimination that was led by football supporters in the late eighties and nineties. Where once black players dodged bananas thrown from the terraces, there is now total acceptance from the majority of supporters of multi-racial and multi-ethnic teams; black footballers play without fear of the large scale chanting and abuse they once suffered, and incidents when they do occur are now challenged. While behaviour on the terraces has changed, though, football’s dugouts and administrative offices remain stubbornly resistant to anyone but white males, and The FA’s farcical handling of the Eni Aluko case showed how far out of its depth those running the game still are when dealing with non-white, non-male people that fans welcomed to the game decades ago. The most powerful and progressive changes in football happen among the supporters first, with those running the game slow to follow, and Andrew has been delighted by the response from Leeds fans to the launch of Marching Out Together.
“In our breakdown of membership so far, we’ve got LGBT+, we’ve got pansexual, queer, and we’ve got a lot of straights,” says Andrew. “We have straight people working with us on the group board, and we’re absolutely delighted that straight people have chosen to join. They’re people who have seen us as a group that is trying to do something positive, they want to get involved, and that’s great. This is group is not about being separate, it’s a group that welcomes straight members who want to join a campaign against discrimination. That is so important.”
As well as encouraging straight people to join, Marching Out Together are reaching out to other supporter groups to share knowledge and experience, and join efforts to fight all kinds of discrimination in football.
“Football has done a lot to combat racism in terms of the response to players on the pitch,” says Andrew. “But you look around the stands, and they’re almost exclusively white. Go to Leicester or Birmingham, multi-racial, multicultural cities, and there is a tiny percentage of non-white fans in the stadiums. And yet if you go to the parks on a Sunday there will be loads of black and Asian teams. It’s not that people aren’t interested in football, so there must be something keeping them out of the stands. To some extent that must be racism.
“That minority does exist in society, and sadly, it does like its football. So we want to play our part by joining campaigns against racism. We are in the process of putting together a charter of best behaviour against discrimination generally within the game, and have been chatting with supporters from BME groups about working together with them and the club on ways to report incidents of racism or homophobia, and how stewards are trained to deal with them.”
Those connections with other fans’ groups have been helped by the club’s newly founded Supporters Advisory Board to bring those clubs together for regular meetings with Leeds United officials, and Andrew says there is a genuine willingness at the club itself to support what Marching Out Together are doing, that wasn’t there before.
“Since we first met with Fiona Hanley (Supporters Liaison Officer) and James Mooney (Head of Media), we’ve never felt this was any kind of box-ticking exercise for the club,” says Andrew. “They were both really positive and supportive, and wanted the club to be involved. They offered their support for the launch, which was the most powerful thing they could do to help us, giving us access to all their media channels for the announcement.
“We’ve continued the dialogue and they were really helpful in reaching Robbie Rogers, so that he is now our patron. We’re talking to them about launching rainbow laces at Leeds, and getting a current player to be an ambassador. James Mooney has spoken to the players and they’re all supportive of the idea of the group; there are players who have LGBT+ relatives and friends.
“The club genuinely want to embrace the LGBT+ family as part of the Leeds United family. At our first meeting James Mooney said that he would love to see a Leeds United flag flying in the Leeds Pride parade next year, which was a really positive thing to hear. There’s a lot of work we can do, with the club’s help, so that even people who aren’t football fans in the LGBT+ community in Leeds at least have a warm feeling towards the club.”
[x_pullquote type=”left”]”The reception Robbie Rogers got was fantastic”[/x_pullquote]
Warmer relations with the wider community in Leeds can only help Leeds United, which from a purely commercial point of view always needs to increase the numbers of people willing to come to games, especially now after a long period when those running the club seemed determined to put people off. It’s striking that none of Andrew, Drew, James or Thomas can think of any bad personal experiences at Elland Road — “At away games, we just a common sense radar,” says Andrew. James and Thomas had their first date at Elland Road, for a game against Maritimo, and have been attending as a couple since then; words were had a few years back when one nearby supporter consistently took abuse of players too far, but everything has been friendly in their part of the ground since. Despite that, says Thomas, “We have friends who are gay who like Leeds United, but they’d never say they were Leeds United fans.” There is still a perception of incompatibility between being LGBT+ and attending football, something the presence of Marching Out Together is helping to address.
“A few people have met us since we launched, and said we’re the first gay Leeds fans they’ve come across,” says Andrew. “It’s been quite a nice thing. We’ve had some new people meeting us in Billy’s Bar before games, and it adds to the matchday experience, having a beer and a chat, and talking stuff that is our lives integrated with football.
“We’ve had some really nice positive emails from people. A fifteen year old girl who is a lesbian and a Leeds fan thought it was fantastic that the club has this group and is enjoying following us on social media. And a young bisexual lad who has been bullied at school told us he thinks the group is brilliant, knowing that he can be proud to be Leeds and proud to be bisexual at the same time.
“We want the group to be really inclusive, to let people know that there are LGBT+ fans at Leeds United games, to bring straight allies along with us and work with the club and other fans’ groups to oppose all kinds of discrimination within the game, and make Elland Road a welcoming place for everybody.”
Including the next professional footballer to come out, whoever he plays for. Leeds United will always be part of Robbie Rogers’ story of breaking down barriers, both for the fear he felt while playing, and for the way he was welcomed back to the Leeds United family after he came out. Elland Road remains the only stadium in the United Kingdom to have shown its appreciation for an openly gay footballer.
But Rogers’ retirement through injury this month has knocked the number of openly gay men playing top level professional football back down to the absurd number of zero. That statistic conceals the truth about the number of closeted gay men suffering in the exact same way that led to Rogers quitting football. Hopefully the work of groups like Marching Out Together will mean the players following Rogers won’t feel the same pressure, so that it won’t be long before the number of gay players in the game is no longer worth counting. ◉
(Photos by Lee Brown)
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