BLOG: ‘As politicians attack the rights of my community, my football club has been an ally’05 July 2020


In May the Fundamental Rights Agency published the results of its 2019 survey of nearly 140,000 LGBTI people throughout Europe. The report makes for sobering reading. A majority of LGBT respondents (58 %) said that they had experienced offensive or threatening behaviour in a range of settings in the previous five years, and over a half LGBTI respondents say they are never or rarely open about being LGBTI. LGBTI human rights have stagnated across the continent since the last survey in 2012 and many in the community fear harassment and violence.

Published during the same week was ILGA Europe’s Rainbow Europe Map, a ranking of legal and policy provisions across Europe. It shows a rollback of LGBTI rights in some countries in Europe, a rise in hate speech by those in power, alongside a growth in hate speech and physical attacks amongst the general population.

At the online launch of the Rainbow Europe Map, Evelyne Paradis, Strategic Director of ILGA Europe, addressed the impact of Covid-19 on LGBTIQ+ people. She spelled it out quite simply: “Minorities never do well in a crisis”.

The directness of her words concerned me because for many minority communities the coronavirus crisis has indeed been very tough.

For LGBTIQ+ communities it has been a period during which our rights have been subject to attack. The list of states looking to undermine our rights is a long one.

Hungary: In May, Hungary’s parliament voted to end legal recognition for trans people. The new law defines gender as that assigned at birth, meaning previous provisions through which trans people could alter their gender and name on official documents is no longer available. Although the law was passed in May, the Bill proposing the new legislation was announced by the Deputy Prime Minister on 31 March, Trans Day of Visibility.

UK: In April the UK Equalities Minister hinted at a move to restrict healthcare access for trans young people and to ‘protect single-sex spaces’ (both well-known ambitions of anti-trans activists). Since then news reports have suggested that much-needed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, which aimed to make lives easier for trans people in the UK, were being scrapped by the Government.

Poland: Around the same time Polish President Andrzej Duda said he agreed with another conservative politician who stated that “LGBT are not people, it’s an ideology.” This follows the launch of a ‘family charter’ which pledges no support for gay marriage or child adoption by gay couples. It also aims to “ban the propagation of LGBT ideology” in schools and public institutions.

USA: And what does Duda get as a reward for his work? An invitation to the White House; where the present incumbent has just finalised a Department of Health and Human Services administrative rule which could roll back discrimination protection for LGBTQ people in healthcare.

This rule was announced on the anniversary of the Pulse shootings; one of the worst mass shootings in US history. A homophobic attack which claimed 49 lives at a Florida Gay Bar.

It was with relish that I read the US Supreme Court ruling that employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited under US civil rights law.

Whilst more good news emerges from Montenegro, which has become the only state in the Western Balkans to adopt a law legally recognising same-sex couples.

But what has this got to do with football?

We all know that football is the most powerful sport in the world. I often hear people say that football reflects society. I would say, however, that the extremely gendered environment of football has often led to a magnifying of society’s sexism and discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people. Whilst there is undoubtedly more work be more work to do to influence attitudes and create welcoming spaces in football, I believe real change in football can also influence real change in wider society.

Following the Pulse Shootings in June 2016, the MLS club Orlando City SC installed 49 rainbow-coloured seats at the club’s new stadium to permanently honour the victims and families affected by the attack. Every year, the club remembers the 49 people killed across its social media channels and a rainbow flag is raised at half-mast over the stadium. So, on the day that Donald Trump was trying to introduce legislation to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ people, it was football where I found respect and dignity as an LGBTIQ+ person.

Two weeks later I turned on the TV for the restart of the Premier League season. The first match to be broadcast was live from Villa Park, but the preamble came from Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium. As the camera panned around the stadium behind the presenter, a huge rainbow flag came into view with the badge of the LGBTIQ+ supporters’ group, Canal Street Blues, at its heart.

Without LGBTIQ+ fans in the stadium because of lockdown, it was a powerful message of inclusion from the club at one of the most important dates I’m sure we’ll see in the football calendar for the next few years; the day millions of fans, starved of Premier League action, were able to reconnect with the sport they love.

You may think what Manchester City are doing is rainbow-washing and demand to know what else is happening to make the club welcoming and inclusive of LGBTIQ+ people. I would be the first to agree that, in general, we need to get beyond rainbow flags for real community engagement and involvement. However, having worked in and around football for more than fifteen years, I am still excited to see LGBTIQ+ people acknowledged at high profile games.

This would not have been conceivable in the UK fifteen years ago.

I appreciate there are places in Europe where Fare members are not able to be their authentic selves in the game they love, where clubs like Chrzaszczyki (in Poland) face struggles every day to keep going. I know I speak from a place of privilege, even from a country that has seen hate crimes almost treble since the Brexit referendum. But at a time of stress, when I have seen LGBTIQ+ people isolated and vulnerable in lockdown and state sponsored queerphobia across the globe, there has been some comfort in knowing we have allies in football.

Lou Englefield is the Director of Football v Homophobia and the Fare LGBTIQ reference group.

FVH are organising the Football Pride Festival on the 23 July, an online day of queer football culture from across the world.

*Please note: Lou uses the acronym LGBTIQ+ personally, but FRA uses LGBTI, which is why both are used throughout this piece