Even if the FA and certain clubs are still taking half-measures, LGBT players and their allies are making a real difference every weekend all around the country.
This is a follow-up to my blogpost of last week on homophobia in football and how the FA, UEFA and FIFA are not doing enough. You can read that here.
There are always many ways to tackle the issue of homophobia. At the top, the FA seems to lack focus on this issue, so what are LGBT supporters, players and allies doing at the grassroots level? For anyone who has watched any bone-crunching tackles on at Sunday at Hackney Marshes, Wandsworth Common or anywhere around the country, those matches may not seem the most gay-inclusive at first sight. Yet up and down the country LGBT-friendly/inclusive teams are shouting at referees, landing in the mud, scoring goals and yes, educating their follow players.
Emerald Life is sponsor of the London Falcons, the gay-friendly football team that won this year's London Unity League and are keen to spread the message about progress on and off the pitch. I spoke to Matt Hall the chairman (right, below) and Pete Ransom the manager (left), just back in London from their successful first round cup game in Liverpool, and asked about their backgrounds and why they play for the Falcons.
So what's your footballing history?
Pete: I've always played football. My earliest memories mostly involve kicking a plastic "fly away" ball against the garage door and trying to recreate a John Barnes free kick without too much success. I didn't have a regular form of football following university but did start playing 6-aside with work teams twice a week for a number of years. It didn't matter that I was now "out" and gay, although it did make me laugh when I heard about one of the guys hearing about this from someone else and he responded, "But he can't be - he's good at football!" Nothing like stereotypes!
So what made you both move to gay-friendly football teams?
Matt: "I underwent a degree of personal anguish about hiding my sexuality from my team mates. We were on tour in Spain in 2003 and in the course of a drunken argument somebody asked me if I'd put forward a particular viewpoint because I was gay and I angrily told them I was and stormed off. When at the end of the tour I was given an award/forfeit for being gay I thought it was all a bit of a joke and had been laughed off. It was a year later, on our tour in Munich in 2004, when I thought I was actually coming out, that it turned out everyone had taken me at my word the previous year and knew I was gay. The sky didn't fall and no one was immature about things like getting changed together and I count myself lucky in choosing a club with such nice people in it."
And what's it been like at the London Falcons? And is it gay-only?
Pete: "In 2013 I moved to London and joined the gay-friendly Falcons. Like the Village Manchester team, we had a great mix of gay, bi and straight players who competed hard on the pitch and socialised hard off it. However, from an organisational point of view, there were a number of issues which saw the club nearly fold in 2016. I took over as manager that summer and, backed by some great committee members, we've been revitalised, winning the London Unity League in 2017 with a brand new set of players. Again, it's a mix of gay, bi and straight players. I have no wish to be part of a gay-only club. It seems completely counter-intuitive to want greater equality in football and then keep your team away from straight players. A lot of the straight guys who joined us had no idea how many of our players are gay or bi. My favourite comment was from one of the guys who saw an advert, stating we were gay-friendly. His first thought was, "Why wouldn't it be?"
What about the assumption about homophobia in football at all levels?
Pete: "I've read a lot of articles about homophobia in football and how it's impossible for a gay player to come out. There are undoubtedly problems with terrace chanting at the upper echelons of the FA but I'm always keen to shout loud about the progress that is being made. A number of times we've taken part in or been approached for media appearances where we've spoken at length about how we've fostered a close-knit, diverse football team at the Falcons, only to see that the only angle they were interested in was one of poor, helpless gays being unable to compete properly. That's not us and it never will be. We're a regular set of guys with strong, fun personalities who just get on and play football. Things are getting better every year. Let's celebrate that and use it to push for a position where gay and bi players are fully accepted at every level of the game, free from any discrimination."
For Matt and Pete, it is clearly important not to play in a ghetto or have only gay players. They hope to move into a mainstream league next season and showing the "straight teams" (as they say) what they can do. But their LGBT roots are still there - next year the Gay Games is in Paris and the Falcons, as well as hundreds of other amateur gay footballers, will be descending on the French capital. They are always looking to be better funded for equipment and to keep training as open to all, so you can make donations here or find out more about them here.
They don't deny that there are still incidents of homophobia all too frequently, and that more could be done at the top levels to set examples and to punish. For example, the 'kick it out' campaign seems less energised than when it was just about racism. However, every Sunday (and every Tuesday evenings for training) the Falcons players are showing that their love of the game, and their love of playing, does not diminish because they are gay, bi, or straight allies.