My LGBT Football Team Finally Lets Me Be Myself While Playing The Game I Love

Growing up a young gay black man, my mental health suffered because I felt the game I loved wouldn’t accept me. But now I’ve found a place to play as my authentic self, writes Jay Lemonius.
Courtesy of Stonewall
HuffPost UK
Courtesy of Stonewall

Head In The Game sees athletes across a variety of disciplines speak candidly about their mental wellbeing – from occasional periods of poor mental health to ongoing, sometimes debilitating, struggles with mental illness. They also share coping mechanisms and the support they’ve turned to during their lowest points.

‘It’s just a game’, they say – and football is, to most. But for me this ‘game’ has changed my life.

Growing up in Leytonstone, East London, the only success I saw that felt attainable was either on the football pitch or in the music studio. I wasn’t a particularly gifted singer or dancer, so naturally I gravitated towards the green grass of a football pitch (or in my case, a car park with jumpers for goalposts).

I played at a high enough level to be put on a talent pathway that, I presumed, with a cocktail of hard work, dedication and luck, would see me turn pro. I realised soon enough that nothing is ever certain.

However, coming to terms with not becoming a professional footballer was nothing compared to coming to terms with being gay. It’s difficult to look back and not dissect how much influence being gay may have had on my performance, motivation and sense of belonging when I was young.

When you feel as though the game you love, the game that saved you from choosing a darker path, is also possibly a place which won’t accept you – that’s a huge barrier.

“I was a black, gay man who loved football, and it was really hard to reconcile these apparently disparate parts of my identity...”

Research by the LGBT charity Stonewall backs this feeling up: more than two in five LGBT people (43%) think that public sporting events aren’t a welcoming space for LGBT people. And BAME LGBT people are even more likely to feel this way (52%). I was a black, gay man who loved football, and it was really hard to reconcile these apparently disparate parts of my identity. I wanted to succeed as a footballer, so I felt I had to suppress the parts of my identity that might affect my chances of success. But in doing so, I found myself experiencing a number of mental health difficulties. I lost confidence, became isolated and felt confused and scared. The game that used to be an escape was now holding me hostage.

However, the older I got, and more importantly, the more comfortable I became with being gay, the easier it was for me to see the wood for the trees. I went on to university with the aim of entering a new chapter in my life as my authentic self, and I fell in love with other aspects of the game like coaching and development.

I played university men’s football as an out gay man, but I still didn’t feel completely comfortable. We’d have away trips where I would tune out of conversations for fear of not wanting to make anyone else (or myself) uncomfortable. I would edit myself, go quiet, isolate myself from my team. I did all of this while still trying to build and maintain strong relationships with teammates so we could perform on the pitch. It was exhausting.

To this day I wonder if the coaches or teammates I was close to picked up on my discomfort. Or whether through years of assimilating it’s just something I became so good at pretending, they presumed I was just naturally quiet.

Courtesy of Stonewall
Ian Walton for The FA
Courtesy of Stonewall

My coaches and teammates did their best to make me feel welcome, but I’m not sure they had the tools or confidence to know how to create fully inclusive environments where someone who may be gay, bi or questioning could feel not just accepted, but valued and celebrated.

In my final year of uni, I decided to write about homophobia within grassroots football for my dissertation. That directed me to the London Unity League, GFSN League and a number of LGBT-friendly teams that play in them. I ended up interviewing a few of the players that played for a team based in North London, London Romans and joined them after I graduated.

After a season or so with the Romans, the first team manager of Stonewall FC, the world’s most successful LGBT football club, asked if I wanted to join them and play at a higher level. After learning about the rich history of the club, their success and role within the game, of course I accepted.

I’m now captain of Stonewall FC, and still play and coach with London Romans. I’m finally in a position where I feel able to be completely myself while playing the game I love. I am now playing in a space where elements of my identity are not just being tolerated, brushed over or avoided, but are being celebrated. Instead of silencing my own voice to blend in or not stand out, my voice is now heard, and uplifted.

“In a society that feels in many ways more divided than ever, football has a unique ability to bring communities together...”

LGBT-inclusive clubs like ours have long played a crucial role in the lives of so many people – many who grew up playing football in far more hostile environments than I did. They still have that role today – not just creating safe spaces for LGBT people to play a sport that they love, but also providing visibility and role models to younger LGBT people and potential allies too.

In a society that feels in many ways more divided than ever with the number of anti-LGBT hate crime incidents on the rise, football has a unique ability to bring communities together. The game has progressed a lot and we can be proud of that. However, we have a long way to go to ensure every LGBT person feels safe, accepted and celebrated in sport. Support and solidarity for these clubs and community groups is vital now more than ever.

Jehmeil Lemonius is sports campaigns manager at Stonewall, and captain of Stonewall FC

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