When the referee blew the whistle and the first ball was put into play to start last Saturday’s match in the Middlesex County Football League, the scene could not have been more different from the fixture that took place a couple miles away earlier in the week when Tottenham Hotspur, sixth in the English Premier League, held off a furious last-minute charge from Swansea City to secure a needed win.
At this match, at the White Hart Lane Sports Centre in north London, onlookers won’t find bright lights and big scoreboards, nor will they hear rehearsed chants from raucous supporters.
That assumes there are onlookers at all. Aside from a few passersby, there really aren’t any. There is, however, something that the English Premier League matches nearby or anywhere else across the United Kingdom, for that matter, do not have: gay soccer players.
More appropriately: openly gay soccer players.
Stonewall Football Club, today’s visitors, was established in 1991 as England’s first gay soccer club. Four-time champions at the international Gay Games (including last year in Cleveland) and winners of continental competitions, it is Britain’s highest-ranking gay team and bills itself as “the world’s most successful gay football club.”
Wearing red shirts above blue shorts and attacking right to start the match, this Stonewall F.C. is a far cry from the club that began thanks to an ad in a local gay newspaper seeking fellow players to kick around. It now has 80 members and 70 regular players who feature for three separate teams, including one in a local Sunday league and another in a London recreational gay league.
The most prominent of the three is this one, the first team that plays against primarily straight teams in the Middlesex County League, which sits far below the Premier League, the most popular soccer competition in the world, the heartbeat of English sports, and one of the fastest growing leagues in popularity even in the United States, in the Football Association’s non-league structure. Still, it is high-level amateur competition, and Stonewall’s place in it has been a significant driver of the movement to make the sport more open to LGBT fans and players.
On this day, though, Stonewall is simply trying to continue a run of good post-holiday play with a win over the Wilberforce Wanderers, who are playing to go to the top of the standings. There is little thought about the club’s place in English soccer history, about all it has accomplished not just on the pitch but in the broader fight for equality in the sport they love but that hasn’t in the past much loved them back, or the fact that their success has, in an odd twist, made it even harder to maintain their quality.
There is just soccer, and if you only happened to amble by the turf pitch there would be no indication that this was a gay team at all.
But that is precisely the point, evidence both of the mission Stonewall outlined from the start and the success it has found since. Stonewall launched at a time when the atmosphere around gay soccer players and fans was strikingly different than the one that exists now, when the FA was focused on racism but didn’t talk much about homophobia or the possible presence of LGBT fans or players. The club had a simple mission: to give gay players a place to play, to show everyone else that gay players existed throughout England even if not at the sport’s top levels, and to prove that they could play right alongside their straight counterparts.
Back then, “there was a perceived need for a gay team,” said club chairman Ben Biggs, who plays as a defender for the first team. “If you wanted to play football and you were gay, you wouldn’t have felt welcome most places.”
The team was eventually promoted to the Middlesex County league, giving it the chance to show they could play against and beat straight teams. They have.
“We used to be identified more as the gay team,” Eric Najib, a former goalkeeper who now serves as the first team’s manager, said. “Now we’re the football team that happens to be gay. There’s a significant difference in that.”
In the past, the reaction to a gay team was what one might expect — incidents of casual homophobia — though players said even then they were still rare. Beyond that, Stonewall’s quality of play led to another reaction. Disbelief.
“There was the perception that if you were a gay team, you’d play different, you wouldn’t be as tough,” Najib said. Opponents would appear next to Stonewall’s players in the middle of a match and say, “There’s no way you’re all gay.”
“The biggest thing we sought to do, and we need to be doing even today, is challenging that stereotype,” he said.
These days, the casual homophobia is mostly gone. The Football Association, the sport’s governing body, has stepped up efforts to combat homophobia at all levels of the game, and on-field incidents lead to banishment from matches and sometimes even stronger punishments.
“The older guys really took the flak” to make it easier for current players, said Martyn Fowler, a center midfielder.
Like a few others among Stonewall’s team, Fowler is straight (the club does not require players to be LGBT, though the vast majority of its players are). He joined the club because “one of my best mates played for Stonewall, and I was without a team.” The high level of soccer Stonewall plays — its players take pride in saying that it has the nicest facilities among its competitors, in part thanks to a running sponsorship from Barclays — and the fact that its participation in international gay tournaments allows players to travel the globe in ways other clubs at the same level don’t, makes it even more attractive.
“It makes no difference to me if it’s a straight team or a gay team,” Fowler said.
He just wants to play good soccer, and he found it here. The other teams across the league now see Stonewall the same way: “We’ve been in the league so long that everyone knows who we are and what we’re about.”
CREDIT: Travis Waldron/ThinkProgress
For whatever discrimination Stonewall’s players have faced in the past, whatever disbelief its opponents have had that gay players could play like this, the shock from the Wanderers today only comes when Stonewall scores in the first half to go ahead 1-0. The disbelief isn’t because the gay team scored, but because Wilberforce had spent much of the match’s opening half hour in control. The angst lifts temporarily when the Wanderers draw level before the half, but it only grows when they concede again early in the second. When Stonewall adds a third goal with little more than 10 minutes to play, Najib skips down the sideline and urges patience. Victory is apparent if no dumb mistakes are made.
None are, and the match ends as any other: brief celebration, a few hand shakes, a huddle near each bench — Najib urges his team to learn the lesson of the match, that when they play like this they can beat anyone in the league — and a slow walk to the changing room. And then, back into a London much different than the one Stonewall entered upon its founding, where LGBT equality has advanced not just in mainstream English society but in the slow-changing world of soccer too.
If Stonewall was among a small crowd pushing for the visibility and acceptance of gay players and fans when it launched more than two decades ago, it no longer is. In addition to the FA’s efforts, there is an ever-expanding infrastructure that links gay fans — the Gay Football Supporters Network, established in 1989, has grown tremendously since then, and some of England’s most prominent clubs now have gay supporters groups — and top clubs and a plethora of grassroots organizations have taken initiative in the fight to rid the game of homophobia. Stonewall is no longer alone on the field either: there is a national gay league and 25 to 30 gay teams in England now, Najib estimates, stretching from below London in the south to above Manchester in the north. Stonewall may be far from a household name in English soccer, but people involved in some of those groups say that it and newer gay teams like it deserve credit for leading the push against homophobia in the sport.
And yet, that success on the field and off and the increasing acceptance of LGBT people and players throughout the game has created a conundrum for the club. To some, there may be “somewhat of an existential question about whether there is a need for a gay team, especially as society and football become more open and tolerant,” Biggs, the chairman, said. That doesn’t mean Stonewall is going anywhere, but it may change how it moves forward in its efforts to “tackle homophobia in all aspects of football” as Biggs and the club focus on what it will look like over the next five or 10 years.
Progress has also made finding players harder. Stonewall once drew players from across the UK who needed a place to play comfortably as openly gay; today, as many of those players can find LGBT teams elsewhere or play for “straight” teams near home, Stonewall is having to increase its marketing efforts to maintain its expected quality.
That is a challenge Stonewall welcomes — it means it is closer to fulfilling its original mission — and Biggs and the club are working to continue expanding its reach. It has broadened its efforts to market itself to players. It has done outreach in an effort to continue the expansion and development of gay teams and leagues to give even more players a community and a place to play. Biggs says he wants to push the club’s efforts beyond football, to make Stonewall even more of a family than it already is. With the 25th anniversary fast approaching, he is focused on advancing its profile both in the UK and everywhere else. In February, Stonewall played a friendly match against Dulwich Hamlet in a first-of-its-kind anti-homophobia match.
And for all the progress the world’s game has seen in England, there is still work to be done. The sport, in England or anywhere else, is not yet an entirely equal ground. There are no openly gay players in the Premier League, at the levels just below it, or in any of the other major European leagues. There are fans who still don’t feel welcome, surely players who feel the same. If the progress has made attracting the best players a bit harder and given the club new ideas for how to keep growing, the success yet to be achieved is a reminder that Stonewall’s original mission remains pertinent.
“Gay people can play football,” Najib, the goalkeeper-turned-manager, said. “We are there every Saturday, all over London, all over the UK, playing at a high level.”