Sports Editor Elliot van Barthold had a chance to speak to Leeds United LGBT+ support group, Marching Out Together, about the issue of homophobia in professional football.
With the group up and running for two months now, how has the general reaction from the Leeds fan base, and other supporters, been so far?
We have had a great reaction from the overwhelming number of fans on social media, and have attracted members from as far away as Vietnam, USA, New Zealand, Malta, Denmark and Ireland.
Inevitably there have been a very small number of people who are hostile to the idea of an LGBT+ group, and a few who are unclear as to why it’s needed.
A really positive aspect has been the number of straight fans and other Leeds United supporter groups (including the Leeds United Supporters Trust) who have joined the group or chosen to follow us. They fully recognise we are an inclusive group set up to help combat homophobia and other forms of discrimination throughout football.
To get a former Leeds player on board as a patron in Robbie Rogers is a big step for you guys. Do you feel this will help other players and even fans to feel comfortable coming out at Leeds?
We are obviously delighted that Robbie has offered his support as a patron; it will undoubtedly raise the profile of Marching Out Together, and that in turn will help us achieve our objectives as a group.
Robbie’s decision to come out and re-enter the game was a brave and successful one. But he recognises that there are separate challenges in the USA to those facing European footballers.
We think it will take more than Robbie’s bold move to persuade more players to come out. However, we believe the growth of LGBT+ fan groups around the country is one positive step towards this goal. The support Leeds United as a club have offered us is another sign of encouraging changes in the game.
In all probability the game still has a lot of challenges to overcome before we will see players coming out whilst playing. They need to know that the footballing authorities and clubs have structures in place to know that the players will be well supported and advised amid the inevitable media attention. It is very hard to predict when this will happen.
No male player has come out whilst playing in this country since Justin Fashanu 27 years ago (who tragically ended his life following extensive homophobic abuse). This more than anything highlights the challenge football still needs to overcome.
What are the aspirations for the supporters group and how facilitating has Leeds United been in making those happen?
Marching Out Together aims to make Elland Road a more welcoming place for LGBT+ fans and to play our role in the wider campaign against homophobia and other forms of discrimination in the game.
We will be talking to the club as to how we can achieve the desired positive changes at Elland Road. Amongst other initiatives we will be discussing what advice might be given to stewards, signage around the ground challenging all forms of discrimination, methods of reporting any offensive behaviour, and so on.
We aim to raise the profile of Leeds United amongst the LGBT+ community in Leeds and will be carrying the Marching Out Together flag at Leeds Pride next year.
We will be working with Pride In Football to participate in their campaigns and will be initiating our own campaigns and developing partnerships with other organisations as we seek to play our role in the wider footballing community.
We are very grateful for the support the club have offered us. They warmly welcomed our initiative to set up the group, and have offered us visibility through their media sites. We are finalising plans for our formal launch at Elland Road, and we are in the early stages of discussing other ideas with them. Significantly, Marching Out Together has two representatives on the newly formed Supporters Advisory Board, which will help us implement some of our plans, with the support of the entire Leeds United family.
When was the moment that you decided this group needed to be formed?
We have been going to games together for 25 years and have often discussed the idea of setting up a group – the need for all clubs to have a group is so obvious to us.
Robbie’s return to Elland Road a few years ago, as an openly gay man, where he was applauded as he walked around the ground, was a powerful moment. We had some contact with the club in the lead up to that event, that resulted in the club launching a limited awareness initiative with Stonewall – but is wasn’t followed up at the time with other ideas.
The final momentum came when we attended a Pride In Football conference in Manchester this summer, with other LGBT+ fan groups. Chatting to members of the group inspired us to contact the club in July and it’s all happened rapidly from there.
How do you feel football as a whole is dealing with homophobic abuse? Is there enough awareness being raised about the issue?
Football has, quite rightly, invested substantial efforts in combatting racism in the game in recent years – with significant success. They now need to invest similar resources in fighting all forms of discrimination – including homophobia.
There are some limited initiatives in the game (such as Rainbow Laces and Fans For Diversity), but more needs to be done by the football authorities to combat homophobia and other forms of discrimination faced by players, officials and fans.
On Gareth Thomas’ recent BBC documentary (Hate in the Beautiful Game) he sadly demonstrated how ill-informed and ill-prepared the Premier League, the FA and the PFA are in dealing with this challenge. It was depressing viewing.
It seems that the key driver for change is coming from the burgeoning number of LGBT+ groups being formed around the country. The response of many clubs to these groups, and the support they are offering groups, is generally very positive, and it offers significant hope that change may be arriving in the game.
By Elliot van Barthold