England defender Demi Stokes has praised the welcoming environment within the women's game and says she hopes more footballers will soon feel able to speak openly about being in same-sex relationships without necessarily needing to formally 'come out' first.
The Manchester City left-back, who proposed to her partner Katie during lockdown, has referred to their relationship several times in interviews in recent years and on social media, and fiancee Katie gave birth to their baby boy, Harlen, last month.
Also in May, Blackpool's 17-year-old striker Jake Daniels became the first active male professional footballer to come out as gay since Justin Fashanu in 1990 and Stokes hopes moments like that will help more people feel ready to speak openly about their sexuality. In contrast, in the women's game, many high-profile players are openly LGBTQ+ without having formally announced news of their sexuality.
“It’s honestly not something I gave too much thought to, it was just about ‘I’m Demi and I’m authentic’, and I didn’t do the post to say ‘I’m gay, I’m here, I’ve arrived’, it was more just that I openly spoke about my partner and that’s it. That’s how it should be: If you’re going out with a boy, a girl, it doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t change anything," Stokes said.
"It’s about being comfortable with yourself, and the men’s game is very different, there’s a lot of taboo there, and I think you can see there are players [in the men’s game] that are starting to come out and the more players that do that does encourage the next person. It's a slow process but within our game we welcome everyone and I think that’s good.
"I think as well sharing my story and being quite open and honest about a lot of things, I think can help a lot of people, it’s about using my voice. And some topics are uncomfortable, and I don’t know everything, but [I'd like to] use my platform to help the next person.”
Asked what she thought the women's game's more welcoming and inclusive culture was down to, the 30-year-old added: “I don’t think I have the answer to that but I think our fans are great, and team-mates, and it’s just about ‘be yourself’, being authentic with it, and if you open up on it nobody can pull you up on that.
"Equally, the support that you have around you does make it easier. But it’s about being yourself, and people will love you for who you are and who you want to be.”
Regardless of whether or not England succeed at July's Euros, the birth of baby Harlen means this has already been an unforgettably happy year for Stokes, who says her son has "lots of aunties" within the Lionesses squad who are asking to see baby photos every day.
“They keep just asking for updates, ‘have you got any updates this morning?’, or ‘how’s he doing?’ and ‘can I come round?’, the girls have been great. I think he’s going to be very spoiled. He’s a very lucky boy to have all the people that he has around him.
"My partner is all good and doing well and coping well, and the baby is good as well, he’s a breath of fresh air at the minute," added Stokes, who is away from her family while training with England in camp from Mondays to Fridays, but is able to see them at weekends because head coach Sarina Wiegman has given the squad weekends off in the run-up to the Euros for rest.
Stokes smiles as she acknowledges that the England camp at St George's Park has meant she is getting a lot more sleep than her partner on weeknights, but adds on parenthood: “I just think when I’m at home ‘well, what did we used to do when he wasn’t here?’ - it’s almost like he’s always been here. We’re just loving it."
The former Sunderland star, a three-time winner of the FA Cup with Manchester City, says her newborn son will give her "extra motivation" in football, describing his arrival as a blessing, and added: "He’s got big hands and big feet so I said he could play basketball or football. But I think it’s important to allow kids to figure out what they want to be, who they want to be, and equally do what they want. If that means football then I will support from the sidelines. I won’t be a squealing parent. So we’ll see."
This summer, Stokes' family and friends will all be the ones cheering her on from the packed stands, as England bid for their first major women's international trophy. The Euros get under way at a sold-out Old Trafford on 6 July and Stokes - who made her senior England debut in 2014 - describes the sellouts as "madness" with more than 450,000 tickets having been sold for the Euros so far.
"That speaks volumes in itself. The numbers are there as fact. That’s very exciting," she added. "[The game] has gone on leaps and bounds, you’ve only got to look at the stadiums that the tournament is being held at, the ticket sales being so impressive.
“When you’re a player you obviously just think of trophies and winning, and that’s why we do what we do, but I think there’s also a bigger picture: The stadiums that we are playing in, we almost lose sight of that sometimes."