Watford LGBTQ+ groups score victory but football still has a long way to go

<span>Photograph: Action Plus Sports Images/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Action Plus Sports Images/Alamy

Last week two Watford supporters’ groups successfully campaigned to have their side’s friendly with Qatar called off. Women of Watford and the LGBTQ+ supporters’ group Proud Hornets tweeted their disdain after the fixture was announced. They discussed their concerns and Watford pulled out. “The game was never finalised and it became abundantly clear this was a game not to play; as such, the schedule was revised,” a club spokesperson said.

Qatar’s Football Association said it had received a number of offers to play friendly matches. “We selected some friendly matches with various European teams and Watford was not among these matches that the team will play.”

Related: How to tackle LGBTQ+ discrimination in the game – Football Weekly

The cancellation of a meaningless game at a training camp in Austria between a Championship team trying to build some fitness and the World Cup hosts may not appear to be the biggest story.

But the fact that a gay supporters’ group played a key role in affecting the decisions of a professional football club feels like quite a seminal moment. Would this have happened a decade ago? It is to Watford’s credit that they listened to their fans. And it is heartwarming that Women of Watford and Proud Hornets empowered enough to speak openly about how they feltable to speak out. On Thursday the Shrewsbury Town group Proud Salopians achieved the same outcome, with their club’s game against Qatar cancelled.

This week on the Guardian Football Weekly as part of Pride month we recorded a special on the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community in the game. There are reasons to be positive: the mobilisation of fan groups, the increased visibility through things such as the Rainbow Laces campaign, current players such as Josh Cavallo and Jake Daniels coming out to almost universal support and love.

But from accounts we received it’s obvious that endemic homophobia in the game has had a huge impact on gay football fans. Tony was just one example:

“As a closeted gay man fighting with my sexuality in the early 2000s, the patterns of behaviour in football matches and from family and friends around me definitely contributed to me taking longer to come to terms with my sexuality – and the issues that followed (PTSD of burying true feelings in for so long etc). Being closeted and young at football matches is a strange experience, as you are denying your true self and getting it validated by the language and actions you see around you.

“The pressures to act straight and blend in were constant stress, but only something I realised on self-reflection – once I stopped going to football matches and came to terms with my sexuality. The macho culture of football means you hear discrimination in nearly all forms in most matches you go to. This could be just small comments, a ‘harmless’ joke, or something bigger and more threatening to any vulnerable groups (not just LGBTQIA).

The Al Bayt Stadium
The Al Bayt Stadium will host Qatar’s opening World Cup game against Ecuador. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

“The people I went to the matches with are some of the most lovely down-to-earth, selfless people you could meet – but their lack of experience with more diverse groups tends to ensure that anything beyond their own social group and perspective is hard to understand.”

It’s obvious when you think about it that being exposed frequently to homophobic environments is going to make it harder to come out – and like Tony you may stop going altogether. So long as some people don’t feel comfortable enough even to turn up then football really isn’t for everyone.

It is hard to quantify exactly how much better or worse it is, as more people get comfortable reporting incidents and the authorities take it more seriously. Last year the CPS correctly made the “rent boy” chant a hate crime.

In 2020, according to an ICM poll for the Rainbow Laces campaign, 20% of sport fans thought anti-LGBTQ+ language was harmless if meant as banter. You wonder whether more than 20% felt that but knew how you’re meant to answer.

When I was in the playground 30 years ago, we all used the word gay as a pejorative term. I don’t recall singing homophobic songs on the terraces a few years later, but I heard so much of it and never called it out – likewise on Sunday league pitches. On the pod we received countless accounts from amateur footballers about the levels of homophobia they still encounter.

Tom gave us his experience:

Related: Qatar fails to offer World Cup safety guarantees to LGBTQ+ fans

“While I was released from Luton Town simply for not being good enough, I felt I was forced to quit playing football altogether a number of years later as I suffered homophobic abuse in a Sunday league game. I would class it as ‘psychological abuse’. Opposition players, who knew I was gay, would take it in turns to whisper crude and offensive things in my ear, out of earshot of everyone else (‘Would you sleep with any of your teammates then? I bet that’s well horrible!’) and other similar things. It was a dreadful feeling, and I decided after that I wouldn’t put myself through it again for the sake of Sunday morning football.”

It’s depressing reading, but it highlights the need to continue these conversations, and more importantly to be a real ally. It perhaps isn’t enough now to like the idea of diversity and inclusion and do nothing about it.

Rishi Madlani is from Foxes Pride and Pride in Football: “If you follow a club or a national side join their LGBT fan group as an ally. We’ve got 50+ now and hopefully we’ll get to 92. If your club doesn’t have one support that when it launches.”

And as Nicky Bandini, who came out as transgender in 2019, said on the pod: “Be vocal. Be supportive in a vocal way when you hear something that isn’t right. It’s not easier to challenge things just because we are LGBTQ+; in fact it’s often harder.”

This year there will be a World Cup in a country where homosexuality is illegal. When Qatar kick off against Ecuador in the third game of the opening day not many people will be thinking about that game they didn’t play against Watford in July, but it means something that campaigners stopped it going ahead.