This month, Arsenal’s LGBT supporters club Gay Gooners celebrate their 5th anniversary. The first LGBT supporters club in English football, they arranged a 5 a side tournament with other supporters groups before the Arsenal v Everton match recently, designated as ‘Arsenal For Everyone’ match day. The tournament marked the 5th anniversary of their creation and also falls during LGBT History Month.
Tim Stillman went across to the Arsenal Hub to talk to the Gay Gooners about their inception, their purpose, their successes and the challenges to come in fully removing the stigma around homosexuality in football- for fans as well as players.
In February 2013, a group of Arsenal fans launched the world’s first official LGBT Football Supporters’ Club. Gay Gooners chair Dave Raval takes up the story, “[Founder] Stewart [Selby] had been working behind the scenes prior to our formation. He was a member of the club’s official Fans’ Forum, but there wasn’t an official LGBT Supporters’ Club. He persuaded Arsenal to put an advert in the programme to invite people who might be interested to get together at a game,” Dave explains.
“The club actually gave us a box for what turned out to be an inauspicious 1-0 FA Cup defeat to Blackburn 5 years ago. Lots of people came along and we decided we wanted to join together and organise ourselves. Now we have over 650 members, which makes us the biggest LGBT Supporters club in world football.”
Gay Gooners operate like any other supporters club, regional or otherwise. “We meet in the pub before matches. We often sit together too, we do ticket sharing so that we can go to matches together,” founding member Valerie explains. “We have a big presence on social media- Facebook, Instagram, Twitter too,” fellow founder Jonathan points out.
“Visibility is a big thing for us, we want to get the message out there to Arsenal fans all over the world and the wider football family that homophobia is not right and that LGBT people are in football stadiums and always have been. We want to provide a space for LGBT fans to socialise before and after games and at games. We want our message to be that this is a welcoming environment,” Jonathan continues.
As well as operating in the social sphere that most supporters’ clubs do, Gay Gooners also actively involve themselves in campaigning on wider issues to do with homophobia in football “We have three stated aims,” Dave sets out, “One is to be a regular fans’ group. We have a presence at every single match home and away- including the furthest flung reaches of the Europa League. We watch games, go to the pub and moan about the referees like everyone else does.
“We welcome everybody too, so people can come to us for guidance, whether it be about their sexuality, gender identity- even if they’re not sure about those things- so long as they’re an Arsenal fan they are welcome. Thirdly, we want to play our part in kicking homophobia out of football, so we do get involved in campaigns, like Rainbow Laces, having presence at Pride. We have arranged this fun 5 a side tournament today where Gay Gooners is one of the teams, but the other seven teams involved are just other ‘regular’ supporters clubs.”
Gay Gooners enjoy a close relationship with the club, who Dave says have been very encouraging of their existence from the outset, “The club want to play their part in kicking homophobia out of football, they want as many people as possible coming to games and they want there to be no issues in the future if a gay player wants to come out, for instance. We very much work with the club and push against an open door.”
“We went to meet with the club at Highbury House last week,” Jonathan recalls, “And when you’re waiting in reception for someone to collect you, Arsenal have lots of glossy brochures out as you would expect. Every single brochure we opened mentioned Gay Gooners prominently. The club is very proud of having Gay Gooners.”
Arsenal took a pioneering step at the outset of the 2013-14 season when they draped a Gay Gooners banner over one of the hoardings in the North Bank Upper tier. It was the first of its kind anywhere in Europe and really introduced the Gay Gooners into the wider consciousness. The message from the club was clear, that LGBT supporters are part of the Arsenal family and that their presence should be normalised.
“We’re immensely proud of that,” beams Valerie, “it was a great moment for us. It’s about visibility and not just for supporters. If we ever did have a gay player that wanted to come out, we would like to think that if they saw that banner, they would get the message that this is a club that does not accept homophobia.”
Valerie also reflects on the differing attitudes towards homosexuality in the women’s game compared to men’s football. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve not reached the stage where we have an out gay or bisexual player in the men’s game. Obviously, in the women’s game, it’s very different where lots of female players are out.” Warming to the theme, Jonathan says, “Where the women lead the men should follow!
“I suspect the problem is more on the terraces than it is in the dressing room, or in football clubs as employers,” Jonathan ponders. “Fans probe for weaknesses in opposition players as we all know and that would probably be seen as fair game for ‘banter’.” However, slowly the group is seeing a sea change in attitudes that they hope their presence continues to cultivate.
“When the most recent banner went up in the stadium, a woman two seats down from me made some ungenerous remarks about it,” recalls Jonathan. “The guy next to me, who also didn’t know I was gay, just said to her, ‘well, gay people come to football too and it doesn’t affect you does it?’ It seemed to convince her. It’s the peer comments that say more than any advert in a programme or any campaign or anyone changing their logo on twitter. Those things are still valuable, but it’s when people understand and challenge prejudice peer to peer that we see the change.”
Dave concurs, “The first time the Arsenal account tweeted us about Gay Pride, we received lots of abuse on social media. In the first year, a small group of us tried to engage constructively with these comments. By the second year, the comments were challenged en masse by what I guess we’d call straight allies and the negative comments have gradually decreased year on year.
“There was one guy who tweeted us to say he was going to support Tottenham because he was so disgusted and someone replied to him, before we got the chance, with a link to Tottenham’s LGBT Supporters’ Group and said ‘go on then, off you go.’” Dave laughs. Gay Gooners very much take inspiration from anti-racism campaigners that began to blaze a trail in English football in the 1970s and 80s.
“30 years ago you could shout racist stuff inside a football ground,” Dave says, “If you did it now, first thing is that a steward would chuck you out. But also, other fans in the stadium wouldn’t tolerate it. Regulations have all changed and are geared towards equality, after that, it’s a case of winning hearts and minds and then we arrive at a point where it’s self-policed.”
The group is agreed that a gay footballer coming out in England would progress the discussion and highlight some of the issues facing gay football fans. “A player coming out will be a game changer,” says Jonathan. “Because then we will probably see an initial reaction of homophobic ‘banter’ aimed at that player from an element of opposition fans and that’s when this discussion comes to everyone’s attention, it will ignite the debate and go some way to moving the discussion on.”
Because sexuality is ‘invisible’, homophobia in football probably hasn’t had its instantly recognisable John Barnes banana skin moment yet, with the possible exception of Justin Fashanu’s tragic story. Aided by groups like Gay Gooners and their increasing visibility, we all probably understand that there are lots of gay people inside the stadium at any one football game.
But if you stop and think about how many times you have seen a gay couple holding hands en route to a stadium, for instance, you would probably struggle to recall many examples, which illustrates that there is still work to do to battle both latent prejudice and unconscious bias. Yet there are positive signs emerging through the work of LGBT campaigners and groups like Gay Gooners.
Around 12 years ago, I recall a derogatory chant from Arsenal fans about Chelsea that included the line, “Lampard’s fat, the rest are all queer.” Barely anybody batted an eyelid at the time, but it is difficult to imagine such a lyric escaping censure in 2018- be it inside the stadium or on social media. Hopefully, we are moving towards the self-policing Dave and Jonathan spoke about.
But Gay Gooners are also about representation and openness. The Pride festival in July in London is one of the more high profile events that allows them to demonstrate this camaraderie. “I really enjoy being part of the London Pride parade,” Valerie says, “There are thousands of people along that route and to be representing Arsenal is something that I really enjoy and feel proud about.” Jonathan agrees. “Having an individual Premier League team represented at Pride was a bit of a first and it’s been really heartening to see other clubs following suit.”
For Arsenal fans, LGBT or otherwise, Gay Gooners are a source of Pride.
You can follow Gay Gooners on twitter @gaygooners
With thanks to Dave, Jonathan and Valerie for their time and to Lea Baynes for her help in arranging the interview.