‘Thanks to York City I’m proud to call myself a gay football fan’

York City mascot Yorkie and Norris the Knight from York City Knights at the York Pride event 2013. Photograph: Ian Pickles of mybigdayeventphotography.com
19 Feb 2014 @ 11.53 am
| Opinion, Sport
York City mascot Yorkie and Norris the Knight from York City Knights at the York Pride event 2013. Photograph: Ian Pickles of My Big Day Event Photography
York City mascot Yorkie and Norris the Knight from York City Knights at the York Pride event 2013. Photograph: Ian Pickles of My Big Day Event Photography

greg-stephenson-headshotThis weekend York City play their first Football v Homophobia match – a gobsmacking move which means an awful lot to Greg Stephenson

As a gay lad I’ve not had a lot of fondness for football. If you weren’t very good at it at school you were a “useless puff”.

Watching it live in a mostly-male crowd can feel like the most unwelcome place in the world for LGBT people.

The songs and shouts seem to pick up on homosexuality with surprising regularity… and never in a good way. Football games are things for us to keep away from.

You’ll have heard the phrase LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans – banded about in the past 18 months.

Equal marriage rights are set to become law next month and the alarming disregard for gay rights in Russia is making news around the world – Obama even sent Billy Jean King to the opening ceremony and Channel 4 even made a special advert mocking the Russians and the Winter Olympics for their stupid prejudice against the gays.

The message is almost becoming that to be part of the civilised world you have to be cool about the gays.

There’s no disputing the massive progress that has been made here in the UK in the last 20 years. But one area of our life still seems stubbornly backwards – and, surprisingly, it involves 11 men getting sweaty and worked up together!

At least one football player has taken his own life because of his sexuality – and recently others have left the game before stepping out of the locker room as gay men.

There is some progress. We now have an out player in the Football Conference North League at Gainsborough and we have seen gay supporters group the Gay Gooners being followed by Norwich City’s Proud Canaries, Manchester City’s Canal Street Blues and Everton’s Rainbow Toffees – but there is still a long, long way to go.

Gobsmacking

Sophie Hicks addresses York Pride 2013. Photography: Matt Dinnery
Sophie Hicks addresses York Pride 2013. Photography: Matt Dinnery

So what York City FC is doing to support us at little York Pride, in little old York, in sleepy old North Yorkshire is, frankly, gobsmacking.

The club gave us full support when our 2013 Pride focused on battling homophobia in sport.

Alongside York City Knights RLFC, they spoke outside of York Minster in support of LGBT people both playing and following football and rugby. They also walked alongside us in the Pride Parade through the middle of York.

In January this year, as we launched York Pride 2014 alongside our major sponsor, Benenden Health, Sophie Hicks – York City FC’s communications and community director – announced that the football club will focus their league game against Southend on Saturday, February 22 on the national Football v Homophobia campaign.

They’ve donated 100 free tickets to the LGBT community for the game, which is intended to show football, the LGBT community and the outside world, that homophobia has no place at York City Football Club.

Football’s last taboo

Tackling prejudice in sport
Tackling prejudice in sport

According to Sophie, “Homophobia is football’s last and most stubborn taboo.

“As a sport, we have to reach a position where players feel comfortable being openly gay and sexuality is not an issue in the game.

“At York City Football Club we are committed to supporting our players and employees should they take the step to publicly come out and we are also fully committed to stamping out mindless homophobia at our matches.

“Football is for everyone and we want Bootham Crescent to continue to be fully inclusive and a welcoming environment for all.”

These small steps can bring big changes. On February 22 I will be shouting on York City at Bootham Crescent, alongside at least 99 other gay people from the York area. I have never done that before.

But for the rest of my life, they will be my club. I will feel, for the first time, welcome at my local football club.

Another part of life from which I felt excluded will open up to me.

This means an awful lot to me and it feels like real progress. Thank you, Sophie and York City FC.