“Being a fan that’s openly gay, if I feel on edge and intimidated, what are players going to feel like?” — Interview with Huddersfield Town’s LGBT supporters group

Huddersfield Town LGBT supporters group, Proud Terriers, talk about homophobia in football, support from the club and why they don’t expect footballers will come out.

This article originally appeared on And He Takes That Chance on 30 June 2020.

Photos: Ellis Robinson

How many times have you been to a football match and jumped up and shouted abuse at the referee? Have you ever heard someone hurl insults at the linesman over your shoulder? Has anyone ever said something during the game that’s made you do a double-take? Emotions run high during football with points and games on the line, but far too often homophobic abuse is rife.

“I’ve always wanted to do something surrounding homophobia in football because I was coming to football regularly, I began to see what the atmosphere was like for people like me.”

Ryan Mather, founder of Proud Terriers, Huddersfield Town’s first official LGBT supporters network, set up the group in October 2016. The group offers fellow fans a place where they can interact, form friendships and be united by the common cause of tackling homophobia in football and making stadiums a safer place for the LGBT community. Inspired by fellow LGBT football fan groups, Ryan hopes Proud Terriers can raise awareness and help make football inclusive for all regardless of sexual orientation or gender.

Despite football becoming more inclusive in the past few years with campaigns such as Football v Homophobia and Rainbow Laces, there’s still a lot of work that is needed to get rid of prejudice and make people from all different backgrounds feel safe when attending matches.

Homophobia is widespread in society and football. Even this season, Wycombe goalkeeper Ryan Allsop and referee John Busby suffered homophobic abuse during a League One game against Tranmere.

It’s easy to dismiss these as isolated incidents, but research from Stonewall shows that one in five LGBT people have suffered a hate crime in the last 12 months. In sport, 58% of British people think it’s important anti-LGBT language is challenged at live sporting events, yet only 25% feel confident to callout derogatory remarks. When football returns with fans, we all have to be more accountable for all forms of abuse.

Huddersfield Town as a club have been supportive to Proud Terriers and those in the LGBT community. They were one of the first professional football clubs to sign up to the Football v Homophobia charter back in 2013 and also have annual ‘Town For All’ matches to promote equality in the game.

Yet, members of our fan base have been investigated for homophobic chanting in the last two years. 1st December 2018 was a dark day for Ryan when he went to watch the Huddersfield Town game against Brighton. Like others, he was hoping for a good day on the pitch but the 2–1 defeat was insignificant in comparison to what happened during the match.

“It was our Rainbow Laces game and I could hear our fans chanting [homophobic slurs] from the opposite end [of the stadium], and as I was walking away, I crossed the away section and there were a few comments exchanged that were homophobic as well, it has stuck with me forever.

“…I felt really uncomfortable and I was very close to leaving the stadium myself, it’s the most uncomfortable I felt at a Town game ever. In the aftermath of it, I was told that I was lying about hearing stuff, and to stop attention-seeking.”

Some people may think that shouting homophobic abuse at opposition fans doesn’t have consequences, but there’s evidence to suggest experiences like these put LGBT people at a higher risk of developing mental health issues due to the chronic stress associated with these incidents.

Homophobic abuse doesn’t only occur in stadiums, it’s online too with Ryan suffering abuse from both Huddersfield and rival fans. Recently, several high-profile celebrities have come under fire for making transphobic comments via social media. Last week, Twitter permanently banned Graham Linehan, creator of TV show Father Ted, for a series of transphobic tweets. For Ryan, social media organisations need to do more.

“It’s so easy to create fake profiles, it’s hard to pinpoint what I feel should happen but the way hate crime incidents get dealt with online, is not good. They should act on reports, not just bypass it or forget about it. If you send abuse to people and use offensive language, there should be more action taken.”

Social media has provided fans with more insight into footballers than ever before. Despite the fact that some footballers and clubs have voiced their support for LGBT causes, at the time of writing, there are no openly gay footballers in any of England’s four professional men’s leagues.

In contrast, women’s professional football has a number of female players who are openly gay, including England international Fara Williams, who has made over 170 appearances for the national side.

Last year, the anonymous Twitter user ‘The Gay Footballer’, who used the site to detail his experiences as a gay man in the sport, announced his intention to come out. The user, who claimed to be a Championship footballer, declared they were going to hold a press conference with their manager. However, the day before this was due to take place, he reversed his decision and tweeted “I thought I was stronger. I was wrong.” before shortly deleting his account which had more than 50,000 followers.

It’s been 30 years since Justin Fashanu publicly came out while playing in the Football League and he remains the only British male player to have done so. Former footballers who played in English football, such as Robbie Rogers and Thomas Hitzlsperger have publicly come out, but only when their careers in England finished.

With the majority of positive responses and encouragement towards the ‘Gay Footballer’ Twitter account before it was deleted, does Ryan think we’re closer to a professional footballer in England coming out? Unfortunately not.

“It’d be amazing to see someone to come out in football, because I’ve always wanted that role model to look up to, and I haven’t ever had that. Right now, I don’t feel like anyone will come out at the minute because the atmosphere isn’t there for that.

“Being a fan that’s openly gay, if I’m feeling on edge and intimidated, what are players going to feel like?… no-one will come out at the moment because it’s not safe to do so. I feel most teammates would be supportive, it’s more the fans that are letting us down at the moment.”

Jake Le-Billon, another member of Proud Terriers thinks that no footballer will come out because it’s difficult to educate some people that it’s wrong to hurl homophobic abuse. “If a player did come out, I think the toxic atmosphere in stadiums would reach new levels. You see players coming out after they’ve retired, it’s probably because they don’t have to go out and play every week in front of thousands of fans.

“I don’t like it because to be different is not wrong. We should all embrace each others’ uniqueness, not sit there and go well that’s wrong because you’re not like me. No-one is like you, because you are your own person.”

While Ryan and Jake think the atmosphere around football grounds is still hostile, they’ve been overwhelmed by the support they’ve received from Huddersfield Town. The marketing team for the club helped design the supporters’ group’s logo and they regularly engage with Proud Terriers.

Ryan says staff are always very welcoming. “They’ll try and accommodate our ideas at any opportunity… they’ll put us in the programme and it’s amazing that the club supports us like this.”

The group suggested including coffee mugs with the pride flag and the club badge on, just a small thing to highlight the connection between the club and its’ LGBT supporters. Huddersfield Town agreed and the first stock of mugs quickly sold out.

Jake feels it’s great that the club supports the group so much. “I’d love to see it more with every club, league and non-league. You want to see clubs help groups that fight against homophobia, and we’re pretty fortunate of the support.”

The group has had plenty of opportunities such as getting to work with Kick It Out, football’s equality and inclusion organisation. They also regularly engage with other LGBT supporters groups from other clubs. Ryan tells us that there are 20 more LGBT supporters groups around the country since he started Proud Terriers four years ago.

“Charlton have a really good LGBT supporters group, I really get on with their members and it’s nice to make friends through the fan groups. We put events on all the time. It’s like a social thing, but we get speakers with inspiring stories to come along.”

So what can be done to support the LGBT fanbase? As well as hoping the EFL make inclusivity a bigger campaign all year round, Jake thinks other people within the crowd need to report homophobia when they see it.

“People use the stereotype that football is meant to be a man’s game, and see gay men as not men. They say things like ‘Oh you’ve got a different voice, your voice is more high-pitched’ but you still identify as a man so I don’t see the problem. You go to football to enjoy yourself and everyone should be able to do that, have a good time and feel warm and welcome in the stadium. People should be encouraged to report abuse more, it happens everywhere.”

Ryan believes that improving stewarding in grounds can bring positive change. Matchday stewards are often underpaid and have a lack of training, so it can make it difficult for them to deal with fans who are being abusive.

“If we want to see change, we’re going to have to eject these people making abusive comments. It’s hard to eject people, but if you can see someone shouting homophobic abuse, you should report them straight away.”

For now, football is back underway without the fans, but that hasn’t stopped Proud Terriers from staying active online, sharing articles and cheering on their team. When fans are allowed to return to grounds, the group would love to take part in and host their own activism events.

Anyone is welcome to join the group, no matter what your background or sexuality is, as Jake says. “We don’t discriminate and we’re all united together to fight for a worthy cause. We want to keep that support going, and together with other groups, eradicate homophobia in football.”

Proud Terriers is a safe space for fans from all walks of life. For Ryan, his intentions are clear. “We just want to keep fighting for what we believe in and I don’t think I’ll ever stop this group no matter what. I hope it can get to the stage where I don’t need this group to fight homophobia, we can still be active and have our social events but we don’t have to tackle this subject.”

If you’d like to contact the group for more information on Proud Terriers:

Email: proudterriers08@gmail.com

Tweet: @ProudTerriers

Visit: Facebook

Follow: Instagram

Writer and podcaster, based in Leeds.

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