Intentional supporters groups can help create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ soccer fans and open the joy of fan communities to everyone.
Growing up, I was aware I wasn’t straight. Great! After all, being self-aware is a positive, right? The trouble was this was the 1990s and I lived in a small town on the border between England and Wales. It was, and still is, overwhelmingly white and conservative with both a large and small C. Sexuality and gender weren’t up for discussion. From what I’m led to believe, little has changed.
Time passed and I moved to Sheffield to study for my first degree. Although I missed home terribly, moving to a large, diverse city was a revelation and, best of all, it meant I could finally get a season ticket at Bramall Lane, home of Sheffield United Football Club.
The years continued passing and me and my beloved Blades celebrated promotion, suffered relegation and had more play-off disappointments than I could ever have anticipated. Throughout it all, I was hiding a part of myself. It wasn’t purposeful — as a cisgender female in a relationship with a cisgender male, people assumed I was straight.
I was in my 30s when I first read Juno Dawson’s fantastic This Book is Gay. It introduced me to the term pansexual for the first time and I felt seen — that was the label that described my sexuality. Finding my label meant I was strong enough to come out, but football felt different. It’s a stereotypically masculine environment and straight white males make up the core of football supporters in the UK. Although thankfully rare, there were occasions where I’d heard homophobic chanting or language at matches which made me wary of being my authentic self.
All that changed in 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic turned everyone’s life upside down and, like many other people, I felt isolated. Football matches were postponed indefinitely, and my world suddenly became much smaller. Then an email landed in my inbox. It was from Sheffield United and introduced Rainbow Blades, the club’s newly founded official LGBTQ+ supporters’ group. The email had a link to follow to sign up to become a member. Little did I know what a big impact clicking that link would have on my life.
At first, I was very much an observer. Although I read the newsletters without fail and wore the t-shirt and pin badge I’d been sent with pride, the thought of joining in the online social events that were advertised filled me with dread. I didn’t know anyone else who’d signed up as a member and, like many people during the pandemic, I’d had my fill of Zoom with online courses and obligatory quizzes taking their toll. The idea of spending more time on there, especially with people I’d never met, held little appeal. I kept my distance, wanting to reach out but not feeling confident enough to do so.
As time went on and football matches restarted (albeit behind closed doors) sport became a focus — a positive in a time where there was little to celebrate. Slowly and cautiously the world started to reopen with the UK Government launching the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme to encourage people to use the hospitality industry which had been hit hard by the pandemic. The Rainbow Blades newsletter advertised an in-person meet-up at Spirit of Sheffield, an LGBTQ+ café bar close to home stadium Bramall Lane, and I bravely signed up saying I planned to attend.
During the week between committing to attending and the event itself, I came close to dropping out many times. Not only was anxiety raising its ugly head, but I was worried I’d be judged for not being gay enough — being in a straight-presenting relationship can have that effect. In one of my wobbly moments, I messaged James, the founder of Rainbow Blades and organizer of the meet-up, saying I might not make it after all due to my shaky mental health. The response I received was warm and caring, with James saying he understood and asking if he could do anything to make me feel more comfortable about attending. That he’d made the effort to ask was enough and that first meet-up was a positive experience. Good food, great company and lots of laughter … and my sexuality wasn’t questioned once! It felt amazing to be part of a friendly and diverse group of people who shared my passion for Sheffield United.
Following the meet-up I became more involved with Rainbow Blades, prioritizing the online socials I’d once avoided. Instead of being nervous about them, I saw them as a chance to catch up with my new-found friends. The sense of belonging was immediate. I’d found my tribe, both in terms of the football community and the LGBTQ+ community and we spent hours talking about Sheffield United, football in general and our lives.
In LGBTQ+ supporters groups, soccer really is for everyone
As word spread, the number of Rainbow Blades members continued to grow and currently stands at over 500 members. There is a Rainbow Blades fan social before every home match and all LGBTQ+ fans and allies are welcome. I try to make as many as I can and love this inclusive part of my pre-match routine.
The club have always been incredibly supportive of Rainbow Blades, and this is evident through their commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. As well as backing the EFL’s annual Rainbow Laces campaign, Sheffield United have worked hard to give LGBTQ+ supporters a voice via Rainbow Blades, most notably through a fan forum with club CEO Stephen Bettis and backroom staff. They have also introduced a rainbow range of clothing which is sold through the club superstore and website and provided Rainbow Blades with a column in both the men and women’s team’s matchday programs, giving wider exposure to the group and raising the profile of LGBTQ+ football fans.
All of this brought me closer to the club. Author Armistead Maupin coined the phrase ‘logical family’ in his popular Tales of the City series and that’s what Rainbow Blades are to me. I’ve met some amazing people I might never have crossed paths with otherwise and made friends for life. James, Anna, Lewis, Callum, Darren, Jack and many more have become people I hold dear. Finding them has only strengthened my love of Sheffield United and, for the first time since my son was born in 2007, this summer I bought a season ticket.
A side effect I didn’t expect to come with becoming more involved with Rainbow Blades was a stronger sense of self. Although there are still occasions where I don’t feel queer enough (not uncommon in people who identify as bisexual or pansexual), I’m more out than I’ve ever been and happier as a result. Alongside Rainbow Blades ambassadors including former Sheffield United player Tony Currie and current player Ellie Wilson, I took part in Pinknic in the Peace Gardens, Sheffield’s largest city center Pride event. It was a wonderful day with a unity march through the streets and a vibrant party atmosphere where all were welcomed and the first time I’d been involved in such a large LGBTQ+ event.
When the opportunity arose to become part of the Rainbow Blades committee in the summer of 2022, I applied for the role of secretary. Knowing first-hand the impact finding a community had on my own life made me appreciate the importance of LGBTQ+ supporter groups. Since taking up the position, the committee have been collaborating with the club on the upcoming Rainbow Laces campaign and a special project for Trans Awareness Week. I hope the visibility of these campaigns will show LGBTQ+ fans who feel estranged from the club that they are valued, welcome and seen.
Moving forward, I would love the Football Association, Premier League and EFL to show further support for LGBTQ+ groups in football. There are now more than 50 LGBTQ+ supporters’ groups in the Premier League and EFL and this continues to grow. Organizations such as the Kick It Out campaign and Fans for Diversity are working hard to get rid of homophobia from football stadia once and for all and this can only be a good thing for LGBTQ+ supporters. With a united front, we can make football grounds a safe space where people of all sexualities and genders can get behind their team without fear.
Fan Voices highlights the stories and experiences of individual fans and how their relationships with sports, teams and athletes have rippled through their lives. Read more here.