A year ago, Leeds United announced via its website and social accounts that the club was pledging full support for a new group for LGBT fans.
Now, as the team prepares to begin their 2018/19 campaign at home to Stoke on Sunday – live on Sky Sports – the effect of that endorsement will be evident at Elland Road, on the city’s streets and on TV screens across the land.
Leeds vs Stoke
August 5, 2018, 3:30pm
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As well as the big kick-off in the EFL, it’s Pride weekend in Leeds, with the festival set to pull in over 40,000 spectators – a few thousand more than can be squeezed into United’s ground on a matchday. Among the event’s premium sponsors are Leeds United FC.
For Andrew Tilly, one of the founders of Marching Out Together (MOT), Sunday promises to be a day of great significance for the LGBT supporters group. MOT will lead a 100-strong Leeds United party walking in the Pride parade, joining friends who are straight allies from other fan groups as well as several club staff members and Leeds Utd Ladies players. The majority will dash across town immediately afterwards in order to attend the Stoke game.
“It’s really a coincidence that our season starts on the same day as Leeds Pride, but it’s extra special for us, being the group’s first birthday too,” Andrew tells Sky Sports.
“As a club, Leeds have backed our journey all the way and in so doing, have helped to raise the profile of LGBT inclusion in football. We could never have imagined all this 12 months ago.”
United aren’t just going the extra mile for the Pride parade and sponsorship; they’re helping to provide visibility inside the ground all year round too. MOT have a new logo, and an accompanying flag – the background colour and text are traditional Leeds colours, white and blue respectively, while the logo is in rainbow – and it’s getting pride of place in the stadium.
“The flag is 5m x 4m, and it’s going to be displayed in a permanent home, beneath the big screen/scoreboard in the South-East corner,” explains Andrew.
“It’s such a prominent spot, and it’ll be a powerful statement of inclusivity to anyone visiting Elland Road.
“Because it’s Pride day, we’ve also got leaflets and stickers to hand out outside the ground, and there’s going to be some messages of support shown on the big screen, including a video from Robbie Rogers.”
It’s been five and a half years since USA international Rogers left Leeds by mutual consent; he came out publicly as gay a few weeks later, announcing his retirement from football at the same time.
Since then, he’s retired for a second time – a successful MLS Cup-winning return to the game with Los Angeles Galaxy was followed by a series of injury problems, and Rogers hung up his boots for good last November. Shortly before that, he became a patron of MOT, a role in which he continues to serve.
“Football still faces a huge challenge to overcome homophobia in all parts of the game,” said Rogers upon his MOT appointment last year, something that the group remains acutely aware of. However, it’s the surge in Leeds United allies rising to meet that challenge that has been a hallmark of the group’s first year.
The club initially announced back in May that it would be sponsoring the city’s Pride festival later that summer. “There’s always a minority of people who respond negatively when Leeds post about us or anything LGBT on social media, and that day was no different,” says Andrew. “It happened again a few days ago when the club mentioned its Pride plans for this weekend.
“We don’t respond, or rise to it, because there’s no need – our straight allies are always first to do it for us! For every negative tweet or comment, there’s loads of reactions from our allies that counter that.”
“When you consider the relative lack of progress we’ve seen from certain clubs in embracing LGBT inclusion campaigns, it’s not going to be because they’re opposed to them,” he says.
“It’s because a club’s backing will be met with negative comments. But Leeds recognise that it’s absolutely a minority who are responsible for that. So the club doesn’t just say it wants to be a leading light for inclusion – it shows it.”
“It’s a strong statement of support – and the fantastic thing is that the teams they play congratulate New Armley for their stance, and even ask where they can get hold of rainbow laces!”
Ultimately the primary function of MOT is to ensure that no one who supports Leeds and who happens to be LGBT feels they would be unwelcome on matchday, either by hearing homophobic language or worse, being the target themselves of discrimination or abuse. Andrew takes pride in the achievements of the group’s first year. “The creation of MOT has clearly made a big difference to those individuals from the LGBT+ community who are also Leeds fans.
“We have some members who have returned to Elland Road for the first time in many years, having been delighted by the positive support from both the club and the fans when we launched. They realised that they would be welcomed at Leeds, and that the world of football is changing.
“One middle-aged member, who met up with us a couple of times for drinks before games, felt so supported that he finally felt confident enough to come out to his friends and family.
“This year he will attend Leeds Pride for the first time – as an openly gay, and much happier, man.”
“There is a real need for groups such as ours, and there is a need for clubs to offer their support in achieving change,” he adds.
“The backing of the vast majority of Leeds United fans has been fantastic, and the clear demonstration from Leeds United that as a club, it wants to be a leader of change, is wonderful.”
Learn more about Leeds’ LGBT+ fans group at marchingouttogether.co.uk. You can also follow MOT on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.