After former player Robbie Rogers famously left Leeds United after deciding it would be impossible to come out in English football, the need for a symbol of LGBT inclusion was not lost on the club. That’s where ‘Marching Out Together’, the country’s newest LGBT supporters’ group, come in, writes Will Magee…
At the start of the recent BBC documentary ‘Gareth Thomas v Homophobia’, footage from inside Elland Road caught Leeds fans directing homophobic abuse towards their opponents for the day, Brighton & Hove Albion. While Brighton supporters are often singled out on account of their town’s long association with the LGBT community, the volume of the taunts and the hostility on show was no less difficult to watch and hear.
With Gareth Thomas – a legend of Welsh rugby who famously came out as gay in 2009 – sitting with the Brighton fans, chants of “Does your boyfriend know you’re here” and “You’re gay as ****” were directed towards the away end, accompanied by homophobic gestures. If anything illustrates the need for LGBT fans to be visible in football, it’s this.
Andrew Tilly, co-founder of Leeds’ new LGBT supporters’ club ‘Marching Out Together’, pinpoints that match as the moment he realised that LGBT fans needed a voice at Leeds, even if only to remind a vocal minority of supporters that every football ground – in both the home and away end – has plenty of gay people in attendance. The reality of homophobic abuse in football is that it’s not only a malicious way of harassing the opposition, it’s bound to hurt people wearing your colours, too.
‘Marching Out Together’ were officially endorsed by Leeds back at the beginning of August, making them the newest LGBT supporters’ club in the country. Founded by Andrew and fellow supporter Drew Harrison, they already have 50 signed-up members and a growing presence on social media.
Encouraged by the LGBT umbrella group Pride in Football and given practical advice by LGBT groups at other clubs – Proud Canaries at Norwich and Proud Lilywhites at Tottenham, for instance – they approached the Leeds hierarchy in the hope that the club would agree to back them. The response was even better than they were hoping for, according to Andrew: “They were really encouraging, fantastic and they really supported us… we asked to be endorsed by them and whether they would be able to help build our profile through their platforms, and that’s exactly what they did.”
In Andrew’s words: “It’s not just the club wanting to tick boxes. I think they genuinely want to embrace the wider set of fans, and that includes the LGBT community.” But how did Leeds supporters react to the group, bearing in mind that game against Brighton?
According to both Andrew and Drew, most of the feedback has been really positive. They have received messages of support from as far afield as the USA, Denmark, New Zealand and Ireland, and been touched by personal stories from supporters at Leeds.
One young fan, bullied for being bisexual, got in touch to say he felt safer at Elland Road knowing there was an official LGBT fan club, while an older, lifelong fan told them he thought he’d never see the day he’d be able to join such a group. A couple, now civil partners, who had their first date at Leeds have also joined – tales from the terraces don’t come much better than that.
As was a prevalent theme in ‘Gareth Thomas v Homophobia’, the worst responses have come from what Andrew calls “a really small minority of fans” online. “Looking at the Leeds United Facebook page when they announced their endorsement of ‘Marching Out Together’, there was lots of positivity, but some of the comments there were disappointing,” he says. “That for me proves why you need LGBT fan groups, not just at Leeds but at all clubs really – homophobia is a problem throughout the game and not just specific to Leeds.”
For Drew, the main form of pushback has been people asking why an LGBT fan group is necessary at Elland Road. “Where we have had negativity it’s usually a case of: ‘Why are you so special? Can’t we have a group for straight people?’ and that sort of thing,” he says. One need only look to the complete absence of anti-heterosexual slurs in football for an answer to those questions, not to mention the fact that there are still no footballers in the top four tiers who feel able to openly identify as gay.
None of this should distract from the fact that ‘Marching Out Together’ have received lots of encouragement from supporters of all backgrounds. If anything Leeds fans should understand the need for a symbol of LGBT inclusion better than most, considering the case of former player Robbie Rogers.
Rogers famously left the club in 2013 after deciding it would be impossible to come out in English football, briefly retiring from the game before making a return with LA Galaxy. Interviewed for ‘Gareth Thomas v Homophobia’, he spoke about the homophobic attitudes expressed by team-mates, coaches and supporters and how they damaged his confidence and self-belief.
While Rogers never established himself in the first team at Leeds, his example nonetheless shows how being inconspicuous as a member of the LGBT community in football can be a miserable and isolated experience. “I remember being glad for him at the time, but it was obviously sad he didn’t feel he could come out at Leeds,” Drew says.
In an optimistic sign for the future, Drew and Andrew are keen to stress that on his return to Leeds as a guest of the club – not long after he had spoken out about his sexuality – Rogers was given a warm reception by the crowd and applauded by supporters all around the ground. ‘Marching Out Together’ will hopefully be greeted with similar warmth when they are introduced to other fans in person.
For now, Andrew and Drew are hoping that Rogers will agree to become an ambassador for the group, while the Leeds hierarchy have invited them to take a place on the club’s Supporters Advisory Board. That will give them the opportunity to represent LGBT fans at Elland Road, just as they will when they wear their colours at next year’s Leeds Pride – and if the LGBT community welcome participation from football fans, football fans can do the same for those among them who are LGBT.