Football is, of course, the beautiful game.
I’ve been entranced by it since my youngest days. It provides a common, almost universal language. And whether you like the game or not, it runs through our national culture like letters through a stick of rock.
My team is Charlton Athletic. I started supporting Charlton not long after we moved to the area – about 20 years ago now. We’ve had many ups and downs over that period. You never know you’re living through a golden age while you’re in it, and that was how it was with our spell in the Premiership during the 2000s. Since then, well, being a football supporter has been a lesson in life, from which I think I’ve learned a lot.
Charlton has a brilliant reputation as a community club. It does an immense amount locally (have a look at the Charlton Upbeats), but it is also vocal on wider diversity and inclusion issues. In particular, it supports the Football v Homophobia (FvH) initiative. February marks the FvH Month of Action, and Charlton’s LGBT+ supporters group, the Proud Valiants, is taking a lead.
I’m a member of the Proud Valiants. I have been for a few years now, since I saw an advert in a match programme and got in touch.
I’m not LGBT+ myself, but what’s known as an ‘ally’. I did my Stonewall allies training a few years ago, and went on to become LGBT+ champion for the government department in which I worked. It seemed only natural to extend my ‘ally-ship’ from my professional into my personal life, and where better than in support of my beloved football club?
Why did I think this was important?
I was already aware that LGBT+ people faced certain challenges both in the workplace and wider life – challenges that heterosexuals simply don’t. No heterosexual I know, for example, has had to listen to off-colour ‘jokes’ about their sexuality. No heterosexual I know has faced outright hostility because of their orientation. No heterosexual I know has felt the need to invent a personal backstory to avoid awkward ‘what did you do at the weekend?’ questions on a Monday morning.
I was lucky to work in an organisation that took these issues seriously, and the high point was marching at the 2017 London Pride with colleagues. I had never experienced such an outpouring of joy on the capital’s streets as that day, with around a million people lining the route, and it remains seared in my memory.
Being there for LGBT+ friends is perhaps even more important in the world of football. Most football supporters now, I think, understand the unacceptability of racism on the terraces, but I don’t feel that the same message has quite been taken on board about homophobia. There isn’t a single ‘out’ footballer in any of the four English professional leagues, and there have only been a handful of exceptions in the past, mostly after retiring from the game. This must in part reflect the potentially hostile reception LGBT+ players fear on coming out.
It’s little better for LGBT+ fans, who sometimes feel uncomfortable and even intimidated at games. I’ve heard homophobic chants on the terraces from time to time, which I think reflects the fact that some people still seem to regard homophobia as the acceptable form of ‘ism’. It isn’t. The beautiful game is for everyone, regardless of their sexuality – or for that matter, their disability, ethnicity, gender, religion or belief.
I love being a Proud Valiant. I find myself part of a group of people who really know and love their football. They’ve made me feel very welcome, being as inclusive towards me as the game needs to be towards them. We have pre-match Zoom calls to discuss the prospects for the game, the formation the manager’s chosen and the likely tactics, when we can expect to get injured players back, the possible acquisitions in each transfer window, and so on. We all share a passion for the game, and we’re all there for each other.
And again, I’m proud to be associated with a club that’s taking a lead in tackling homophobia. It’s what football – and the ‘football family’ we hear about – should be at its heart. Matchday is about living in the moment, but beyond that it’s about community more than anything.
Written by Proud Valiants member, Roger Hutton, follow him on Twitter: @rogerxhutton