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Breaking Barriers from the Bottom: England’s Highest Level Gay Footballer

Whether you choose to believe the Office for National Statistics (1.5%), the Treasury (6%) or Stonewall (5-7%), you’ll know that a reasonable percentage of people in the UK identify themselves as gay. Based on those percentages, somewhere between 955,500 and 4,459,000 UK citizens are gay. That’s quite a lot.

Given those figures, you’d expect anywhere between 60 and 280 gay individuals in a group of 4000; possibly more in a group of 4000 made up solely of males.

So why is it that in the 4000 members of the Professional Footballers’ Association, not to mention the professionals in Scotland and Northern Ireland, there is not a single person who defines themselves as gay?

It’s disappointing that in times of almost universal societal acceptance, high profile homosexual athletes in other sports and gay marriage, not one professional footballer in the UK feels comfortable enough to come out in the environment their profession creates.

Whilst not wanting to justify it, you can certainly understand why a Premier League player would think twice about coming out; football fans are often unintentionally cruel souls, the media attention would be unbearable and outdated prejudices may well prevent an openly gay player from finding a club.

But those pressures aren’t there below the professional game. In fact, whilst someone stands on a soapbox every other week asking why no professional footballer in the UK is gay, non-league footballers are almost completely ignored in the crusade to find a homosexual player. You would hope in those circumstances a gay player, and given how vast the non-league structure is there must surely be plenty, would feel at ease to be open about his sexuality.

And there is one. But rather worryingly, we have to look as far down as Level 10 of England’s league structure to find an openly gay footballer.

Darran Gillions, who plays for Stony Stratford Town in Division One of the Spartan South Midlands League, is potentially the highest level openly gay footballer in England.

Stony Stratford Town: Where Darran Gillions plays his football.

Stony Stratford Town: Where Darran Gillions plays his football.

But, although you wouldn’t begrudge him for feeling a sense of pride, the possibility that he may well be England’s premier gay footballer disappoints the 23-year-old.

“It frustrates me that, within the 100 or so fully professional clubs in England alone, not to mention the rest of the UK, not one player feels able to come out and say ‘I am gay’.

“It does worry me that a fear around coming out exists, although I fully understand why this fear may exist due to the pressures and expectations of the game, the fans, and increasingly in the modern game the media and marketability of the player.

“I certainly feel that there will be many relatively high profile players who do feel the need to stay in the closet.”

But Gillions, a strong defender who has also played for Alvis FC and New Bradwell St. Peter, is more concerned with the lack of gay footballers in the non-league pyramid.

“I’ve not even been able to find an openly gay semi-professional player, not for lack of trying.”

That fact is hard to believe when Gillions explains his relatively painless period of coming out to his team mates.

“I didn’t one day before a game with all the lads sat round the changing room stand up and say ‘I am gay’, it was very different to that.

“Last season a few of the lads (at New Bradwell St. Peter) found out I had a boyfriend, he came to watch a few games, I didn’t mind people knowing, and similarly no one seemed to mind either.

“Then at the end of the season I was asked to move over to Stony Stratford Town, which I did. I already had a few mates there, who knew me, so I felt comfortable and settled in well immediately.

“Then one night at the gay bar me and my boyfriend bumped into a few of the lads who didn’t know I was gay, whilst they were on a night out, and from there it escalated.

“Nothing has changed. No one seems to mind at all, it has been liberating the last 6 months, knowing that the lads can get to know me for who I really am, not having to hide anything.”

Gillions’ story is incredibly promising, not least for the fact life continued as normal in two different dressing rooms. No dressing room and no group of players is exactly the same, but nor are they too different. The reaction from their teammates may well be the only factor stopping a player from coming out at Non-League level; they needn’t worry.

However, the nature of the professional game means a would-be gay footballer needs far more than the reassurance of his team in order to feel comfortable enough to come out.

“Within clubs I don’t think there is, nor would there be any problem (of homophobia),” believes Gillions.

“However I do feel in the professional game, regardless of the relative acceptance of colleagues and fellow professionals, the hostility of the crowds would add a hurdle which I am not going to have to encounter, and I feel do serve as the biggest deterrent.

“Whilst many chants from football crowds are merely light hearted humour, with no offence taken or intended, I feel a line should be drawn individuals start giving what may be termed malicious abuse, which I would hope would be treated more regularly in the same manner as racist abuse.”

Unfortunately, football fans struggle to appreciate the difference between light hearted humour and discriminatory abuse. When the Brighton and Hove Supporters Club, whose club is often the subject of homophobic taunts, recently attempted to highlight the issue of offensive chants from opposition supporters, the footballing public failed to take it seriously.

A quick look at the dossier released by the BHASC in conjunction with the Gay Football Supporters’ Network shows that much of what was chanted was far more than just innocent ‘banter’. The fact a player, Blackburn’s Colin Kazim-Richards, is alleged to have made a homophobic gesture is also incredibly disturbing.

With Brighton targeted because of their association with a large gay population, what’s to say a player wouldn’t be targeted after coming out? If I was a professional footballer choosing whether or not to come out, the abuse directed at Brighton and Brighton fans would persuade me to keep my sexuality hidden.

But, just like with racism in the past, there are schemes looking to educate, or at least get people talking, about homosexuality and homophobia. The recent Right Behind Gay Footballers campaign, initiated by Stonewall with the help of Paddy Power, achieved national coverage with support from the vast majority of football fans. It asked for players to wear rainbow laces, a very simple act, in support of gay footballers, and several did.

RBGF: Gillions' laced up boots

RBGF: Gillions’ laced up boots

Twitter feeds were full of your average supporter championing equality and believing a gay footballer would be accepted; or at least they as an individual wouldn’t even raise a cynical eyebrow to a professional coming out. It got people talking, and in that regard it was a success.

But cynical eyebrows were raised by several high profile football clubs, who cited the poor planning and organisation of a campaign that appeared to pop out of thin air on the Monday and demand players were rainbow laces on the Saturday.

“I think that was a poor excuse,” said Gillions.

“At the end of the day how much planning does changing your laces need? It would have taken very little effort from clubs to get behind the campaign.”

Gillion’s view is a view shared by many, including myself. Could you imagine the uproar if a club refused to support a racism group because the t-shirts only arrived five days in advance of the weekend’s game? It’s disappointing that those clubs who refused to take part in RBGF campaign received little, if any, criticism. It’s also disappointing that only 20 out of the 92 Football League clubs are signed up to The FA’s Charter against homophobia.

But everything has to start somewhere, and RBGF will surely act as the foundations for many more campaigns of a similar nature.

Gillions, who couldn’t take part in the campaign on the designated weekend due to injury, but wears the laces currently along with 14 of his teammates, agrees: “I was pleased at the effect it had in getting people talking about the subject through all levels of the sport, not just the top.

“This (RBGF) on its own is not enough, it is however a superb starting place to get people talking and thinking about the subject.

“I hope to see more done soon.”

The catalyst that could lead to more being done would be a professional player in England coming out. But for that to happen, the player would feel like he would be accepted and able to continue his career. Something that Gillions doesn’t think would be possible just yet due to the ‘hostility of the crowds in Europe’.

And that’s part of the reason Robbie Rogers, who had just been released by Leeds United at the time, retired after coming out in February 2013; to avoid the scrutiny from ‘the circus’ of both the fans and the press. Rogers became the first player to have come out after playing professionally in England since Justin Fashanu, who tragically committed suicide in 1998.

But after he ‘seriously felt like a coward’ for not using the platform he had to become a role model, Rogers decided to return to the slightly more rational MLS audiences. He joined LA Galaxy and made his debut in May, becoming the first openly gay man to play in a North American professional league; quite a landmark in the development of equality and homosexuals in sport.

“He is a superbly talented player, and his return to game post coming out made me feel immensely proud,” said Gillions, who viewed Rogers as one of his favourite players even before he came out.

“A lot of (homosexual) people have already found their ‘hero’ in Robbie.”

“I am eagerly waiting the day when he is recalled to the national side, the first openly gay player to grace the international stage will be a momentous moment for not just football, but sport as a whole.”

Whilst talk of Rogers’ adding to his 18 USA caps is premature, the fact there is hope for it can only act as inspiration for a Premier League player to come out and continue to play in England.

“Should a top player come out I think it would either be a huge positive influence on the sport, breaking the ‘last taboo’, or it could go wrong, and see a career destroyed,” believes Darran.

“I would personally hope that it would serve as a catalyst and pave the way for others to follow suit.”

From Gillions playing in front of his boyfriend and a lost dog walker, to Rogers potentially playing at the World Cup, Stevenage’s centre forward, Blackburn’s full back and Manchester United’s winger will plug the caps in the middle. It’s surely only a matter of time before footballers at any level feel ready to come out.

And that’s one thing Darran is sure of.

“Within the next decade there will almost certainly have been an openly gay player in the Premier League.”

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