The Gay Footballer Dream

You might have heard about the twitter account which was set up by a footballer to pave the way for a breakthrough in English football that would likely give hope and encouragement to so many. When the account @Footballer Gay was set up, the individual behind it said they were a professional footballer playing in the English Football Championship. They were set in motion the process of publicly coming out, liaising with the manager and owner, to be the first professional player in the UK to come out since Justin Fashanu in 1990. The date of the announcement had even been set – 24 July 2019.

As a gay man who loves football, the prospect of having an openly gay man playing in the English league filled me with hope and encouragement that things maybe, at last, changing in football, and what seems to be the last stronghold where homosexuality is not welcome might finally be breaking.

However, on the eve of the announcement, a post was put up saying “I thought I was stronger. I was wrong.” A more detailed tweet followed shortly after. The account was later closed.

Because of the sense of optimism, I had, I was following the account and check back for updates from the time I first discovered the account until its deletion. There were many who were supportive of this individual, some who thought it a hoax because of the way the announcement was being dragged out, and some were outright vile. There are also some details around saying that death threats had been made towards this individual.

During the time @FootballerGay was posting, another account claiming to be a Premier League footballer at Norwich City appeared, and was later confirmed a hoax, and since the closure of @FootballerGay’s account, several other accounts have appeared, one even naming a player.

Whether or not the original account was a hoax, and I for one am not making the judgement, it showed that there is still a homophobic element within both the fans and the country. It also confirms that social media has a dark underbelly. The faceless interaction where you can say something with the protection of relative anonymity and not have to be witness to the impact of your comments.

The question also needs to be looked at to see if football is ready for an openly gay or bi man to come out. With football being a worldwide sport, larger clubs might be keeping one eye on the commercial aspect and how it could impact on the club’s fortunes aboard. On the flip side, there could be a commercial gain to have an openly gay or bi man at the club that creates additional revenue streams. The worldwide aspect in larger clubs might also come into play with the broad range of nationalities that are in the dressing rooms, and how tensions may arise from cultural or religious beliefs between teammates on the issue of a gay player.

However, the biggest concern is still a small minority of fans. With there still a deep-rooted issue with racism, highlighted by the testimonies of players such as Danny Rose and Raheem Sterling, as well as being witnessed by TV cameras at away international matches, what sort of reaction would a gay or bi player get? Despite campaigns such as the Rainbow Laces campaign, homophobia is still present on the terraces, directed at players and fans.

The men’s game is in sharp contrast to the women’s game. At the recent 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, there were 41 out LGBT competitors, 5 of whom played for England.

The Anfield Kop lit up for Pride (photo from Pride in Liverpool Facebook)

However, I don’t want to be too negative as there are green shoots. As a Liverpool fan, I am incredibly proud that Liverpool FC was the first Premier League team to take part in a Pride march back in 2012. This weekend sees LFC’s CEO, club staff and families join Kop Outs, the LFC LGBT+ fan group, on the march. Anfield’s famous Kop is also being bathed in rainbow colours each night this week in the lead up to Pride. Clubs are engaging more with their LGBT+ fans, with Kop Outs being just one example of LGBT+ supporter groups through the English League.

My hope is that lessons are learnt from this, from clubs, teammates, managers, clubs and most important gay and bi players. I really hope that what has happened will help the process to give young lads who are growing up questioning who they are another role model to look up to. As a football fan, I would love to see an openly gay or bi man play for either of my teams or even against them – and I would still be cheering if they score! If this episode has delayed that for any reason, then the quest goes on for the Gay Footballer dream.

Trying to look on the bright side of life

Today must be one of the darkest days I have personally felt in my political career. Only the morning after the 2016 referendum result and the day following the 2015 General Election have left me feeling much lower. However, there may be a glint of something on the horizon that is driving me forward despite this fear.

The prospect of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (to give him his full name) becoming the 77th Prime Minister of the United Kingdom tomorrow fills me with complete dread. My biggest concern is his main ‘do or die’ policy on leaving the EU on October 31st come what may. Anyone prepared to play fast and loose with the economy, and in turn, people’s livelihoods, has no business entering Number 10.

Now people may say that I am a doom-mongering for believing that the economy will crash if we leave the EU with or without a deal. I do tend to prefer listening to the experts who have a far great grasp on economics than I do, and with the majority predicting such an event, then I will continue to say that staying in the EU is best for the economy.

As a Liberal Democrat, I have always believed in international co-operation, and that is why I am proud that my party took on the mantle to be the voice to Remain. The day after the vote in 2016, the speech by the then leader of the Lib Dems, Tim Farron, called on the party to become the beacon of remain. This speech made me realise the fight was not over:

“Young people voted to remain by a considerable margin but were outvoted. They were voting for their future, yet it has been taken from them.

Even though the result was close, there is no doubt that the majority of British people want us to leave.

Our fight for an open, optimistic, hopeful, diverse and tolerant Britain is needed now more than ever.

Together we can still make the case for Britain’s future with Europe, as millions of people voted for it. Together we cannot afford to let that vision to die.”

(extract from Tim Farron’s speech on 24th June 2016)

Similarly in back in 2015, following the night when I was at my first count as a Parliamentary candidate in Lincoln and saw many of the inspirational colleagues that I looked up to losing their seats as MPs, through the darkness of the events unravelling there were chinks of light. The first was the fantastic team I had around me at the count. Most were in their first General Election, and they were young and committed liberals who were ready to begin the fightback. The energy they had to right the wrong of the night got me through.

The next part of the 2015 story happened up and down the country. The resignation speech of Nick Clegg began the tidal wave of new members. This influx, combined with the strength of the team from election night felt like I was plugged back in the mains electric supply.

The new Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, with former leader, Sir Vince Cable

As for what is the glint keeping me from complete and utter despair, that is Jo Swinson. I have long admired Jo as a politician and her commitment to fighting injustice. Her speech that she gave on becoming leader gave me the drive I need to help her and the party I love to succeed. You can read or listen to Jo’s speech in full at Lib Dem Voice here. (For those of you who are looking to listen/watch it move the video to 28 minutes in for the start of the coverage of the results or 34 minutes in for the start of the speech itself)

So yes, I may be glum and annoyed at the self-obsessed, blithering fool that is Boris is now hours away from becoming Prime Minister, but there is a leader who has my full support to ensure that Britain has a true alternative to the self-righteous and nationalist approach of Johnson and Farage, and the party that is led by man is so ineffective he cannot decide what his view is on the most important issue of the day. Thank you, Jo, for being a beacon of hope, decency and inspiration in this darkening world and I am on this fight with you for a better Britain and to stop Brexit!

Affairs of my Heart

Someone said writing down your feelings and thoughts can help – so here we are – one month on.

I never thought that a month ago today, my life would change in the way it did. It was completely out of the blue and unexpected. From a moment of celebration came a wake-up call that will live with me forever.

One of my closest friend’s hen party took place on Saturday 21st April. The warm spring weather was the perfect day for the celebrations, although maybe not to be in a kitchen in a cookery class baking gingerbread and icing a cake for the groom. This was followed by a lovely meal and a couple of cocktails in the evening sunshine. It was perfect way to enjoy the upcoming nuptials.

However, the next day was not so rosy. I felt achy and very tired. All my joints were sore, and I had back pain and a slight ache in my chest. I thought that because I had not had a drink at all since the New Year, I was feeling the affects of the cocktails more than normal. So, I proceeded to flush out the alcohol with as much water as possible. I also noticed that I had been bit by a couple of insects that night, and thought that they were reacting to the alcohol, so continued to flush out my system with water.

By the early hours of Monday, I was still feeling unwell and decided to phone 111 to ask some advice. They said I should go to A&E, so with dawn only just breaking, I was on my way to Lincoln County A&E in a taxi.

After some tests, I was just waiting for the results of an x-ray, but they were confident that I could go once they had seen the x-ray. However, things on the x-ray were not as they should be, and the consultant said they wanted to do a CT scan of my heart as they thought it was enlarged.

Mild panic set in for me. The CT was completed, and I awaited the results. The consultant called me back through, this time not to the room as before, but to the area where the cubicles were, past those and into Resus – more panic was setting in. I was told by the consultant that the was an issue with my heart and they had spoken to the specialist centre at Nottingham City Hospital, and that I was to be transferred there immediately and have an operation.  

At this point, my brain kind of shut down at taking anymore information in. From feeling fine a couple of days before to a small amount of discomfort, I was now looking at surgery.

The ambulance arrived, and after a very uncomfortable journey on the stretcher travelling between the hospitals, I was greeted by a full team at Nottingham City Hospital, who were in a sense ready to take me straight down to surgery if needed.

Luckily, my condition was very stable, so the consultant, Mr Ian Mitchell, was able to explain the situation to me. My aorta was enlarged and, in essence, was a balloon ready to burst. That could happen at any point, in 5 minutes or 5 years. Not having the surgery was not an option – but what type of replacement aortic valve they used was up for discussion. The pig valve meant I could live a normal life but have it replaced again in 8-12 years (and then again in another 8-12 years after that and so on) or go on blood thinning medication for my lifetime and take a mechanical valve.

I didn’t really fancy having to face another operation in another decade, so the mechanical valve sounded the best fit at my age. The downside apart from the medication was the mechanical valve ticks – so I am like the human version of the crocodile in Peter Pan!

The day of the operation came around – less than two days after I was admitted. After 6.5 hours in theatre, I was back in ICU and ready for recovery (or at least that what I have been told!).

Since that Wednesday back in April, I have been recovering from the operation that not only saved my life, but gave me a future too. There is a long road to recovery from the surgery that I had. It is not easy when the surgeon breaks your breastbone to open your chest – there is a lot of repairing to be done.

I know that I was absent from the local election count because of this, and that I am taking time off from my Lib Dem and my Parish Councillor commitments for a time until I am strong enough to return – but I will never stop being there when people need me. If I can help, I will do. If I cannot, I will find a colleague who can.

Thank you to my fantastic boss and colleagues for their support and also to all my family and friends, thank you for your amazing support too!

Without having the heart condition spotted at Lincoln, I do not know how long I would have been around. Sometimes the strangest things happen, this time for me it was love – the love that unites two people in wedlock. A hen-do might have just saved my life.

Mental Health Matters

Last Thursday saw ‘Time to Talk Day’, a day where we were encouraged to spend 5 minutes talking about mental health. It also saw the story emerge that ex-footballer Clarke Carlisle’s attempted suicide in December was a result of his mental health issues.
With one in four people suffering from mental health issues at some point in their lives, it is something that will touch many of us personally through our family, or our own mental health. Yet despite its prevalence, it is a subject too many people are hesitant to discuss.

With mental health issues affecting so many, until recently there has been a gap in funding for mental health in the NHS. John Lucas, from the charity Mind, sums it up perfectly: “Why does the NHS pull out all the stops to stop me dying of physical health problems, but does not care if I die of mental health problems?”

Therefore I was pleased to hear that Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health minister, made a commitment last October that mental health will have additional funding to ensure it will receive an equal footing as physical health by 2020. For the first time, waiting times for mental health treatments are being introduced in April this year. To put this into context, patients needing talking therapies for conditions like depression will mostly be seen within 6 weeks and have to wait no longer than 18 weeks for treatment, and those patients who have experienced their first episode of psychosis will be seen within 2 weeks.

By putting mental health on an equal footing as physical health, it is also hoped that the stigma of talking about mental health will be removed. If you knew someone who had just had an operation, none of us would think twice about asking how they were. But people feel nervous about talking about mental health. Sometimes just doing the little things, like asking someone how they are, is all it takes to let someone know you’re still thinking about them and make a big difference to how they’re feeling.

‘Time to Change’ is a organisation, made up of the Department for Health, Mind and Comic Relief, that is informing people about mental health and asking people to talk more about mental health. The website offers everyone the chance to pledge to end the stigma of mental health. So far nearly 80,000 people have signed up to this aim. I would urge everyone to visit their website, find about more about the affects of mental health on people’s lives and to sign up to this pledge to help end this stigma.

http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/
Article for my Lincolnite column – posted by The Lincolnite 10th February

The reasons why I am a Liberal Democrat

Standing for Parliament is similar to a job interview. The only thing different is that instead of a panel of three or four people watching how you perform and interact, this has nearly 73,000 people watching how you do. Also, with just less than 100 days to go until the election, it is a very long interview.

My own political views were shaped during my teens with the backdrop of Tony Blair’s government and the Iraq invasion in 2003. The Liberal Democrats’ stance against the Iraq war led me to join the party during Freshers’ Fair when I started Lincoln University, but it was not the only thing that attracted me to the party.

One of the principles the Lib Dems were founded on is that no-on shall be “enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.

For me this is the most important aspect of being a Lib Dem – allowing someone to achieve their full potential no matter what their background.

I have not had a privileged up-bringing but my parents believed in helping me to reach the goals I aspired to. My Dad worked as a carpenter in the building trade and my Mum has worked both as a dinner lady and in retail. They worked hard and I never could ask for anything more they have done for me.  I studied hard and, with the help of my parents and the staff at my old school of St Peter & St Paul’s, got good grades and became the first in my family to go to University.

I now want to help others reach their goals, dreams and ambitions; that is why I am a Liberal Democrat.

The other core principles the Lib Dems were built on are the “fundamental values of liberty, equality and community”.

The Lib Dems, and the Liberals before, have been at the forefront of issues such as human rights, the environment, devolution, social justice and many more, long before they have been taken seriously by the other main parties, often being ridiculed by them for raising these issues that affect so many people’s lives. It never stopped us and our resolve grew stronger.

Personally, the Lib Dems long history in supporting LGBT rights is another key element for me. As someone who has experienced homophobia and had friends attacked for being themselves shows that there is still a long way to go in the journey. Equal Marriage was a fantastic step by the coalition, but there is lots still to do especially we need to look at the way in which LGBT asylum seekers are treated.

Looking back over the last five years of coalition, I am proud that the Liberal Democrats have been able to implement policies that follow these principles – the increased numbers of apprenticeships and the Pupil Premium to help children from the poorest backgrounds, to scrapping ID cards and ending child detention, and giving an £800 tax cut to millions of workers.

If you believe in a society in which people have the freedom to be themselves and live without fear, a country which keeps its citizens’ privacy and human rights, a promise to preserve our planet for generations to come and a nation that helps an supports everyone from whatever background to achieve their potential in life then you are also a Liberal Democrat.

Article for my Lincolnite column – posted by The Lincolnite 28th January

The Importance of Pride

With Lincoln hosting its Pride festival for the LGBT community this last weekend, it is important to remember why the LGBT community still holds these events, not only up and down the country, but across the world.

Although LGBT rights have come a long way since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 across England and Wales; such as the end of Section 28, Civil Partnership and now Equal Marriage, adoption rights for LGBT couples, being openly gay in the British forces and an the right to legally change your gender; there are still some areas that need to be tackled.

Lincoln Pride flag in 2009
Lincoln Pride in 2009

The LGBT community still faces opposition and discrimination in many forms. It was reported by The Lincolnite last week that many homes within the city received a leaflet through their door condemning homosexuality. This comes after similar events in Leicester and Brighton. I respect people’s right to have an opinion and to express it; however the leaflets residents received pushed the bounds of decency and locals never requested to receive such opinions through their letterboxes. It has caused offence to many members of the community whether they are gay or straight and I am pleased the police are taking this matter seriously.

There are also still large numbers of incidents of members of the LGBT community who are attacked simply for being who they are. In 2011/2012, the UK saw over 4,000 incidents of ‘gay bashing’ with some police forces showing a rise of up to 40%. A survey, published in 2013, showed that a quarter of gay people had been attacked at some point in their lives across the European Union.

Lib Dems marching at Brighton Pride in 2010
LGBT+ Lib Dems at Brighton Pride in 2010

We need to head abroad for the biggest challenges in the fight for LGBT rights. Across the world, 81 countries still have laws that make homosexuality illegal; from Algeria through Egypt and Morocco to Zimbabwe in Africa, Afghanistan and India to Singapore and Yemen in Asia and the Middle East, Barbados to Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean. But 38 of these countries have laws that make homosexuality punishable by death. I find the possibility of someone being punished by death for being gay intolerable.

We have also seen an anti-gay propaganda law in Russia passed by President Putin which has led to a number of attacks and arrests through the country on members of the LGBT community.

London Pride March 2010
London Pride March in 2010

I am pleased to see that that Lincoln Pride is continuing to grow from strength to strength over the last couple of years. The LGBT community is part of a diverse and growing city, and I am happy that so many people supported the event, even though I could not make the event myself. The comments from The Lincolnite‘s coverage of Lincoln Pride also show that many people still do not understand the true meaning of why Pride takes place. More education should take place in our schools as to equality and diversity to help people understand the need for such an event.

We do need to remember that many of the LGBT community across the global are not so lucky. By the LGBT coming together to celebrate, it gives us time to reflect that this country, despite coming a long way since the 1960s, we have a long way to go before true equality here and a duty to help other LGBT communities across the world.

Can ‘Rainbow Laces’ tie up homophobia in football?

Football players up and down the country this last weekend played their part in helping to stamp out homophobia in football, and to some extent, sport in general. Compared to other public domains, sport still has less LGBT representatives than most, and this applies especially to football.

Players from clubs from every division and every part of the country laced up their boots with ‘Rainbow Laces’ to show their support for stopping homophobic attitudes in football. As a gay man and a football fan, I know that homophobia still exists in some forms in football.

Gainsborough Trinty players pictured with rainbow laces on their boots
Gainborough Trinity Footballers showing off their Rainbow Laces prior to kick off. Picture by Libby Smith

After going to watch my hometown team, Lincoln City playing Braintree Town at home, I heard some homophobic comments from the stands, and although it was not directed at an openly gay player and by many is seen as the banter of the terraces, it still is homophobic. Comments such as ‘Stop playing like a pansy’ or ‘You’re not injured! Get up you fairy’ should have no place in any arena of life, not even a football stadium.

Fans and players of Brighton and Hove Albion have also been subjected to homophobic chanting over many years due to Brighton’s connections to the gay community. In the 2012/13 season, Brighton and Hove Albion submitted a study to the FA, the Football League and the Football Supporters Federation showing Brighton fans suffered homophobic abuse from 72% of opponents in that season, in 70% of away games and in 57% of all matches. This included allegations of chanting, gestures by players and threats made to supporters leaving a game. The report, which go into detail and the responses from the opposition clubs involved, states: “Some of the chants are fairly mild (“does your boyfriend know you are here”) and some more unpleasant (“you’re just a town full of faggots”).

They are homophobic whether they are directed at a gay person or a straight person and they do cut to the bone, often worse than any type of physical injury. Whether they are heard by a player or fan who is struggling with their sexuality or if they are out and proud, it still hurts. There is also the matter that if this taunts directed at fans and players were about the colour of their skin, the chants would never be considered acceptable in the game today.

There is a glimmer on the horizon. After a string of personalities from other sports coming out such as diver Tom Daley, former rugby star Gareth Thomas, Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, American Football star Michael Sam or Olympic boxer Nicola Adams; football is finally beginning to catch up.

Recently Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former German international and Aston Villa player, came out after retiring from football in 2013, and Robbie Rogers, US international and former Leeds United player, retired and came out in 2013 but then re-started his career playing for LA Galaxy in the United States. One of the poster boys for gay footballers is Anton Hysén, son of the former Liverpool player Glenn Hysén, who came out in 2011. He is currently playing for Myrtle Beach FC in the USA.

There is also a number of football stars in the women’s game who have publically come out, most recently Casey Stoney, the former England and Lincoln Ladies captain, who is currently expecting twins with her partner Megan Harris, who also played for Lincoln Ladies.

But currently, there is only one openly gay male player in English football. His name is Liam Davis who plays for Gainsborough Trinity and he has been open about his sexuality for five years. Before the Rainbow Laces weekend, BBC Newsbeat interviewed the 23 year-old winger and he said that he wanted the players and clubs to have the Rainbow Laces for a whole season to show true support for stamping out homophobia in football.

Openly gay footballer Liam Davis pictured playing football
Liam Davis (pictured with the ball) playing for Gainborough Trinity. Picture by Libby Smith

With the Rainbow Laces, it is a sign that football is making headway and also that Liverpool FC made history as being the first Premier League club to take part in a gay pride parade at the 2012 Liverpool Pride event shows that clubs are being more inclusive, but I have to agree with Liam Davis and say that the Rainbow Laces campaign should last a whole season.

I am very proud that Liam Davis is playing for a club in my home county of Lincolnshire, but I have to say I hope he is not the last gay footballer to be out and proud in the English leagues.