Gay football fights its corner

After reading some articles today, it's still very clear that racism is a huge issue in world football.  Less rarely challenged is homophobia.  It's time that both problems were given a hefty kick in the bollocks.  Martyn Fisher looks at the GFSN Cup.

Brighton Bandits began their Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN) Cup campaign on Sunday with a 3-3 home draw against Stonewall Apprentices. Trailing 2-0 at half-time, the Bandits rallied and secured an injury time equalizer to hold the Londoners.

The majority of Brighton’s ¼m population obviously had better plans that particular afternoon: save for several subs, a coach apiece, and yours truly, the touchlines were bare.

But this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill cup tie between Greendale Post Office and Bash Street Seniors FC – Brighton and Stonewall represent entire cities, and embody an important message.

Revamped over the summer, the GFSN Cup is now in its fifth season. It was introduced when the corresponding 11-a-side national league expanded to eight teams, and has so far produced four different winners in its short existence.

The non-profit organisation that attaches its acronym to the competition was established in 1989 as a medium for gay football fans to socialise. A four-team national league followed thirteen years later and the network also assists the FA in its attempts to kick homophobia out of football.

But homophobia is a society problem. When HotScots won the GFSN Cup in 2009, celebrations were forcibly subdued: “Some of our lads haven’t come out yet so cannot bask in the limelight,” said chairman Kevin Rowe at the time. “Some are teachers and policemen and still don’t feel comfortable with being publicly outed.”

Brighton Bandits publicity officer Elliot Toms echoes Rowe’s sentiments, highlighting the necessity of a set-up catering for LGBT footballers: “Mainstream football isn’t appealing to gay people,” says Toms. “It’s not easy being openly gay in a traditionally homophobic environment, and hiding your sexuality is difficult.”

The GFSN competitions offer a nationwide social club too - Brighton and Stonewall shared a night on the town before their game, adhering to a GFSN custom that fuses playing football with a beer-fuelled second facet.

This emphasis on enjoyment and tolerance keeps member clubs paying the annual entrance fee: “Most of us have different aims to some gay community clubs, whose ambitions are progression in football,” says Scott Lawley, publicity officer for current Cup holders Nottingham BallBois. “Our aims are around inclusion and providing football opportunities regardless of results.”

New members are piling under the GFSN umbrella each year, and this season sees a record 16 teams competing in the Cup, alongside two six-team National Leagues - a regional group stage in the former contrasting with leagues split on ability.

But teams, leagues, and opportunities don’t just start and end with the GFSN.

HotScots beat 2007 cup winners GFC Bournemouth & Hampshire in the 2009 final (played to around 200 people in Woking’s 6k-seater Kingfield Stadium). But as of this season, GFC no longer play in either GFSN competition.

Unable to commit to the costly and arduous campaign enforced by the changes, GFC created the South West League. “We didn’t support the new National League split based on ability”, says GFC chairman Martin Hastings. Teams from Exeter, Bristol, Cardiff and Trowbridge signed up to join them, and matches began last month. “With fewer dates in the diary, there are more opportunities to play locally and boost the social side,” Hastings adds.

The South West League isn’t the only regional LGBT league in existence either: London Unity League (LUL) is a seven-team division exclusive to clubs in the capital. Elsewhere, Aberdeen’s Granite City Stormers, Mersey Marauders, Dublin Devils, and Irish Shamrocks are all alive and well, but yet to formally participate in 11-a-side competition.

Village Manchester and Stonewall FC both enter their reserves in the GFSN Cup – the Apprentices, in the case of the latter. The first teams play at decent local and non-league levels respectively, and their football-focused mindset is one the GFSN would like to see slowly edged into its competitions: “We are a football club first and foremost and that’s what players who play for us expect,” explains Village liaison officer Jason McAuley.

Most LGBT clubs also enter teams in local 5-a-side leagues, and annual LGBT 5-a-side tournaments are held during the summer. On the continent competitions abound, and just a few months ago Stonewall took gold at the Gay Games in Cologne.

Some clubs find travelling Europe preferable to playing the same teams year in year out: “We recently came back from an international trip to Belgium and are off to another in Copenhagen in November,” says London Leftfooters manager Oliver Daly. “Next, we’ve a tournament in Berlin in April, plus games in Rotterdam and Vancouver in July.”

It’s fantastic to see so many LGBT clubs alive and well throughout the UK, but their existence illustrates the deep-rootedness of homophobia in society. More urgently than the new or updated leagues, it’s this attitude that must undergo change.

Martyn is site editor for the excellent Defensive Midfielder and you can follow him on Twitter @bundesliga_wrap

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