Rainbow Laces: Openly Gay referee says football needs to take stand

This weekend marks the second weekend of Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign which encourages sport clubs across the country to come out in support for LGBT people and to make sport everyone’s game. To celebrate this, the Independent’s Craig Bratt is talking to LGBT sports personalities from around our region and sharing their stories to raise awareness of important issues.

Speaking to The Independent is Ryan Atkin, the UK’s first openly gay professional referee, who has officiated matches from the National League and Women’s Super League to the Championship. Proud Plymothian Ryan discusses his life as an openly LGBT professional in football and the importance of the Rainbow Laces campaign.

Ryan has been an outspoken advocate of the campaign since its launch and is keen to share why Rainbow Laces is so important in the wider sporting world as people across the country are encouraged to ‘Come Out For LGBT’ – meaning they are being asked to show their support for LGBT supporters, players and staff at clubs.. “Rainbow Laces is a fantastic visual to all those in football about LGBT. It allows dialogue to take place and brings LGBT to the forefront.”

To consider that we don’t have many openly gay men in professional football – and none in this country – signifies that there is a stigma and deep-rooted underlying issues predominately sitting within the administrative/management side of the game.”

The statistics show that LGBT people do not feel that sport is a place they can fit in and Atkin wants to help change these numbers. Raising awareness is his key target. “What Rainbow Laces does is raise awareness to individuals about their choice of language, their behaviours and their own personal values.”

We want people to challenge their values and decide whether what they’re doing or what they are saying or how they’re behaving is appropriate.

4/10 LGBT people believe that sport is not inclusive for them and that is a really sad statistic.”

Since revealing his sexuality two years ago, Atkin has been lucky not to have received any direct abuse but says that seeing incidences occur both on and off the pitch hindered his youth. “In my early days in football it stopped me being who I am because you did not see people who are the same as you in the game.

While not receiving any direct homophobic abuse, I’ve heard other receive it and I’ve witnessed player using homophobic words within a game.

That’s really hard for people who are LGBT who aren’t out. It’s not necessarily being challenged robustly within the leagues, a bit like racism, and it’s being allowed to continue to a point where authorities are having to take a firm stand.”

Atkin says he had excellent support from the refereeing community

Football has often been accused of not doing enough to support players who may want to come out, but Atkin could not speak more highly of the refereeing authorities who rallied around him when he came out. The FA, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), the Premier League and Sky Sports all got behind Atkin and gave him the platform to break down barriers. “Everyone was extremely supportive, and it is always warming that other athletes have had similar experiences in the main. Involving the organisations from the start was a huge positive for me.

The refereeing family have also been very accepting. These individuals have dedicated a lot of time and worked hard to be operating in the professional game, and as the arbiters of the game, an open mind, fair and equal mentality is something we naturally possess.”

But while he is pleased with how he was received by those at the top of the game, he has issued a rallying cry to the authorities globally as incidences of discrimination continue to blight the beautiful game. Just last week Wycombe Wanderers goalkeeper Ryan Allsopp was reportedly hurled with homophobic abuse during a match against Tranmere Rovers, showing that much more needs to be done to eradicate homophobia from sport.

Football needs to take a firm stand.

Because there’s no firm stand on racism at the moment, homophobia will always be second to that or lag behind.

That’s not saying one should be dealt with more than others, because they should be treated exactly the same, but I think there needs to be a firm stand on what organisations and governing bodies are going to do if incidences take place.”

If you’d like to share your story, contact The Independent by emailing craig.bratt@indyonline.co.uk.