BY JAMES ARROWSMITH
Sport has always been a huge part of my life. I owe this to both of my parents encouraging me to get involved from a young age. However, despite a general interest in all sport, football has always been my game of choice. Whether it’s just having a kick around with friends, watching my beloved Leeds United or playing on a Sunday morning, football has brought me immense joy and friendships. However, as I got older my relationship with the beautiful game began to sour, as the ethos created a conflict with my sexuality. My once favourite sport instead started bringing me intense periods of misery and pain.
Football has rightly developed a reputation for being deeply homophobic. The Rainbow Laces Campaign did a survey on homophobia in sport which found that 72% of football supporters in the last 5 years had heard homophobic abuse at matches. So, as I found myself less interested in girls, my relationship with the game changed. Whereas friends would talk about women and have relationships with them, I found myself feeling isolated and questioning whether my attractions were normal. Instead of coming out to a small group of trusted friends or approaching my sexuality in a healthy manner, I tried to mask and suppress it using football.
I’ve always been aware of the ingrained homophobia at the grassroots level. The culture in Sunday league football was that you were expected to do whatever you could to win. That would mean dirty play, aggressive behavior and hurling abuse of almost any kind. I used all three to vent some of my frustrations and anger at what I saw as my own inadequacies. Much of the homophobia stemmed from abuse on the pitch, being appropriated into banter, which everyone was expected to partake in. This created a conflict where either I took a stand, or I reluctantly got involved just to fit in. Not only did I find the prejudices troubling, I made it worse.
After I stopped playing competitively aged 18, I had lost my outlet. I had to grow up and confront my issues. Months later I plucked up the courage to come out to a small group of trusted friends and my immediate family. I’m lucky enough to say I’ve never looked back and found it the most liberating experience imaginable.
Recently, I was asked by a friend about getting back into football. I said I wasn’t sure, as I didn’t quite feel like I could go back. Although I still have a passion for the game and 12 years of great memories, I will always associate playing football with having to hide my identity and being unable to face up to a culture of prejudice and discrimination.