Referees take pride in being part of ‘game-changing’ LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective

Ryan Atkin and Stacey Pearson are among the match officials who are representing their community in the sport on a new industry network group; the LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective was launched on June 16 and is open to all in the game who want to drive inclusion; Atkin hails “great strides” made by PGMOL and The FA in recent years…

By Jon Holmes

Ryan Atkin at the LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective launch event in London in June 2022 (all event images by Sam Rees)

As a FIFA international and WSL referee, Stacey Pearson feels more than comfortable when taking charge of matches at the highest levels of football.

Stacey Pearson

Yet if the aim of the game is to go largely unnoticed on the pitch by spectators, Pearson is confident being visible off the field. In recent years, she has actively campaigned for equality on IVF treatment for same-sex couples, and also shares aspects of her family life and work as a teacher on Twitter and Instagram.

There is a rainbow flag emoji in the bios of both of those accounts and Pearson is happy to speak to the media and at public events about being LGBTQ+. Now she’s part of a new initiative designed to help others from the community and allies who are navigating their own paths in football.

Pearson is one of the founder members of the new LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective which has been launched in Pride Month for the benefit of players, coaches, referees and others who are employed in the game.

Step 1 referee Ryan Atkin – who came out publicly in 2017 – is another of the 20-strong core group who have got the Collective up and running. Both match officials share a desire to make further positive change on inclusion and show that football is an industry of choice for LGBTQ+ people.

Pearson, who recently became a mum for the second time, says: “I think it’s really important to have a group of supportive and collaborative individuals who are willing to be visible, particularly from all different roles in the game including officials, players, coaches and the media.

“If you can see it, you can be it, as they say. We’re never going to change the perception of under-represented groups unless we have people who are willing to challenge and combat these matters and be visible in doing so.

“Speaking from an official’s point of view, it’s important to show that we are human too. We do have passions and we do have a voice.”

Parker Dunn, Jahmal Howlett-Mundle, Matt Morton and Chloe Morgan spoke on a panel discussion at the Collective’s launch event at Colours Hoxton

On the Collective, she adds: “I was invited to join and I of course said ‘yes’ straight away. I was humbled to be asked to be a part of such an amazing group of people if I’m honest, especially as it’s something close to my heart.

“We all are together in being supportive to help others and that includes encouraging allies to speak out and support the LGBTQ+ community to create a safer and happier environment for them in football.

“Whether that’s players, coaches, officials or spectators, we won’t ever make positive changes or make bigger strides to eradicate discrimination if we don’t have allies challenging it and calling it out.

“I’ve been part of the community since I was young and when I transitioned from playing to being an official, I never felt like there was a barrier to me being someone who is LGBT+.

“Football has always been a safe space for me personally but that isn’t the case for everyone, so it’s important to give back and show that once you can truly be yourself, you are much happier for doing so.

“All of us in the Collective want to achieve the same goals – we want people to be supported, we want people to feel safe and we want them to not be afraid to accept and embrace their authentic selves.

“Hopefully in the maybe not too distant future, we will see more people in professional football come out and follow in the brave footsteps of Jake Daniels.”

When Atkin shared his truth five years ago, he became the first out gay man in an on-the-pitch role in British professional football since Justin Fashanu in the 1990s.

Since then, representation is slowly growing in the men’s game. Teenage Blackpool striker Daniels’ coming out made global headlines in May, but so did the stories of non-league managers Matt Morton and Luke Tuffs, and defender Jahmal Howlett-Mundle. Meanwhile, in Scotland, referees Craig Napier and Lloyd Wilson have both spoken publicly about being match officials who happen to be out gay men.

Lorenzo Thompson, Matt Morton, Jahmal Howlett-Mundle and Luke Tuffs at the Collective launch event

Facilitating safe, constructive communication between those who are out and those who might want to come out in the future is one of the Collective’s goals.

“This kind of group is something that I have dreamt about and aspired to be a part of since I came out in 2017,” says Atkin, “but representation in the professional game was more limited at that time.

“Having worked collaboratively with many in the group individually within their different fields and professions, the coming together of all to create this wonderful Collective is truly inspiring – it will be a game-changer within football.

“Some of the best minds and people have been involved in the early concept of this Collective. We all share the passionate belief that football loves them – whoever they are – and that they can love football as who they want to be.”

Chloe Morgan being interviewed by Sky Sports News on launch night

He adds: “Football belongs to everyone! It’s the people in football that make it so special. It’s a space to collaborate, support and collectively campaign and drive positive change in football.

“To have the opportunity to help shape its creation and give referees a voice at the table was so important to me, because it helps bridge the misconceptions of referees and reminds those within football that we are human.

“Only as one collective voice will we see the real and impactful change that we all want. Referees are fundamental to the game and as we have seen in recent years with the higher profile that refereeing now gets, I feel it’s only right that we have a seat at the table.

“The work being done within PGMOL and The FA to make football for everyone has taken some great strides in the last few years.

“We have seen more of the refereeing family feel comfortable to come out and share their stories – I’m proud the refereeing community is one of the leaders in this.”

Learn more about the LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective on their website. To contact the group in confidence, just drop an email to hello@lgbtqfootball.com.

Thanks to Sam Rees for photography.


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