‘Homophobia nearly made me quit football’ – Ruaridh Donaldson on breaking the silence

Published by Jon Holmes on

Non-league footballer Ruaridh Donaldson found his allyship of the LGBT+ community crystallised after experiencing homophobia first-hand. Now he uses his voice to be a role model on the pitch and in the dressing room.

By Laura Howard

Scottish footballer Ruaridh Donaldson is known to be a strong LGBT+ ally in the National League (image: Thom Lang)

Another three o’clock kick-off in the National League South, a Saturday like any other. Except this time Ruaridh Donaldson would drive home wondering whether he ever wants to play football again.

Late on in the match, Donaldson’s Hampton & Richmond FC were defending a corner against hosts Tonbridge Angels when he heard a shout.

The terraces of non-league grounds often ring with chants proclaiming one team or another ‘are massive everywhere they go’, but this was different.

“A fan picked me out, he was maybe three or four metres away from me, and he used a homophobic slur right in my face. It was absolutely abhorrent. It was really shocking,” reflects Donaldson.

“On the drive home from that game, I phoned my partner and my brother. I was really struggling with whether I should continue playing football. It was as impactful as that. I was really, really shocked by the overt nature of it.

“For someone who is not LGBTQ+, but is an ally, it had an enormous impact on me. Going through that process, it was not really taken seriously by the FA or by the referee on the day.”

It was a moment that galvanised Donaldson’s support of the LGBTQ+ community. He now wears rainbow laces in every match in support of Stonewall’s campaign.

“I felt it was critical to show overt support for the [Rainbow Laces] campaign. If that has a positive impact on one person who’s come to watch me over the last two years, I’d be happy,” says Donaldson.

While a minor act, solidarity like this is all too rare in a sport that has just one out-professional, Blackpool’s Jake Daniels, currently playing in the top four divisions of English men’s football.

Now playing for Chelmsford City, Donaldson is taking action you might not expect of your stereotypical male footballer, but then he is not like a stereotypical footballer at all.

The Scottish left-winger embodies his on-pitch identity in politics too, as a self-proclaimed socialist, vegan and advocate of Scottish independence.

Donaldson can often be found on the coach to away games watching documentaries on geopolitics in the South China Sea.

In fact, he admits he would much rather be reading a book on feminism than engaging in pre-match chat about the latest Love Island development.

Such political awareness has contributed to a unique understanding of the issues at stake when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights in men’s football.

“There’s institutionalised homophobia and institutionalised sexism within male football. Rather than the specific changing rooms cultivating homophobia, I think that the structure means that people don’t feel as though they are empowered to come out,” Donaldson explains.

“The culture has been one of silence. That silence is maintaining the status quo. Unless you are actively vocal in your support of political campaigns, then you are not going to influence positive change.

“Instead, you’re going to entrench the existing position and the existing position is wrong. I don’t want there to be no out male professional footballers at the top level.”

Donaldson recently signed for Chelmsford City after five seasons at Hampton & Richmond (image: Thom Lang)

It is a seemingly bleak assessment of a game that clearly remains lagging behind when it comes to sexual diversity. Yet Donaldson believes there is a willingness from individuals to learn and accept.

“I feel that in most changing rooms that I’ve been in, should an individual come out as gay, then that decision in itself would be widely supported,” he reassures.

“You’d be surprised by the extent to which we have political-based conversations in the football changing room. Whether it’s on the bus down to Torquay or whatever, the guys are interested.

“More and more footballers are understanding their role in society and the opportunity that they have to positively influence change.”

Donaldson chipped in with 23 league goals during his time at Hampton & Richmond (image: Thom Lang)

As a politically active and visible ally, Donaldson often acts as a gateway for his teammates to take their first forays into politics.

“If they see me reading a particular book, they might ask me about it. Often guys will just pose broad questions at me and try and understand what my viewpoint on that is,” he says.

“There have been core issues that everyone in the country has been exposed to and involved in. Everyone is experiencing the cost-of-living crisis, so that is felt acutely by people in the football changing room.

“Some guys will glaze over, for sure, but you know which ones to engage with. I choose my moments wisely,” he says with a wry smile.

Instead of quitting football, Donaldson has channelled his own experiences into becoming a better ally from inside the changing room.

Football in the National League South is all the better for it. In a system of institutionalised homophobia, we need more Ruaridh Donaldsons willing to speak out.

Follow Laura on X / Twitter at @laura_hwd. Thanks to Thom Lang (@grtourist on Instagram) for the imagery.

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Jon Holmes

Digital Sports Editor