Current holder of FvH Hero Award tells FvH Podcast how she used her own visibility to open up a conversation that went beyond just her school; Hayley Wood-Thompson is the captain of Cheshunt FC Women and a P.E. teacher in Hertfordshire; see full category shortlists for FvH Awards 2023 here…
The P.E. teacher was recognised for the powerful way in which she combined themes of football and equality with the story of her own personal journey to make an outstanding contribution in LGBT+ History Month.
Hayley, who is also the captain of Cheshunt FC Women, made a film that was shown in a schoolwide assembly. It sparked constructive conversations that went far beyond just her own community in Hertfordshire, and led to her being nominated for the FvH Awards.
Speaking to Sports Media LGBT+‘s Jon Holmes on the FvH Podcast, she described how it all came about, following discussions at school during the winter lockdown of early 2021 caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Although Hayley felt confident to share her truth publicly, there was still a degree of trepidation.
“I was apprehensive about doing it, not really from a student point of view but from the parents, because you never know how it might be received,” she recalls.
“And I knew it was going to go out as a virtual assembly into the homes of all of the students and their parents, and it would also go on the school’s Facebook page. So there would be the reaction from the local community – I was a bit worried about how it might be received.”
With the school campus empty due to Covid restrictions, Hayley was able to shoot on site without interruptions before editing the film with the help of her girlfriend Zoie.
The final cut was then released to every form time at the same time one morning during LGBT+ History Month – an audience of around 1,400 students.
“For some reason, I thought doing it online would be less scary than doing it face to face,” adds Hayley.
“But it was coming up to my 10 years in education. I sort of thought, the time is now – if I’m going to do something and leave a mark on these children, I should do it now.
“I’m well known in the school and the community. This could really help out lots of our students who were struggling with how they were feeling, just to have that relatable person that they knew and could come and talk to.
“There was no one in our school community that actually was out. I thought it was important to share that message, to say ‘you all know me’. It’s better if you’ve got that relatable person to actually say ‘this is who I am’ and it’s alright if you’re this way. That was the thought behind it.”
Comments on the school’s Facebook post praised Hayley, calling her “incredibly inspiring” and “genuine”, with many people saying they had been moved to tears.
Meanwhile, she also posted the video on her personal Twitter account where it has had over 100,000 views.
“It kind of blew up!” she laughs. “I’m really surprised by the reaction it got across the school’s social media platforms and then when I posted it on my Twitter, where I’ve got quite a lot of teachers that follow me.
“Lots of them asked if they could use it in their schools during LGBT+ History Month which I was happy to let them do. It got shown all over the place – I had messages online from New Zealand, over in America. I couldn’t believe it went worldwide and it was only filmed in Hertfordshire!”
Hayley says the fact so many people wanted her to know about the impact that the video had made on them personally meant a great deal.
“There were messages from past students who got in touch and emailed in. They said it would have really helped them at the time, if they’d seen that video when they were in school.
“And I had parents email in saying that they had watched it as a family and they’d had the opportunity to have a proper discussion with their children.
“That’s what I wanted. If I could help one student that was struggling, that would be a win but the fact it started a conversation in households at the time with students, that’s just brilliant.
“It was nice to hear that parents were sharing those experiences with their children and having decent discussions. Since then, students have also come up to me in the school and just said, ‘thanks – that helped me’.”
On the FvH Podcast episode, Hayley talks about growing up in Hertfordshire, memories of watching her beloved Watford in play-off finals, and her playing career which includes stints with the Hornets, Brighton – for whom she scored against Arsenal in the FA Cup – Enfield, Stevenage and then Cheshunt.
Now in her early 30s, she explains how women’s football was a vital outlet for self-discovery during her youth.
“When I was at school and wondering who I was, I didn’t have any LGBT+ role models within school. There wasn’t anyone I could talk to and it wasn’t actively spoken about.
“It wasn’t part of PSHE, and we didn’t talk about different families and how some families may have two dads, or two mums. It just wasn’t on the radar in education whatsoever.
“It was only through my involvement with football that I realised that actually there are other people like me. Football was my safe space – that’s how it is in the women’s game, it’s where lots of women who are just like me feel safe.
“Even as a young person growing up, moving through the ranks at Watford, you could sort of suss out each other and you just ended up feeling safe because it’s a community experience.
“Now we talk about it so much more and lots of children are comfortable to identify as who they want to be. It makes my job a lot easier – it’s so much easier to be an ally.”
Hayley’s well-deserved triumph at the FvH Awards in February 2022 was a fitting conclusion to this chapter of her story. Again, lockdown restrictions at the time meant she had to accept the award virtually, but she hopes to be there in person at this year’s event which will be held at the National Football Museum in Manchester on February 24 (tickets on sale now!)
Football v Homophobia Awards 2023 – category shortlists
Professional Club, sponsored by EFL
Chelsea FC; Sheffield United FC; Watford FC
Concord Rangers FC; Dulwich Hamlet FC; Harrogate Railway Athletic FC
English County FA, sponsored by The FA
Cheshire FA; Lincolnshire FA; London FA
Brighton Seagals FC; Helen Hardy; Sheffield United Women
Brandon Gregory; Cardiff Dragons FC; The Rainbow Wall
Andrew Henderson; Lloyd Wilson; Zander Murray
International, sponsored by Fare
BK Vestia; League of Tolerance; Sportif Lezbon
Football Media, sponsored by Sky Sports
Jacob Leeks; Jon Holmes; Steven Poletti
Camden Bells; Camp Hellcats; TRUK United FC
Proud Grecians; Proud Lilywhites; Rainbow Blades
Charlotte Galloway; Hannah Thornley; Zack Leader
Hayley also knows there is still so much work left to be done to make football more LGBTQ+-inclusive, particularly on the men’s side of the game.
One development in recent months has been the impact made by England’s success at the Women’s Euros (which Hayley wrote about for the i paper), the representation within that squad, and how so many more boys that she teaches know the names of the Lionesses players – and who they are in relationships with.
It was something that came to mind in November last year, when a Sunday tabloid newspaper ran a gossip story about the men’s game, headlined ‘Two Premier League teammates are in a relationship and open about being a gay couple’.
“The children were speculating about who that was, saying to me, ‘Miss, have you seen this?’
“It actually led to a really useful discussion, They were Year 9 students (13 to 14 years old), so still quite young and impressionable.
“I just talked to them about why a relationship shouldn’t be gossiped about. And I also asked them why should this be such a big scandal?
“I turned it on its head, and said, ‘how good would it be, if actually they were teammates who came out and were in the public eye?’
“I explained how in the women’s game, it’s not an issue – it’s a workplace essentially, and if two teachers at school are married, you don’t bat an eyelid. If two team-mates in the women’s game are married, it wouldn’t be that strange.”
“But in the men’s game, because it’s never happened before, you’re talking about it like it’s a scandal.”
Hayley says the children viewed the tabloid article differently after that and began to understand how less sensationalism in the media would lead to more positive outcomes for LGBTQ+ people in football.
“By the end of the conversation, they realised how it would make a big difference.”
Do you have a working role in football and want to contribute towards making the game more inclusive? Check out the LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective – a new network group supported by FvH, Kick It Out, Women in Football, Sports Media LGBT+ and others. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more!
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