‘Those chants can put you further in the closet’ – LGBTQ+ fans discuss on Football v Homophobia Podcast

Published by Jon Holmes on

Anger, annoyance, and the knowledge that a “nuanced” approach is needed – the reactions of gay supporters to the recent spate of homophobic chanting; listen to new episode now; Chelsea fan Jake Williamson and Pride of Irons co-founder Jim Dolan are guests alongside FC Bellevue’s Delwyn ‘Sheep’ Derrick, who gives an ally’s perspective…

By Jon Holmes

Jake Williamson joins the Football v Homophobia Podcast to talk about the impact of anti-LGBTQ+ language

When Jake Williamson was attending Chelsea games in his mid to late teens, he was cheering on his team while also trying to fit in with the crowd.

This was the midway point of the Roman Abramovich era in the early 2010s. The Blues were challenging on all fronts – and often winning trophies – while regularly changing their head coaches and spending freely in the transfer market.

Opposition fans took aim. There was a homophobic song that insulted striker Fernando Torres, left-back Ashley Cole was subjected to anti-gay jibes shouted from the stands, and a chant about being ‘rent boys’ would be directed at Chelsea.

A decade on, Torres and Cole may have retired, but the chant hasn’t been – and it’s been heard so frequently at games in early 2023 that statements and comments about it have been issued by clubs, fan groups, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the Football Association.

The latter has reminded clubs that they face “formal disciplinary action” if their fans engage in discriminatory behaviour, adding specifically: “The FA has now informed all clubs that it considers the ‘Rent Boy’ chant to be a breach of the FA Rules.”

It’s an issue of concern to Jake, who shared his personal football story in public for the first time on Jack Murley’s BBC LGBT Sport Podcast back in December 2021 and has since appeared on Sky News and ITV’s Good Morning Britain. He recently joined the LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective, the network group that’s helping to provide representation and community within the game.

On a new episode of the Football v Homophobia Podcast, he reflects on how the homophobic language that swirled around the men’s game influenced him as a teenager, and the impact it will still be having now.

“I’ve been there [at Chelsea games] as both a closeted gay man and as an out gay man,” he explains.

“I was so in denial at the point when I was younger – aged 16 to 18 – that it didn’t necessarily affect me too much at the time.

“But looking back, you realise how much those chants and the terminology being used really does put you further into the closet effectively. It makes you feel that you don’t fit into society and community as a whole.

“You go even further into yourself and you don’t feel like you can come out because of what’s being said and what people are chanting, with a herd mentality.”

Joining Jake on the FvH Podcast is Jim Dolan, who founded West Ham’s LGBTQ+ and allies fans group Pride of Irons back in 2014 after an incident of homophobic abuse at a Hammers game.

During his co-chairship, Jim attempted to tackle the “nuanced problem” of the ‘rent boys’ chant with the club’s wider fanbase on more than one occasion. He found social media was not the place for constructive dialogue, as it rapidly descended into whataboutery and accusatory abuse.

With the advice from the CPS having changed in early 2022 as a result of campaigning by Chelsea Pride, Proud Lilywhites and others, he believes the best approach now is to highlight the gravity of the consequences for those who are caught using the slur – in any context.

“People go with the herd,” says Jim. “How do we get the message across that a, this is wrong and b, it’s to be taken seriously, without making them clap back?

“In this case, they’re saying ‘I’m not homophobic’ – and they’re probably not. But what they have to understand is that what they’re saying is wrong.

“It’s not just that it’s hurtful but it’s that saying it will get you in trouble. It’s that serious that you could get a criminal conviction.”

Growing a greater sense of allyship on the terraces is part of the wider cultural shift that will help to make men’s football more welcoming. An example of this is how Kop Outs! – Liverpool’s LGBTQ+ and allies fans group – got Jurgen Klopp and Jordan Henderson to talk publicly about the damage caused by homophobic language.

A club at the forefront of inclusion in Wales is FC Bellevue, founded by Delwyn ‘Sheep’ Derrick who completes the panel of guests on this episode of the FvH Podcast.

‘Sheep’ set up Bellevue in Wrexham back in 2016 as a fully inclusive club for the benefit of the local community and has been recognised with several awards.

He believes more work needs to be done in advance of fixtures where there is an expectation that attempts will be made by some supporters to get the homophobic chant sung en masse.

“In some games where this chant is happening, there’s no action being taken in the stadium,” says ‘Sheep’.

“The police are acting retrospectively. I thought the role of the police was to prevent crime so where’s the preventative action within the stadium itself?

“There may be closeted gay men on the pitch, and there are obviously going to be gay supporters in the crowds. Our responsibility has to be to safeguard those people.”

Also in the podcast episode, Jake discusses the importance of clubs taking responsibility to drive conversations within their own fanbases about the impact of homophobic language.

Jim describes the work Pride of Irons has been doing with Kick It Out to deliver restorative justice programmes that are bespoke to clubs, giving those who have been punished with stadium bans the opportunity to speak “in real terms” about hate crime and potentially open up a route back.

Meanwhile, ‘Sheep’ encourages those in men’s football who aren’t LGBTQ+ themselves to take an active stance as an ally, particularly if they are in leadership positions at the top of the game.

Listen to the Football v Homophobia Podcast on Apple, Spotify and Google.

Show your support for the FvH Month of Action in February! Nominate in the fourth annual FvH Awards – the window is open until Friday 20 January.

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Jon Holmes

Digital Sports Editor