When JOEL BUTLER’s fellow Solihull Moors fans joined him in calling out homophobia, the community spirit helped inspire a new fanzine – Bandwagon. He explains how football and the freedom to be yourself are intertwined…
It was on a Tuesday night in early September 2019 that Solihull Moors travelled to face Notts County, the hosts still fresh from losing their status as the oldest club in the Football League.
As the teams played out a turgid, scrappy 0-0 on the Meadow Lane pitch, naturally the crowd’s attentions drifted elsewhere. It was a third of the way into the second half that a home fan, dressed in a pink top, charged down to the front of his stand to launch an apoplectic barrage of abuse at Moors goalkeeper, Ryan Boot. Naturally, the away support jeered.
Then something else happened. Something that I’d never heard from a Solihull Moors crowd before. Something that, for the first time since turning up to the Moors’ first-ever competitive game as a long-haired 16-year-old with my 10-year-old kid brother in tow, made me feel profoundly unwelcome as a Solihull fan.
“Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” sang a group of people who probably ought to have known far better. Presumably, the pinkness of the guy’s shirt was enough to single him out for abuse predicated on the idea that gay men are inferior and do not belong in football crowds; that their partners would be offended that they had dared to do something so masculine.
From there, it escalated. Offensive slurs about gay men were screamed mindlessly, with venom.
And when that wasn’t enough, the well-trodden, age-old escalation followed. “Nonce!”
Because, of course, in this atmosphere, the prejudiced suggestion that being attracted to other men is the same thing as actively abusing children is something to be laughed off.
I’d never come away from a football match feeling that way before. I’d been at 5-1 defeats away from home that felt like less of a kicking. Nothing that happens on the pitch can hollow you out in quite the same way as something like that, striking at the fabric of who you are.
I had been watching Moors from the beginning – crowds of 200 or less at home back in basement scraps in the National North – and here were my own tribe, knowingly or not, casting me out. I spoke to another gay fan, and other friends who were there, who felt the same. With mind-bending trepidation, I wrote a forum post condemning the chanting and explaining exactly the effect it had. Then I slept. Badly.
Thankfully, the community response was fantastic. Almost wall-to-wall support. Messages from other gay fans – who didn’t feel comfortable outing themselves at football – to thank me for what I’d done.
Of course, there was the redheaded Moors fan who took umbrage that I’d called an aggressive Kelty Hearts fan who wanted to fight my friend a ‘ginger prick’, who saw fit to draw a false equivalence between that and ingrained homophobia.
Then there was the aggressive old bloke who latched onto that complaint to lecture me about having to make everything about myself and being oversensitive.
But largely, it was great. The club stated their opposition to discrimination in all forms. The community came through. I had people I’d never met coming to see me on the terraces to tell me they had my back. It restored my faith that, regardless of how quickly a club grows, or how transformative that process is, the supportive non-league community ethos is still there at its core. You just have to re-find it sometimes and bring it to the fore.
A month or so later, with that in mind, Bandwagon was born. It weaves together all these different threads via the medium of a community-focused fanzine.
It was evident that the Moors had grown to a point where there was demand for a decent fan publication – albeit one that remains online and free – but that creating such a platform could also be of huge benefit in bringing that community closer and giving all sorts of people an opportunity to freely express themselves.
I edit the monthly publication with my good friend Dan Myatt, who has bags of graphic design talent and experience, and does a fantastic job in making our e-journals look thoroughly professional. I – the frustrated writer and ‘self-obsessed homosexual’ – handle proofing and write regular surreal columns. We have the same vision for what we’re trying to achieve, and it’s a pleasure to work on something we take such pride in with a close friend.
The result is something, smart, funny, irreverent, but full of heart and soul, too. As the vast majority of readers and contributors are male, we are – by default – telling constructive tales of masculinity. The father reminiscing about shared moments with his son watching games together; the 11-year-old getting to nerd out in a beautifully-written piece about what it means to him to be a junior player for his favourite team; the jokes at our own expense, the making and sharing of memories, the rebuilding of lost camaraderie as old connections get strung out further apart along long terraces amidst hundreds of people.
That said, we have deliberately avoided shying away from difficult topics, such as homophobia and racism. During the Rainbow Laces campaign, a friend of mine sent me a screenshot of one of our players making disparaging comments on social media about Birmingham City’s rainbow corner flags. That prompted a short piece that, without naming names, expressed our disappointment and hope for better.
Ultimately, being visible, human faces and having tough conversations rather than ducking them and patronising readers, is the best way I as an individual have found of tackling prejudices and challenging the deep foundations of football’s structural homophobia – on and off the pitch. For me, the whole journey has been a profoundly liberating experience.
Just as our club hits its awkward, rampant teenage growth spurt, so our fan journalism project at Bandwagon grows. We’ve recently launched a new website – www.bandwagonfanzine.com – and will be working with the supporters’ association to share the platform, as well as continuing to tap into the community for our usual fan-generated content.
We’re determined to prove that, just because a club grows and rises, it doesn’t mean toxicity has to follow. We can be different. We can be better.
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