Women’s football is well-known for it’s welcoming, diverse and open nature in which players and fans have the ability to fully express their true selves with no fear of prejudice or abuse.
It means (vastly different to the men’s game) that children and young adults can grow up with openly lesbian or bisexual role models, in turn, normalising what it is to be gay.
For those who are LGBTQ+, football offers a safe place to be themselves, that they otherwise may not get from school or at home. Reading midfielder Jess Fishlock has recently been speaking alongside Aston Villa defender Anita Asante at a Welsh Premier Women’s League event where she spoke about her experiences of being a gay footballer. The Welsh international highlighted the role that football played for her earlier in her career.
“For me football was my biggest escape” said Fishlock. “I don’t know where I would be right now without that, I was lucky that I had that to survive.
“Football became my safe place in a time I didn’t feel comfortable in my life because I was gay.”
For someone questioning or coming to terms with their sexuality, it can be a distressing and emotional time, in which the world as they know it feels like it is falling apart. It’s a lonely place, especially with such a heteronormative world around us. For many, women’s football may be the first place that they encounter people like themselves.
Looking back on her experiences, Aston Villa defender Asante said “Football is probably the first space where I got to meet people who happened to identify as gay or part of the LGBTQ+ community.”
Reading midfielder Fishlock, a trailblazer both on and off the pitch, then went on to explain that due to negative stereotypes, those playing football were, and still are, wrongly brandished as being a ‘lesbian’ or can be referred to as a ‘dyke’. While some players may be part of the LGBTQ+ community, it is wrong to generalise the women’s game as a collective.
For Fishlock and Asante, their footballing environments offered them a space to be what was expected of them.
Fishlock said “In going to my football team two or three times a week that was enough to survive.
“Back then it was not a very progressive time.”
Asante then added “Football has grown in the industry itself to provide another service.
“It’s not just a sports team, it becomes your family away from home.
“It offers a support network and it’s important that people feel safe in being able to express themselves, it is important for coaches to acknowledge these individuals and be there for them if they come for support.
“Football is vital for a happy mind and for an individual’s mental health, it offers a distraction from issues they are experiencing where for 90 minutes all their worries are eased and where that weight on their shoulders feels somewhat lighter.”
Away from the pitch, a player’s personal life is as open or closed as the individual chooses it to be. Some choose to keep private while others give us a glimpse into the life of a professional footballer, but also the normality of the everyday life of lesbian or a lesbian couple.
Speaking about football inclusion Asante said “In football, inclusion ultimately comes down to visibility, whether it be different sexualities, different ethnicities or different genders.”
A player’s choice to be visible in public and on social media can really help the LGBTQ+ community to identify their heroes as being much like themselves. In recent months, we’ve seen players survive in a world pandemic like ourselves but positive news like the engagement of footballers Amy Turner, Angharad James and Lucy Staniforth goes a long way to comforting that of young people questioning their identities. One common misconception is that leading a life as a lesbian or gay is different and that they wont get the same life experiences as ‘normal’ heterosexual couples. Seeing their lesbian footballing idols getting engaged, married or even having a child shows that what they are is normal. That’s the key, normalising what it is to be LGBTQ+.
Fishlock, a Stonewall Sports Champion Team member, said “It is important for players to recognise their own platform.
“Players such as Megan Rapinoe and Ada Hegerberg already have but more need to speak up to challenge negative stereotypes in the game.”
Although inclusivity has improved over the last few years, it still has a long way to go to be fully inclusive. It seems the most important factor of this is education.
Fishlock added “Education is key. It wasn’t me that was the problem, it was that other people needed more guidance.
“It is important to educate children with tolerance for those different to themselves whether it be their sexual orientation, disability or the colour of their skin.
“If we don’t do right by the kids coming through then the harm caused is irreversible.
“To aid progression and tolerance it is important to educate the children of today to become the adults we need them to be in the future.”
To find out more about Stonewall visit www.stonewall.org.uk.