Sport City and Rovers helping Panthers feel more at home in the football world
ABRISTOL football club is leading the way in inclusion for gay men in the sport. Bristol Panthers play in the only national LGBT+ friendly league in the country. They play their matches at South Bristol Sport centre.
This may not sound a big deal. But when you think that there is not one openly gay professional footballer in Bristol or the whole of the Football League, it is significant.
Football is still a place where people find it hard ‘to come out.’ But only if you are a man.
The club have recently created a formal partnership with Bristol City Community Trust, in the hope of trying to change hearts and minds. They were paraded on the pitch at Ashton Gate during the Championship match against Millwall, as part of the national Rainbow Laces campaign. The club and the Trust hope to form a mutual partnership to challenge some of the perceptions in the game.
They have also previously attended the Memorial Stadium for a Bristol Rovers match, as guests of the Rovers Community Trust. The Panthers are hoping to influence the fan base of both clubs.
Bristol Panthers came into being on March 28, 2009, when there was an advert for gay football fans to come together socially and watch two international friendlies at BSB Bar on Corn Street.
People that attended thought it would be a good idea to maybe start a team, and the following week they began training. The club then started a five-a-side team which played at Goals in Filton, then got invited to tournaments in Cardiff and Birmingham, and eventually played a couple of 11-a-side friendlies against teams outside the city. It then just grew and grew.
Today the team play against other LGBT+ teams from all across the country.
Club chairman Rob Parry-Hall explains that the team provides a safe space to play football together, and a forum for people to meet other LGBT+ football fans from around the country.
He said: “LGBT+ football clubs are important to provide a safe and welcoming environment for LGBT+ people to play football. A lot of players at our club would never feel comfortable playing football at a standard Saturday/Sunday league team.
“We provide a place for them to get involved in sport. We also provide a community space for people to socialise in the city outside of the usual nightlife/clubbing gay ‘scene’.”
Bristol Panthers now travel all over the country, playing teams as far afield as Saltire Thistle (Glasgow), Mersey Marauders (Liverpool) and Yorkshire Terriers (Leeds). This season they have recently travelled up to Leicester to take on Leicester Wildcats.
For players like defender Jonathan Downing, it’s the first place he has really felt comfortable playing football. He said: “I didn’t really get on with football in school, and because it’s such a popular sport, it’s actually quite hard to learn the game as an adult from the basics.
“So, the Panthers gave me a sup- portive environment to learn how to play football, and also helped me feel rooted in the Bristol LGBT+ community.”
Acceptance is the key, according to vice-chairman and player Pete Davey. He explains why it is difficult to play in a generic league as a gay man: “Many of our team feel more comfortable playing for an LGBT+ team than a Saturday league team because its an environment where they feel comfortable being themselves, and know they will be welcomed regardless of who they are or what their ability.”
“Football, particularly at school, can often exclude people who are less confident, and for many of our team joining the Panthers has been a re-engagement with a sporting environment, that they previously felt had no place for them.” The social element off the pitch is a vital component, for the players. Pete explained: “We provide a community environment for people to socialise in the city outside of the usual nightlife/clubbing gay ‘scene’, where people can be around other players who may be facing similar challenges to them in day-to-day life.”
Playing matches against other gay teams is one thing, attending a professional football match is another. It can bring a different set of challenges when being gay. Football crowds still chant homophobic songs, and it remains an intimidating atmosphere for someone from the LGBT+ community. Which is why the club see the partnership with Bristol City as so important.
The FA have taken pro-active action in recent times, with the Rainbow Laces campaign, which seeks to challenge prejudice in the game. But it’s not enough for Pete: “There is still not a sustained engagement from clubs, apart from one-off campaigns like rainbow laces. The message to a young fan or player that, ‘its ok to be gay and like football’ , is still largely absent.”
“There is still a lack of role-models, due to the barriers for players coming out - sponsors, agents, managers and coaches maybe discouraging them, and fear for the reaction from the crowds,” he added.
He feels that “clubs could do more to engage with the LGBT+ community and enable people from diverse backgrounds to feel it is a safe space for them”.
Bristol City and Bristol Rovers are attempting to do just that, by inviting the players to matches.
Bristol Panthers players at a training night