Sport City and Rovers help­ing Pan­thers feel more at home in the foot­ball world

Bristol Post - - SPORT - Neil MAGGS [email protected]­

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.

Pic­ture: Jon Kent

Bris­tol Pan­thers play­ers at a train­ing night

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