Rainbow Laces is a Stonewall campaign that looks to promote the inclusion of LGBT+ people in sport.
Professional players across all major sports in the UK don multi-coloured laces, as well as wearing rainbow captain’s armbands and in some cases, holding rainbow pennants before matches. But the impact is not limited to on-field matters, as fans are also encouraged to watch their language and challenge insulting chants when heard.
Last year Stonewall released statistics that showed 58% of people believe it’s important anti-LGBT+ language like calling someone or something ‘gay’ in a derogatory way is challenged at live sporting events, while 53 per cent agreed we all have a responsibility to call out anti-LGBT abuse. However, only a quarter of said they would feel confident enough intervening when they hear this abuse. The charity’s own research also shows that over 40% of LGBT+ people do not think sport is welcoming.
The Scottish Professional Football League signed up to the Rainbow Laces campaign for the first time last year, and this afternoon clubs up and down the country will once again be promoting the push.
One of those clubs is Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who travel to Alloa Athletic’s Recreation Park. Caley Thistle have already shown support for the LGBT+ community, having a presence at Inverness’ first pride march, ProudNess (now Highland Pride) earlier this year. The club also announced the formation of a LGBT+ supporters’ group at the same time.
For manager John Robertson, who attended ProudNess himself, Rainbow Laces is a crucial campaign.
“It’s massive,” he insisted.
“Gender equality in the world in general is a big thing, but Rainbow Laces – like Show Racism The Red Card – has over the years gotten stronger and stronger.
“There are more openly gay football players coming out, more openly gay officials coming out, which is good to see. It’s not something that should be held back, it shouldn’t be held against anybody.
“The club this year took part in the LGBT+ rally in Inverness, and we were very proud to be a part of the Pride campaign. We were there at the forefront, we had a stall there, and we had a lot of interest to come along and see the games and set up an LGBT+ supporters’ club.
“We’re very proud to be part of that aspect in Inverness, but also very proud to be part of the campaign in general.”
Robertson, who was inducted into the Scottish football Hall of Fame last month, had a 19-year career between 1981 and 2000. In that time, he became Hearts’ all-time record goalscorer with 214 strikes in the league, while also making 16 appearances for Scotland and scoring three goals.
In 2002 Robertson moved into the dug-out, taking charge of Inverness for the first time. He led the team to the Scottish Premier League for the first time in their history, winning a double alongside the Challenge Cup – which he won again in 2018 after returning to ICT for a second spell.
He is a man who has just about seen and done it all in Scottish football, but there is still a distinct lack of LGBT+ players in the men’s game. Robertson has seen the openness of some in the women’s game in recent years though, and is optimistic that the same can happen among their male counterparts.
“A football club, or sports clubs over the years, has been seen as the bastion of male testosterone,” Robertson admitted.
“Nowadays, I think you look at it and it’s not the case anymore. I’m positive there will still be hundreds if not thousands of players who are gay who haven’t had the courage to step forward yet, because in certain places they may feel it’s a taboo subject. Hopefully that’s not the case anymore, hopefully the players can come forward in the men and woman’s game and talk about their feelings and talk about how they feel and get the support that they require.
“There will be incidents, we talk about racism and it has been high profile this week even in the cricket, people still talk about the homophobic aspect of sport and football, and all we can do is keep getting it out there and keep getting it to the front, keep talking about it and hopefully anyone who so far hasn’t felt the confidence or hasn’t felt like they have the backing to come out and say that they’re gay will have the confidence to do it.
“I can only talk personally about this one, I think it would be fantastic if we could have that support system and have the backing for openly gay male and female players to come out and be comfortable.
“I think the women’s game has been a flagship in that respect, a lot of ladies have come out and we’ve had a very high profile World Cup with the American superstar Megan Rapinoe being very vocal about it, and that’s great to see. Hopefully the male game can also support their athletes in such a way as well. You can’t help falling in love with somebody, and this love should be shared, it’s as simple and straightforward as that. Sport, and especially football, shouldn’t stand in the way of that if at all possible.”
Openly LGBT+ players in professional men’s football have been extremely rare in the UK. Former Aston Villa and West Ham United midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger announced he was gay in 2014, one year after retiring. In fact, only one male player has come out while still playing: Justin Fashanu.
Fashanu rose to prominence playing for Norwich City, where he scored 40 goals in 103 senior appearances, including the 1979/80 BBC Goal of the Season award. His success with the Canaries earned him a £1 million move to Nottingham Forest, just a year after back-to-back European Cup successes.
Fashanu was known by his early clubs to be gay, which led to a falling out with Forest manager Brian Clough, and his career never quite recovered the form that initially created such hype. He would eventually go on to play for 22 clubs over his career, often in short-lived spells. In 1990 he publicly came out in the press, and in 1993 he found his way to Hearts, where he played alongside Robertson.
The Caley Jags manager had great respect for Fashanu, and although the Englishman’s story had a tragic end when he committed suicide in 1998, Robertson feels progress has been made even if there is still a long way to go to open representation of the LGBT+ community in men’s football once more.
“I never felt uncomfortable with Justin any time, and it has never been a subject for me that would cause any problems – it never has done, and it shouldn’t,” Robertson recalled.
“It doesn’t make me a saint, it doesn’t make me a trailblazer. Speaking to Justin, it was never any problem. We totally respected his views, and he was a wonderful man.
“I’m sure that there will still be a vast majority of male football players who still don’t feel they have the confidence, or perhaps don’t see a support network there for them to be able to come out and tell the world. It’s something that you’ve got to totally respect as well, you’ve got to stand by that aspect of it.
“They have to feel that they’re going to be treated properly, and they’re not going to get a homophobic response from the media, their own fans or away fans. Hopefully football is in a place where we can move forward from it, there have been huge strides in football over the years.
“There have been a lot of high profile incidents this year – are we close to solving that? No, but I’m pretty sure we’re on the right track. I’d like to think that the LGBT+ community will feel that we’re on the right track as well in response to helping all people come out and support their emotional needs and their love.”
Football is the most popular sport in the country, with its top stars receiving more publicity – and scrutiny – than any other sport. With that comes a yearning for the LGBT+ community to be represented within the game.
Perhaps that puts an extra pressure on players to come out. They already could be worried about teammates’ reactions, portrayal in the media and potential abuse from the stands before even taking into account that they would automatically become a trailblazer.
Robertson fully believes that problems would not come within squads, but he thinks putting a stronger infrastructure in place to support someone when they eventually do decide to tell their story has to be the main starting point if a player is to come out in the future.
“It’s hard for me to say, because I can’t pre-judge their thoughts, but I think they would still probably feel that they would face a lot of abuse perhaps from the terracing initially,” Robertson reasoned.
“I think in the dressing rooms themselves, I don’t think there would be any problems there whatsoever.
“I think they may still feel that they would get a backlash from opposing fans, which may well be the case because football can be very tribal. Fans can be very tribal at times, and whilst some of the songs that you hear from the terraces are actually very clever and very cute with the banter this would be seen as not normal, where it should be now.
“You would hope society has moved on into a place where any football player who wanted to come out and say they were gay could do so with the knowledge that they were going to be backed by their club, their teammates and their fans. I think there’s still a stigma there that they feel they can’t quite broach it as they would like, which is a pity.
“All we can do is keep these campaigns going, keep these strides going forward to try and support any player and give the confidence to any player who feels ready to come out and tell people that they’re gay. I don’t see it as a problem, but would it take a great deal of bravery? Yes, I think there’s no doubt about that. You would hope that once someone was brave enough or had the courage of their convictions to come forward, it would allow other players to come out behind them as well.
“It’s very difficult. How many gay players are there in football at all levels? There has never been a confidential survey done, and even then I think a lot of players would feel the need to hide their feelings because we still haven’t broached it properly. We still haven’t got a network to give them the support that they need. Until we get that solved, there will still be a reluctance for gay footballers to come out.”