Thursday marked the official start of the Rainbow Laces campaign for 2020, with clubs and athletes up and down the country preparing to show their support for the LGBT+ community.
For many, that will mean wearing the of the newly extended selection of laces during a match – for some it may also mean dedicated content on social media channels, which could be all the more important when supporters are largely restricted from entering stadia because of the pandemic.
Rainbow Laces has become a staple of the sporting calendar at the end of November in recent years, with a particular athletic focus to complement LGBT+ History Month in February and Pride Month in June. In 2020, the role of athlete activism has been reinforced through Black Lives Matter, and with more organisations and leagues signing up than ever before the message has never been clearer that it is ok to be LGBT+ in sport.
In the Scottish Highlands, Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s support for the LGBT+ community extends beyond a couple of weeks at the end of the year. The club were featured prominently at last year’s Proud Ness (now Highland Pride) march in the city, where manager John Robertson donned rainbow facepaint – a photograph of which still hangs in his office.
Caley Thistle’s impact game for the campaign comes away at Queen of the South next Friday, but while nobody will bat an eyelid at Rainbow Laces in 2020 chief executive Scot Gardiner remembers a time when things were not so straightforward for clubs.
“At the beginning, when Rainbow Laces was first launched seven years ago, everyone was a little bit wary of a couple of things,” he recalled.
“The world has moved on since then happily, but I remember when we were sent the pack at Dundee – where I was working at the time – saying that we can’t force players to wear them. You shouldn’t be able to force players to do anything, whether that’s taking a knee or whatever they want to do.
“There’s also an issue with football and politics, you’re not allowed to take your jersey off and tell people to vote for a party – the club and the player would be fined. There were discussions at the time about whether it was a political thing, whether we were doing it because it was politically correct and whether we would get in trouble for it.
“Also – and this is going to sound like the most ridiculously childish thing – but sportspeople are super superstitious. They will wear a certain boot, put them on at the last minute, tie their laces a certain way, famously there has been players who put their jersey on as they were going down the tunnel.
“I thought if we tell them they’ve got to wear Rainbow Laces and they have a bad pass or a bad shot, they might blame it on the laces.
“Those discussions were had at the time, and the league at that time were not backing it – it was each club’s own responsibility. Happily now, that seems a lifetime ago and the fact is that things have been normalised that were not seen as normal then, which shows the world has gotten better and attitudes have gotten better.
“With Rainbow Laces, however small a gesture it was, because it was a football club that was doing, there was more of a focus on it. If you told everyone in a factory to wear Rainbow Laces, I suspect nobody would really pay attention, but with a football club they do. I’ve worked in a factory so that’s no slight, but a football club can do a lot of really good things and really powerful things that get noticed.
“Football clubs have a responsibility to reflect the positive things in the world and try and stand up if something is glaringly not right, or is having a negative impact on people who could be supporting us or any other team. It’s different now, and we can say ‘it’s Rainbow Laces time’ and everyone goes ‘ok, good’, but back at the beginning it wasn’t as straightforward as that from my memory.”
While the billions of pounds in English football may create an expectation that clubs will stand up for causes like Rainbow Laces, the same resources are not available in Scotland. For Inverness, financial difficulties have been well-documented, with it being reported that the club lost almost £900,000 in the year leading up to May 2019.
That will seem like a drop in the ocean to the billionaires in charge of some clubs in the UK, but for someone like Caley Thistle, sustained losses at that level put the club’s future in very real jeopardy.
For the club’s women’s team, the entire squad pay to play on top of their day jobs as opposed to earning anything from it, and having the resources – whether financial or in terms of time – to show support for campaigns like Rainbow Laces becomes an issue.
“Some have done it in schools and brought it in, but it’s not something that we’ve done as a team, or through the association,” manager Karen Mason explained.
“People have worn them in the past, and obviously there’s no problem with that at all, but it’s not something we’ve done as a unit because it would just be more things to add to the workload. Other things that we have to do take priority to be honest, I’ve just not had the time unfortunately.
“For the likes of Show Racism the Red Card, that all gets sent to us. The resources get sent and the videos and graphics all get sent to us on behalf of the SWFA, they get together with the campaign so it’s a lot easier when it gets put on my lap and it’s just a case of posting something.
“If the governing body don’t provide that kind of thing, it would be down to the individuals to seek things out and get that into place. The governing body definitely has to play a part in it, and I think you see that across the Premiership.
“You see things like the Black Lives Matter campaign, that’s all supported by the FA, and there has obviously been a big push for that. Without that support, I’m not sure clubs would have backed it as much as they have done.”
Despite ICT’s financial issues though, Gardiner is keen to engage with the LGBT+ community in and around Inverness. He believes that a lack of proactive involvement over the years in exactly these kinds of causes has hurt the club, and that was one of the first things he wanted to change when arriving at the Caledonian Stadium in April of last year.
Often when leagues, clubs or athletes post on social media in support of the LGBT+ community, they are met with a backlash, but in the Highland capital negative feedback has been almost non-existent.
Even the little criticism Gardiner has had, he has shrugged off, because he believes it is simply the right thing to do – and that is not going to change any time soon.
“One of the reasons why the club was losing so much money was that it was no longer a major part of the community,” Gardiner reasoned.
“It wasn’t a part of the business community, and it wasn’t a part of people’s everyday lives, which was strange because it’s a one-team town. For me, when I came in, I looked at it and wanted to re-engage with the community, and Proud Ness was getting a bigger crowd than we were. Clearly we should engage with that, because they’re part of the community.
“I got an email out of the blue from Angie Wood asking if there was any way we would be interested in donating something to Proud Ness as it was then, and I said we could do better than that. We took a stand, we got our mascot Nessie there, and the manager and I walked at the front of the parade. It seemed the natural thing to do, and a sensible thing to do, because it’s a big part of the community.
“We had tremendous positivity from that. On the day, there were people who came up to us and said they were a Ross County fan, but they were glad we were there. That was extremely touching, and we’ve had pretty much no negative feedback – we’ve had one email in 18 months from someone who disagreed with what we’ve done.
“Since then, at the beginning of this year just before the pandemic, John Robertson and myself went along to the launch of LGBT+ History Month in the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. It was transfer deadline night, and we were trying to sign a player and either sell a player or stop him going for not much, but John and I went along and had a drink with everybody.
“Thankfully three of the people there were big Caley Thistle fans, and they were telling us to go, but even on deadline day when we easily could have left it we said we would go along but would probably need to dash at some stage.
“Now it’s just seen as a normal thing, we flew the rainbow flag throughout February and March, as well as for about four months after the Pride march last year, so now it’s part of us. We had people signing up for a supporter’s group, I think it was at about 70 people, we put tickets out but then the pandemic brought everything to a halt.
“I know that we’re active and supportive of the LGBT+ community, and we will be for as long as I’m here. Everyone here has bought into it, so there’s no issue at all. Even though we’re skint, and we have been skint since I’ve been here – we’re turning it around – but we realise the power of what we can do.
“I don’t think that’s changing any time soon at Inverness, unless the chairman tells me at Christmas to get another career. We’ll be sticking to our strong support, and I think it has been visible, but only others can tell me how positive that is.”
While Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and many other clubs across the nation, are now more openly supportive of the LGBT+ community than ever before, that does not change the fact that there are no out male professional footballers in the UK.
There are a multitude of reasons as to why that could be, and searchlight culture leading to speculation over individual players’ sexuality does nobody any favours, but until that changes the need for campaigns like Rainbow Laces will always be there.
It is up to governing bodies and clubs to create the environment where LGBT+ feel safe and confidence enough to be their authentic selves, and although Gardiner feels there are limitations at times as to what can be achieved, there is the general impression that more can always be done.
“I don’t think it’s a binary answer, some clubs do it better than others,” he said.
“There could be financial reasons, there could be staff reasons, the focus can also change from year to year. If you lose the best part of a million pounds in a year, you perhaps have to try and turn the focus of the business in a certain way, and other things suffer for that.
“It comes from the top normally – if someone has the will to do it, things will be done. I don’t think that just because some clubs aren’t doing more, it doesn’t mean the staff don’t want to. It’s not fair to criticise clubs, but you can always do more, clearly. I think clubs can always do more and businesses can always do more, but support is probably the strongest it’s ever been when you look at different marches in different cities.
“I’d like to think that here, nobody would care if a player came out because we are so openly supportive of it as an organisation, but I couldn’t honestly say. There’s clearly something wrong if nobody feels like they can say it. There must be someone.
“There must be something that makes it very difficult, but I don’t know what it is. I would like to think it would be the same as the colour of somebody’s skin, or their religion, and no-one would care, but I couldn’t honestly put a finger on it.
“My business partner is gay, and I worked with him for years before I knew that he was. He worked in football, he worked in the commercial department at Dundee, and nobody knew he was until he decided to tell us. Then we just carried on as normal.
“I don’t know why that’s different with a player, but I’m not so naive as to say that it wouldn’t be. What does it matter? It makes not one jot of difference to me, as long as they’re a good person they’re fine.”