Piero Zizzi: “I needed to give back to the community I had turned my back on for six years.”

Whenever you get an event that features countries from all around the world, there is a huge spotlight on it.

That was certainly the case with the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and with those being delayed for a year because of the pandemic it suddenly does not feel like there is too long to wait until the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next summer.

Over the last 11 years, Pride House has become something of a staple when such prestigious sporting showcases pop up on the calendar, especially with the Commonwealth Games where it was ran in association with Glasgow in 2014, the Gold Coast in 2018 and now the West Midlands.

Local activist Piero Zizzi is the man in charge of proceedings for next year, and after officially launching its home at The Loft in September his excitement is already palpable.

“We’re lucky we’ve got a great team,” he said.

“Lou Englefield is the queen of LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport. With her experience in Pride Sports and Football v Homophobia and all the work she’s done internationally, it’s hugely valuable. We also drafted in Neil Basterfield, who has done wonders for Proud Baggies and the work we do at West Bromwich Albion. He works on a global level as a HR director, so obviously he brings in vast experience as well.

“We have an amazing advisory board of people from around the city – a really diverse range of people who have been bringing in some great ideas and adding to the experience and the skillset we already have on the committee and the board.

“For us visibility is obviously huge. To be able to create a safe space for athletes and spectators, for staff and volunteers at the Commonwealth Games next year, is our primary aim.

“We’ve got three pillars to our programming and to Pride House, which are educate, celebrate and participate. We’ll be really focusing on those to make sure we get that messaging across, educating people and giving people plenty of reason to celebrate not only the Commonwealth Games but also the diversity of Birmingham.

Piero Zizzi (left) at the official launch of the Pride House Birmingham with their sporting ambassadors and Lou Englefield (right).

“We’re going to be there from July 22 until August 8. We’re still working on a lot of the programming, so a lot of it is under wraps, but there’s going to be an array of things. We’ll have pop-up cinemas, art exhibitions, photography exhibitions, we’ve got all sorts coming in. We’ll have panels, Q&As, we’ll be doing work with our athlete ambassadors, we’ll have socials and parties as well as dry spaces, there will be pop-up cafes and games rooms, we’ll have a place for e-sports, there will be different activations for pop-up sports.

“We’re working with the right organisations to bring a lot of people in and shine a light on voices who haven’t had that and might need it. We’re doing a lot of work around the Commonwealth, in 35 of the 54 sovereign states of the Commonwealth homosexual activity is illegal or punishable by death.

“There will be people coming to the Commonwealth Games that don’t have the freedoms we have here. We’re able to have a Pride House, to celebrate, be out and proud and have Pride events, but some of the people from other countries – spectators and athletes – might not have that. We want to create a safe space so that those people are welcomed and included when they come here, and they feel that it is a safe space.

“The fact that it is punishable by death and criminal in all these countries is a lasting effect that comes from colonisation and imperialism. It takes years to unpick decades and decades of that, so I think it’s important that the messaging we get across in terms of the Commonwealth Games is really important.”

It promises to be a non-stop three weeks of organisation for Zizzi, but he has an eye on the future as well.

The Commonwealth Games will be the biggest sporting event ever held in the West Midlands, and there will be hopes that – like similar events before it – they will be able to inspire a generation.

Zizzi hopes that Pride House will be able to build a similar legacy for LGBTQI+ participation in sport too, and it is no coincidence that a bid was recently announced to bring the biggest queer multi-sport event in the world to Birmingham in 2024 – the EuroGames.

“The Commonwealth Games will finish in August next year, and we want to make sure that the legacy continues and that LGBTQI+ people in the West Midlands are still able to actively participate in sport – the EuroGames bid that we’ve put in for 2024 is a huge part of that,” Zizzi explained.

“We were talking about the legacy programme and how we wanted it to have a lasting effect after the Commonwealth Games, and it was just perfect for us to be able to host the largest LGBTIQ+ sporting event here in Birmingham. Bringing 6000 participants to the city – that would be our legacy. That’s huge, that’s massive.

Zizzi and Neil Basterfield (left) are just two of the people working extremely hard to pull off Pride House and the EuroGames bid.

“The city council and Birmingham Pride have been really supportive, so we’ve put the bid in and we’ll find out in December if we’re successful. We’re up against Vienna, so it’s an amazing opportunity and something that we’re really excited about. We feel like we’ve got a really strong bid, we’ve got some great sports, 24 or 25 sports including some that are new to EuroGames, which we’re going to announce over the coming weeks.

“We’ve got some great partners and sports clubs, national governing bodies and LGBTIQ+ networks from across the city that are going to come together to help put on the sports for us if we’re successful.

“It has never been in the UK, which is crazy. A lot of it has been in northern Europe, it has been in the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavian countries, so for us to bring it to the UK for the first time would be great.

“A lot of the LGBTQI+ athletes and sports clubs from the UK participate in the EuroGames every year, so for them to have a home games would be amazing for all the people that participate in sport in this country. It would be fantastic, and obviously London have bid for 2025, so there’s a chance it’s going to come to the UK in the next five years.

“All eyes are on Birmingham. If we can continue that after the Commonwealth Games with Pride House activities and with EuroGames, there’s lots to be looking forward to. It’s a chance to really continue the legacy and show that Birmingham is a really diverse and inclusive city, and hopefully the LGBTIQ+ community in Birmingham can really come together and celebrate what it’s about as much as they can.”

Zizzi earned his place at the head of next year’s Pride House and the EuroGames 2024 bid through his work as the founder of West Bromwich Albion’s award-winning LGBTQIA+ supporters’ group, Proud Baggies.

Proud Baggies is the thing Zizzi is most proud to have worked on.

Working in football marketing and sponsorship, Zizzi knew what it was like to lead a double life – one where he was out to family and friends, and one where he was closeted at work.

That type of situation is never easy to deal with, but it was the feeling of being so alone for so long that led him to finding his true passion project in the group.

“I came out when I was 18 or 19 to family and friends, I had moved to Manchester to pursue a career in football and then spent the next six years living a double life and being in the closet in the sports industry,” he recalled.

“It’s a really heteronormative environment, very macho, very masculine. There were lots of homophobic, racist, sexist, misogynistic jokes, and I’ve said before that I went along with a lot of the homophobic jokes to fit in and be one of the lads, to get by.

“My dream was always to work in football, and there was a point I thought I wasn’t going to realise that dream because of my sexuality. I felt like I had to make a choice between being a gay man and following the career that I’ve dreamt of. In the end I just went with it knowing that I would have to hide my sexuality. Six years later, I was still in the closet, but I went in because I knew that someday I would regret not pursuing the career that I wanted to pursue.

“Coming out has opened up so many doors, and I’ve met so many amazing people. The last four or five years have been the best years of my career in terms of how proud I’ve been of the things I’ve done.

“Sports marketing and sponsorship probably isn’t that exciting to most people, but I’ve worked with some amazing football clubs doing the work I do – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, I’ve done Champions League matches and World Cup qualifiers with international teams, but nothing compares to working with West Bromwich Albion football club because it’s my club.

Zizzi was motivated to start Proud Baggies because of a need to give back after hiding his sexuality in the world of sport.

“After I came out, I took it upon myself to give back more. I needed to give back to the community I had turned my back on for six years.

“I thought it couldn’t just be me that was struggling with this, and I couldn’t be the only LGBTIQ+ person working in football or sport, so I turned to Pride in Football and found that there was already a network of LGBTIQ+ supporters groups across the country, but nothing at West Bromwich Albion.

“If anyone was going to do it, I was well positioned already working in football and having connections with the club, so I took it on as a passion project. Here we are four years later and it’s still my labour of love and still something that inspires me every day.

“I speak to members and see the impact we’ve had – on members’ matchday experiences but also their everyday lives. They’ve made friends for life, and we’ve had members regularly coming to us saying we’ve helped them so much whether that’s with their mental health, meeting new friends, feeling welcome, included and safe at the club, so for me it just makes me so happy and proud of what we’ve achieved over the last four years.

“To be close to the club and making a real impact on the club, and to our fans and members, it’s the proudest thing I’ve ever done.”

Of course, this week there was an outpouring of support in the football world after Josh Cavallo came out, becoming the only openly gay footballer playing in a top flight around the world right now.

His story has been met globally with messages of support and positivity from clubs and players including Gerard Pique, Antoine Griezmann and Raphael Varane.

For Zizzi, it has brought him back to his own coming out, what influenced him and the potential impact Cavallo’s impact could have.

“I came out because I was inspired by Robbie Rogers coming out,” Zizzi explained.

“I read his book and that really inspired me. I didn’t have any role models growing up in sport or football, and I really struggled with my sexuality. I was a gay man but I liked football, could the two go together? Am I even gay because I like football? There were no gay players, no gay people in the sport or even that liked football and went to football.

“If there is a young player who is maybe questioning whether to come out, or whether they would have the support, hopefully Josh will give them the inspiration to take that step.

“It’s not easy, and I’ve said for years that we work so hard. There’s a network of us in football who are trying to create an environment where players can feel safe and like they have that support when it comes to PR, legal, sponsorships or mental health. These players are going to have that support around them, and I know the PFA has been doing some work on it too. It’s really important that the players know they have support around them and that there are people like them in the industry.

“It’s great to see that’s there. People often see the witch hunt around Premier League players coming out, but whenever I get asked about it I always say to look at what’s already there. There are so many people doing great work all around the country to bring visibility and representation to the game. I think we’re heading in the right direction, it’s just that sometimes certain organisations make it harder.

“This week has really brought it back to me with the news of Josh coming out this week. It’s massive, and it’s hopefully going to inspire more young players and young people to live their truths, but I always say that there are already so many people in sport doing great work up and down the country that we should be talking about them instead of creating a witch hunt.”

Zizzi was given the chance to publicly spread some of that good news a couple of years ago when he moderated a Paddy Power panel discussing homophobia in football that also included Sapphire McIntosh, then Celtic and current Aberdeen captain Scott Brown and football legend Graeme Souness.

Zizzi was asked to moderate a panel on homophobia in football that included Scottish stars Scott Brown and Graeme Souness.

That remains a highlight of Zizzi’s work towards inclusion, but he does not anticipate saying “job done” any time soon when it comes to the Proud Baggies.

“It was one of the best days I’ve had doing the work I do,” he said.

“Souness and Brown are two people that you would never expect to be so open-minded and so supportive and massive allies of LGBTIQ+ people. On the pitch, both of them are – you would say thugs really – so Scott really surprised me. His best friend was gay, and hearing his best friend’s coming out story and how supportive he is of his best friend was amazing to hear. It was so nice to hear that that’s how he is, and you wouldn’t expect it from him so it was amazing.

“Graeme said that he would have said some stuff in the changing rooms when he was playing that he looks back on with regret. He has learned and educated himself so much, having a young son really opened his eyes to a lot of things like racism and homophobia.

“It was a really rewarding day. At that point I don’t think I had opened up too much about my coming out story, and my journey in football. I still don’t talk about it too much to be honest, but it is nice to be able to talk about it. If there is someone else working in the industry that can maybe relate to my position, my journey and my coming out story – if it helps one person then it’s valuable.

“It was so much fun, and I was really honoured that they asked me to moderate it. It was obviously great visibility for Proud Baggies and the work that we and supporters’ groups around the country are doing.

“West Brom has always been a club that prides itself on diversity – the Three Degrees, and the demographic of West Bromwich anyway, it’s a very diverse area.

“We’re very proud of our history, but for me we can’t be complacent. We can’t just presume that because we had the Three Degrees racism doesn’t occur at West Bromwhich Albion, that just because we have Proud Baggies we don’t have homophobia, biphobia and transphobia at West Bromwich Albion because we know there are small pockets of society and small pockets in every support where that still does happen.

“I think the club are really proud of what we’re achieving, and for them to have us at the club is great for them, it’s huge. It’s a club that have been so supportive from the first day I met them, it was always an open door, so the club have been great and really supportive.

“We feel embedded in all parts of the club now, which is fantastic. The work we do together is valuable, and working with the Foundation and other organisations around the club, there is still so much more to do.

“Our work never finishes. The idea is that we run ourselves out of business and LGBTIQ+ supporters’ groups don’t have to exist. The sad thing is that there is still homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in football, so until that is eradicated we still need to exist, fly the flag and combat discrimination in all it’s forms.

“It has definitely been a labour of love, but it has been a journey, and it’s not something I ever see myself stopping. I think it’s my calling in life, it’s a duty of mine now to represent West Bromwich Albion football club and represent the LGBTIQ+ supporters.”

One thought on “Piero Zizzi: “I needed to give back to the community I had turned my back on for six years.”

  1. Pingback: Lou Englefield: “What keeps me motivated is injustice.”

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