Stuart Bonner: “There are people at the club who credit Saltire with saving their life.”

With the Rainbow Laces campaign once again throwing LGBTQIA+ inclusion in elite sport, specifically men’s football, into the spotlight it is only right to give those working for inclusive spaces year-round a platform.

At Glasgow’s inclusive football club Saltire Thistle, though, the last couple of weeks have been a frustrating time after their players were subjected to homophobic abuse on the pitch. That led to their fixture last weekend being cancelled, and an intra-squad game taking its place.

Just when it should have been time to celebrate diversity on the field, they have found themselves forced to speak out once again about inequality, so perhaps it is no surprise that the club’s chair Stuart Bonner is keen to show off the positive side of the team instead of getting bogged down in controversy.

Bonner’s own connection with Saltire only began three years ago, but for most of the time since he has been running the club. He had always been passionate about football, but it took a trip to Canada to really reinvigorate his love for the game.

“I moved to Canada to study abroad, and it sounds a bit cringey but when I went there nobody knew I was gay, so people were more willing to ask me to play football,” he recalled.

“That’s when I found football again, when I was over there.  I played when I was at school, but when you come out as gay there’s an automatic assumption that you don’t want to participate in sports. My friends that did play football just started not to ask me if I wanted to play, because they just assumed I didn’t.

“Gradually, over time, it just happened that I didn’t have any friends who played football, so it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. That went on for a while. Even when I went into the world of work, guys would play five-a-side but they assumed I would be more into Drag Race than football so they never asked me. I’m actually massively into football, I just fell away from it because I felt like being gay and football couldn’t go together.

“I knew of Saltire through various people that I knew, so when I came back I decided to get involved. I don’t really know why I never did before.

“I probably just didn’t think I was good enough. That’s a thing a lot of people think about Saltire, a lot of the messages we get from people is that they aren’t very good or they haven’t played in a while, but they can still come.

“With any new venture, it’s quite daunting. It was quite scary for me to think about going, but when I went to Canada and realised how beneficial football was for me and how much I enjoyed it, that’s when I thought I needed to do it for my own sake, because I love it.

It was a no brainer for Stuart Bonner to join Saltire Thistle when he returned from Canada.

“When I joined the club wasn’t in a really strong place, and they were looking for someone to take control of it, so that’s when I got it about two years ago. It wasn’t where it could have been – we didn’t play 11s football because people started to fall away from the club.

“It wasn’t particularly well run, and it wasn’t reaching its potential, so when I joined I realised very quickly that there were a load of people out there who were just like me who were wanting to get back into football, or who weren’t cis white men who wouldn’t make Saltire so beneficial.

“I immediately started to look for channels that would get more people involved with different sexualities, different gender identities who hadn’t been at the club before.

“That was of no deliberate choice by the people who used to run the club, it was just where it was advertised and focused, and who it was ran by – it was your traditional people who went out on Glasgow’s gay scene, and that’s where you will find white, gay men.”

Bonner found recruiting new players quite straightforward when he began looking into different avenues.

Rather than the homogenised squad he found when first joining, the club now boasts players who are straight, gay, trans, male, female – whatever you are, there is a place for you there.

Moving away from the “gay team” label to branding themselves as an inclusive team, the atmosphere at Saltire where people do not take themselves too seriously, people of all abilities and identities are welcome while still pushing a greater societal good through sport has proven to be extremely appealing.

That progress alone is something to be proud of, but for Bonner the real rewards come when he sees the personal growth of members, who sometimes come to the club in some of the lowest moments of their lives.

“It’s the best part of the job,” Bonner said.

“There are people at the club who credit Saltire with saving their life. I’m probably the same, I would probably have killed myself if it wasn’t for Saltire. That sounds really dramatic, but when I joined I was really depressed, really overweight – more so than I am now – and I was in such a bad place. Now, I have the best friends that I’ve met because my closest friends in the world are people that I see every day that I met at Saltire.

“There’s a guy in particular that I think of, when he first joined Saltire he was more or less mute. I would pick him up for training or games, and he would say hi when he got in the car and then just not talk. It was fine, that’s just what he did, but then gradually he started to come out of his shell, and he would talk to me but if anyone else got in the car he would stop talking again.

“I don’t know what it was, but now he has blossomed and he’s super social. He talks to everybody, he isn’t shy or reserved, and we’ve had conversations and he’s so much happier in his life now. Again, he’s somebody who’s not gay, but he’s found a home and a family inside of a club that does what we do. It’s so special.

“Honestly, I could list so many people with so many different stories. Another one for example swore to me for years that he liked guys, but he was never going to end up with a guy because he preferred girls. He was really struggling with his sexuality. He would barely tell anyone he was gay or that he had a boyfriend, but now he’s the most open, out and proud, gay guy in the world with an amazing boyfriend that he’s been with for just over a year and sees himself getting married to. He says that Saltire has changed his life because of who he has met here.

“These are people that could never go anywhere else, or wouldn’t feel comfortable going to another football team.

Saltire Thistle provides refuge for people to take part in football who wouldn’t feel able to participate at other clubs. Picture: Saltire Thistle FC’s Facebook page

“We had our first female join us last year, and we fought tooth and nail for her to be able to play, because our league says we’re not allowed women on our team. She turned round and said she gets that, but she told me that she couldn’t go anywhere else. Her home is at Saltire, she loves it here and all the people, she couldn’t go anywhere else, so we had to fight for her.

“There are people on our team that are trans men, and they have scars and things, and they have flat out said to me that they couldn’t play football anywhere else because they can’t get changed in front of people. If they are in a changing room full of boys who see their scars, there are going to be questions, so for me it’s all about removing the barriers to football.

“They should be able to thrive on the benefits that we’ve reaped through playing football, whether they’re trans or whatever.

“We call ourselves Scotland’s inclusive football team, and I think that’s reflected in the sort of people that we get, and the stories that we hear.”

Because of the work Saltire Thistle does and the messages they put out, it can be quite common for people to join the club as one of the early steps of embracing their authentic selves.

The flip side of that from Bonner’s point of view is that it means when slurs do get thrown about, it could be even more damaging to people who may still have lingering insecurities.

“That’s why it’s all the more important that we create an environment that is secluded from that danger,” he insisted.

“Without sounding too melodramatic, some of our people are pretty fragile. Not necessarily fragile in that something seriously bad will happen to them, but if you’re coming to terms with your sexuality or your gender identity, and you go and play football and get called a faggot, that’s going to set you back in terms of your mindset and how comfortable you are.

“That’s why we need to take such a stand. People have asked us if we really want to get people arrested over this and make a big deal out of it, but these are people’s lives we’re talking about. It’s not just somebody getting called a poof or a homo, it’s about somebody’s sense of belonging and their identity – it’s so much more than just words. That’s why I think we need to take it so seriously.

Saltire Thistle players were recently subjected to homophobic abuse by an opposition team on the pitch.

“There are people who have struggles that we couldn’t even begin to understand. I’m very aware that as a white, cis guy that I don’t know the struggles of somebody who is trans. I don’t know the struggles of somebody who is a person of colour. I just don’t get it, and I think there are people who use homophobic slurs that are the exact same.

“They just don’t understand that their words have an effect on people much more seriously than they would ever begin to imagine. That’s why I think the only thing that’s going to stop them doing it is serious repercussions.

“It’s definitely not the norm to be subjected to this sort of stuff, but it happens more often that we would like to admit. Even at our intra-club game last Sunday, I heard another team on another pitch using language that we would consider to be homophobic, and their coach had to tell them to stop.

“In our environment, people know who we are, people know what sort of thing we do, so people generally don’t use that sort of language around us, but I still believe that in wider society and in other football teams that don’t do what we do, that language is still so prevalent.

“I probably could walk into nine out of 10 changing rooms at other teams and hear that sort of stuff. I think people use it in front of us because they know what we would do and what action we would take, but I still think it’s a massive problem for a lot of teams.

“We’ve had a lot of support from them when stuff does happen. If there is an incident of abuse, we do get a lot of support from other teams that aren’t necessarily in the same inclusive space that we are.

“There is definitely a positive shift that we can impact, and as chair that’s all I can hope for – that I can control and impact what I can impact.

“I can’t go around every team and ask them to stop being homophobic, but I can influence the circle around me, and i think that’s something that Saltire does really well. Everyone that we come into contact with generally leaves better educated than they were before.”

Unfortunately, as their incident at the end of last month shows, homophobia is still prevalent in grassroots football in Scotland.

In 2021, with the Rainbow Laces campaign ongoing, it begs the question of what more needs to be done to stamp out abuse once and for all?

Well, as far as Bonner is concerned, limiting the conversation to a couple of weeks every year is part of the issue in the first place.

“My issue with Rainbow Laces is that it happens once a year, and teams pull out a rainbow scarf and hang it above their heads, get a photo and stick it on social media, and I don’t really see the work year round that I would hope for,” he reasoned.

“We’ve reached out so many times to different governing bodies and different clubs, and the response we get is pretty much ‘yeah, this isn’t really an issue that we see as a problem’. We would love for governing bodies and clubs to look at us and think we’re experts in a field that they are trying to tackle, and talk to us and use us.

“Whenever we reach out to governing bodies, we get a generic response about supporting Rainbow Laces and supporting the cause. I think it’s all just talk, and yet in a general sense – looking at England for example – they still take money off Qatari investment firms and Saudis, who are known to be ridiculously oppressive in their regimes.

“They take the money off them and forget about the other bad stuff they do. I had a conversation with Nike about this, and one of their guys phoned me and asked what I wanted them to do to tackle homophobia, and I said they could stop sponsoring and taking money off Paris St Germain. Football is a business though, isn’t it, so they’re not going to stop doing that.

“The only way we’re going to be able to affect change is if we have this conversation regularly throughout the year, and tackle homophobia whenever we see it.

“I think there have been some positive steps towards that, but I actually think it’s quite offensive to turn around and put on a Rainbow Laces campaign once a year and think you’re doing anything to affect change. You’re not, you’re not doing anything to affect me or my friends or my community.

“It can’t really be understated that we can affect people’s attitudes. Nobody would ever think now that it’s acceptable to go to a football match and use racist slurs, because we constantly talk about it every week, and rightly so. We need to do that with other forms of discrimination, whether that’s homophobia and transphobia or anything else.

“I don’t understand it, because if I was sitting at Rangers or Celtic, or Partick Thistle, or one of the other Glasgow clubs, I would be doing everything I could to speak to a club like ours. We have an equivalent team in Edinburgh too, and I would be jumping down our throats – firstly because it’s the right thing to do, and secondly because it would be great PR for them.

“They have ridiculous amounts of money, and all it would take is for them to talk to us, and they don’t do it. They’re not interested, they brush us off, so I don’t see any sort of connection between what we’re trying to do to affect change, and those that play the game at a high level.

“Rainbow Laces in England certainly gets a lot more exposure than it does here. I didn’t even know Rainbow Laces was a thing this year in Scotland, but I saw a lot of stuff from English clubs. We see a lot of money in England for clubs like ours, and we see Premier League clubs inviting clubs like ours to their games, and to talk to their supporters and speak at half time.

“Brentford invited one of our English counterparts to one of their games to speak to their fans, and yet we can’t even get a reply from Rangers or Celtic when we send correspondence to them, so there’s definitely a disconnect between what happens in Scotland and in England.”

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