There are not too many people that can legitimately claim to have been the first to do something – but Alex Kay-Jelski does not set any real store in his place in history.
Currently the editor-in-chief at The Athletic, Key-Jelski started his career at the Daily Mail where he eventually became the first out gay man to become a national sports editor in the UK in 2015, before moving on to the same role at The Times.
He was already working in a newsroom by the time he came out, so it is impossible to know whether he would have felt his sexuality was a barrier to pursuing his life-long dream of becoming a sports journalist.
His interest in football, though, did prove to be a handy tool when it came to appearing straight before embracing his identity.
“I think it’s tough for a lot of people, right?,” Kay-Jelski reasoned.
“Being torn over your sexuality is bloody hard. There are moments where you can like, put it in a box and deal with it, and other moments where it’s absolutely horrific and all encompassing and you don’t really ever know whether you’re going to be happy.
“There’s plenty of locking yourself away crying, plenty of much darker moments, but you wish, as always, you could tell yourself aged 19, 20, 21 that it’s going to be all right. Certainly in my case, I’m lucky it has ended up very all right, and I wish I hadn’t wasted my time burying my thoughts and feelings really.
“I was always always just trying to be the straight guy, so part of that was like, oh, well, one of the things that probably is most convincing to the outside world that I’m straight is how much I love football.
“It was quite an important companion to me, because people thought, ‘oh’. You gauge with x, y and z, by whether they did or they didn’t. The football thing rightly or wrongly – well, wrongly – put them off the scent.
“As people become more open minded and more tolerant, I think there’s an obvious understanding that you can be gay and like football. Even the existence of LGBT+ fan groups helps, for example, or LGBT+ journalists. Yes, we exist, who we want to sleep with does not affect our enjoyment of the game.”
Kay-Jelski has never faced any backlash for his sexuality inside the industry. Even when moving jobs, it was not something he took into account because he had already proven his ability as a sports writer, and was settled in his personal life by that point.
He was very aware that he did not have many openly LGBTQIA+ colleagues early on – something that is actually quite far from the truth now – but even then he did not feel the need to judge it a grandiose breakthrough when he became a national sports editor.
“I just don’t view it like that,” he explained.
“I was more aware of my age than my sexuality going into the job. I was quite young doing that, and I was more conscious of that in terms of, you know, am I going to be experienced enough? Am I going to be lacking in that department?
“The crux of it was who I’m married to, who I’m in a relationship with, who I’m attracted to didn’t affect my ability to do the job and it was never going to, so therefore that was never really the thing that was on my mind.
“If anything, I was just proud of the fact that I could occasionally bring a different topic or opinion to a conversation. That’s the whole point of diversity, right?
“In some ways, I was less conscious of it then than I am now the fact that there are. You know, there’s a big group of LGBT+ sport or football journalists now, like loads and loads of us, and I’m really conscious of that and that makes me really happy.
“There’s so many different people. I don’t think I was really conscious that there wasn’t then, it was more just now I look back and go ‘cool’. How weird, I didn’t really know anyone else.
“I don’t think me being gay has an effect on anyone else being gay or being able to talk about it, I just happen to be the person in my role to say it. I’m sure there are other people who did say it that I just didn’t know of before.
“It’s not like football where it’s public. Just because the people that I knew weren’t gay, I’m sure there were other people at other publications who were.
“I just don’t look at it (as a big deal). Society has changed and newsrooms have become gradually a tiny bit more diverse and a tiny bit more welcoming. That just meant that people were able to be like that, but it’s certainly nothing to do with me.”
Diversity, as Kay-Jelski explains, is something that can only benefit newsrooms who at the end of the day are supposed to reflect the stories of the general public.
Some areas, sport often being held up as an example of one, still have a long way to go, but that just makes it all the important for people like The Athletic editor to be publicly open about themselves to ensure that representation is visible.
“It’s one of the most important things,” Kay-Jelski stressed.
“Look, we’re a million miles off. Media, and sports media as an industry, is still really, really, behind in terms of diversity. Not even close. We’ve got so much more to do to make ourselves better. The whole time you have to be thinking like that, otherwise the second you think ‘we’re diverse’, you’re not are you? You’ve lost, you’ve given up and you’re not hiring the right people.
“Yeah, okay, we probably have an increasing mix of people who work for The Athletic, and is that a good thing? Of course it is. But like I said, like we’re not even close to probably where where we should be.
“It gets said a lot: diversity gets sold the wrong way. Diversity gets sold as this thing you’re supposed to do because you’re a good person and isn’t it good to do?
“It’s not about that. If you have a diverse newsroom, you will have a better product. You will appeal to more people, you will write about different things, because the whole point of people from different backgrounds who have different feelings or sexual preferences or gender or religion or types of education or countries they were born in is that they give you different perspectives.
“That’s the point of diversity, it makes you more interesting, it makes you richer – by which I don’t mean currency. It makes you better, so that’s why it’s a brilliant, positive thing, and not a thing that people should do as a favour.
“We don’t hire people because they are gay. We have hired some people who are gay, some I was aware of, some I didn’t know about until after. We didn’t go out looking for gay people, but it’s also good to be proud of those people.
“Again, all of us grew up not having any role models, not having anyone who could go ‘right, I want to work in football journalism’, and know I can do that because there are people out there who do it.
“I certainly didn’t have that, and I don’t think the others did, so for a while I wasn’t sure I really wanted to talk about being gay. That was just my private thing, and I was quite heavily advised for quite a while to just be a good journalist, don’t worry about it.
“I realised that’s not what I want. The reason I do an interview like this is because – without trying to sound too twee – if there’s a 15-year-old out there who wants to be a football journalist and they’re gay, and they’re worried about it, they can hear in an interview that it can be okay. Then you’re doing a good thing, right?
“You do need a presence I think, in terms of hopefully making people worry less, because it’s pretty fucking scary being gay a lot of the time.”
Perhaps because of the diversity in the staff at The Athletic, they have not shied away from tackling LGBTQIA+ issues. Kay-Jelski himself wrote about the new ownership in charge of Newcastle United last year, a topic that was one of several also covered by Adam Crafton and Nancy Frostick.
Those pieces of work do not necessarily hold a special place in Kay-Jelski’s heart just because he happens to be a gay man, but he does feel that other publications could do more to help shine a bigger spotlight on some of the things he and his colleagues have covered.
“You get certain publications or writers who occasionally write about them,” he said.
“We do quite a lot, I guess that’s partly because of the make-up of our staff, but you don’t read much in other publications, you read the occasional good thing. I think it’s a mixture of people feeling a little bit worried that they’re going to say or write the wrong thing and upset people, and I get that, but I also think maybe there are ways to make sure you don’t – especially in a year like this year with the World Cup in Qatar and Newcastle’s owners in the Premier League.
“It’d be great if there were more straight allies writing about LGBT+ issues in the same way that they rightly would write about racism or sexism. It doesn’t mean that they should write thinking they know everything, or trying to guess, but go and listen to people and their stories. Go and talk to people.
“Of course I’m proud (that The Athletic does it), but without sounding like an idiot like I’m proud of a lot of things that we do. One of things I’m most proud of is the fact that we’ll cover all kinds of different things.
“I’m proud of the fact that we take Norwich City seriously, I’m proud of the fact that we take AFCON seriously. I’m proud of the fact that, yeah, we wrote loads of really interesting pieces across Rainbow Laces and did really in depth articles and podcasts for Black History Month.
“I just want us to do everything. I want us to do things that make people smile, I want us to do things that are investigative and really, really hard.
“We don’t have a set of rules of what we have to cover. We can cover everything, and that hopefully means that it keeps lots of different people happy.
“That comes back to that diversity thing. Some people will see content about LGBT+ issues in football and go ‘why write about that again?’ Well, you don’t have to read it. Not every piece is for everyone, but yeah, I love doing a variety of stuff, it makes me happy.”
One part of the conversation about any form of equality that is increasingly coming to the fore is the idea that there are too many empty gestures that do the rounds.
Kay-Jelski has been critical of the lip-service paid to LGBTQIA+ football fans in the past – with one article in particular entitled After Newcastle, no number of rainbows can hide the Premier League’s contempt for LGBT+ fans.
From a journalist’s point of view, he has a simple piece of advice to make sure that coverage does not just add to the tokenism.
“Work out what the aim of your podcast or your piece is,” Kay-Jelski advised.
“Is this piece telling a positive story about some people that people don’t know? Is this piece going to uncover something?
“If you ask yourself every time what’s the point of what you’re doing, what are you aiming to achieve, then the answer is probably not going to be to make a token effort, because if you’ve thought about it that much there’s going to be a real reason.
“Look at Adam Crafton’s amazing piece on the LGBT+ community in Saudi, the reason we did that was to shine a light on something. We didn’t do that because we felt we had to, we did that because we thought it was a story to tell.
“I think you avoid tokenism by basically thinking how this can make a difference. The things that I’ve been critical of in the past are people just turning balls and corner flags rainbow, but where’s the managers actually talking about it? That’s what’s going to change people’s minds.
“That stuff really, really annoys me. I think it’s just lazy. I think that stuff has got way better in the last few years. You hear more players talking about it, it just was always going to take time and people to keep putting pressure on.
“In terms of journalism, it’s not about turning The Athletic logo rainbow for a month, it’s about producing things that are going to either champion LGBT+ people’s rights, or raise questions that need answers.”
With that in mind, Kay-Jelski has some ideas of what he would like to see in both football and the media coverage around it to help move things forward.
“I think in a World Cup year I’d like to see more around Qatar,” he added.
“I feel like people have been saying things about LGBT+ rights and Qatar for a long time, but I’m not sure how much proper investigation has been done on it yet, so I think that’s important.
“I think carrying on pushing the sorts of campaigns around the language of some of the chants and the fact that people can’t be prosecuted the moment because of the CPS rules, legislating change, making sure that all goes through, that’s important.
“I think continuing to highlight what the Premier League did in terms of Newcastle and see whether there’s ever a way of that not happening again in the future is important. There’s a few things.
“In football, not letting people in who try to regularly abuse people. More managers, more players speaking out regularly, not just when they see it’s November.
“Make LGBT+ people proactively welcome. I think there’s massive scope for a club to go ‘right, it’s LGBT+ fan week special, for our home game against whoever come along! We’re going to make it a really welcoming place for LGBT people’. That’d be great.
“There won’t be that many fans who go to Premier League games or Championship games who don’t know someone who’s gay and wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to them, so it’s just creating an atmosphere where people would treat gay couples walking down the street to the stadium the same way they would a friend of a friend.
“Sometimes groups of men, and groups of boozed-up men, have different standards than they would on their own, and I think that’s really difficult.
“I don’t know, maybe if I walked down the street holding my partner’s hand to a game, maybe I’d get no shit at all. Maybe it’s all in my head, but I don’t think so.
“It’s more education, more making sure that people know they can’t behave in a certain way. That would certainly help, and more reaching out to LGBT+ communities and saying ‘we’ll look after you, we’ve got your back’.”
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