It has been a historic spell for LGBTQIA+ representation in men’s football.
An argument could be made that it stretches back to Josh Cavallo becoming the only openly gay male player in a top division around the world last October. Then, last month, Jake Daniels became the first professional player in the UK men’s game to come out since Justin Fashanu 32 years ago.
Quickly off the back of that, two referees came out in Scotland – the first time Scottish men’s football had any LGBTIQA+ representation since Fashanu turned out for Hearts and Airdrieonians in the 1990s.
Unlike Cavallo and Daniels, Craig Napier and Lloyd Wilson were not bearing the brunt of headlines alone. Their announcements were co-ordinated, with Napier being featured in a video posted on to the Scottish FA’s social media channels, while Wilson elected to speak to Back Onside, who had helped support him along the journey to coming out publicly.
“Basically, I approached the head of refereeing about three or four weeks ago off the back of Jake Daniels’ story,” Wilson explained.
“I’ve been out for about a year to my family and friends, but not wider than that. I decided that I wanted to do this, then the head of refereeing advised me that another referee was going to do the same, and we agreed to do it together. The Back Onside interview was prepared two weeks beforehand, so it was co-ordinated.
“Now, I’m relieved. Straight after it, I wasn’t. When the video first went out, it was like ‘oh my god, what’s happened?’ My phone started going crazy, to the point I had to put it off.
“I was getting texts, calls, messages on Instagram – it was bedlam. I suppose it was exciting, but now I have a massive sense of relief.
“The level of support has been at a level I didn’t think was possible. I’ve had thousands of messages I haven’t even had the chance to respond to.
“You would think I had done something amazing. I know a lot of people out there probably view what I’ve done as something amazing, but it almost feels like I’ve done something incredible with the reaction from professional players and celebrities.
“I was probably expecting some friends, or some people who were local to me that I didn’t really know, to be surprised or shocked.
“I was probably expecting some abuse, to be honest, from supporters. I thought there would be some inappropriate messages on Instagram, and I wasn’t expecting the level of reaction I got from the media, which was really nice and refreshing, so that was really positive.”
A long journey to openness
One of the words Wilson used in talking to Back Onside to describe his own journey to coming out publicly was “horrific”.
While becoming their authentic self can be a relatively pain-free process for some, others will not have had to wonder what Wilson meant at all.
Although there was not much time between telling his family and Wilson telling the whole world, there was a long process building up to that point that was not so straightforward over the years.
In his case, the turning point was meeting his partner and realising he did not want to hide any more.
“Some people might think that it was quite a quick turnaround, but I suppose for me, in my head, I’ve known for the last 17 years,” he reasoned.
“Whilst this is new for so many others, it’s not new for me. It’s very new for the public, and it’s very new for some people close to me, but it’s not new to me because I’ve always known this.
“Over the years it wasn’t great. A lot of the time I was wondering how I was going to get out of it, how I was going to change myself. Mental health was an issue, I lacked self-esteem. I have no idea how I got to category one as a referee, because I can remember sometimes going out for games and worrying that people might have seen me in a gay club, or seen me with someone.
“I thought someone who was watching the game could tell, I had all these paranoid thoughts and believed people would know that I had been meeting guys.
“There was lots of stuff like that, lots of emotion and worry, but that’s why the journey was utterly awful. I was living two lives, but nobody ever – I mean ever – saw this coming from me.
“There is that stereotypical gay man, that’s what 95 per cent of the public think you have to be if you’re gay. I’ll tell you now, that’s just not correct, because I have never ever been perceived as being camp or anything like that.
“It was a real shock to people, to the point where they were almost asking ‘how is that possible?’ It’s the same with Hamish, because he doesn’t come across like that either.
“The key point was meeting him. Obviously it was still closeted for maybe two or three months until we were very sure that was what we wanted, and at that point I made the decision that I was happy, I loved him, and I wasn’t changing for anybody.
“That’s when I shared it with my parents and a lot of my friends. A lot of people were shocked because in the past I’ve had girlfriends, but I suppose I was just trying to influence myself into thinking maybe I wasn’t – even though I always knew I was.
“People even now are very shocked that we’re a couple. We went on holiday a few weeks ago, and the girl behind the desk said she would need to split the beds up for us. We were just like ‘no, you don’t’, but stuff like that still happens. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it’s different to a lot of other people’s experiences.”
A changing culture in men’s football?
Many people, both in discussions around the likes of Wilson, Napier and Daniels coming out and in previous years, have spoken about the culture of men’s football being a potential reason why more people have not come out in the past.
As a referee, Wilson is perhaps subject to more abuse than most, but conversations behind closed doors in changing rooms have just as much – if not more – of an impact as chants from the stands.
Before embracing who he was, Wilson admits he partook in conversations that would be seen as problematic, but he is also confident that culture is one that is constantly changing for the better.
“I haven’t heard it as much in recent years, but a lot of changing room ‘banter’ in football always used to be about homosexuals,” Wilson recalled.
“It was intended in jest, but the undertone was the problem, and why people feel like they can’t come out in football.
“There’s a high level of insecurity among some people in football, who use humour to deflect away from themselves, and I was one of them.
“I would constantly say things to deflect from me. In the past I would have been part of that humour and banter, because I knew that if I was part of it people would think I definitely wasn’t gay.
“I can remember there were times when I would pretend I needed to leave the room because I knew I was blushing.
“My body would react to it with embarrassment. If someone would use me as the subject of the banter, and if it was something that was gay-related, I struggled to take that in any way, shape or form as humour. I obviously had a personal interest in that, so I didn’t like it for obvious reasons.
“I would say the culture has definitely hugely changed. The amount of footballers that messaged me, and the amount of fans of clubs that have messaged me – it’s just absolutely incredible really.
“I think the culture of people being willing to call stuff out is improving. I don’t think it’s just with homophobia, I think it’s also with racial stuff and religious stuff. It’s all on a par, but I think the thing with LGBT+ stuff is that there’s still a lack of confidence there, and a lack of people being willing to come out.
“That’s where a lot of the issues lie, people are still scared of the reaction. Obviously your skin colour isn’t something you can hide, but you can hide that you’re catholic or protestant, or that you’re bi or you’re gay.
“That’s where you need to make a conscious decision to say ‘this is who I am’, and the worry that you have is always how it’s going to be responded to. What I can say is that the response has been phenomenal, I couldn’t have asked for better.”
Building – and maintaining – momentum
For the first time in a long time, it feels like there is real momentum behind representation for gay and bisexual men in high profile sport.
There have been individual instances of role models in the past, but visibility is more prevalent now than possible ever before.
That is something Wilson is conscious of, and he wants to make sure to capitalise on that momentum to help bring about positive change.
“It’s been unbelievable – it’s strange being on the phone to someone like Josh Cavallo, or someone like Jake Daniels,” he reasoned.
“Someone like that dropping me a message to say ‘welcome to the community’, it’s great. Actually, there are so many sportsmen out there who are gay now, it is a big community.
“That’s why we need to keep speaking to each other, and that’s why we need to keep this going. That’s why we need to speak to journalists and tell good stories, why we need to really be clear, because players will read this and listen to us who are gay and hiding themselves.
“I’m just hoping that one day, one of them will go ‘right, I’m doing this’. Then I suppose for me as well, when does it stop becoming a news story? That’s the challenge. When does it change? When do we say there are now 10, 20 or 30 people, that has changed?
“I think there are real positives with it now happening, and obviously I and others have felt safe enough to do it, and a lot of that is how you’re going to be received. I can only be positive about that personally.”
Having seen people take steps forward, then, attention has to turn to what the next steps are to encourage others to follow their lead.
A key point that is a recurring theme in any high profile coming out story is the value of a support network to get the person to the point of speaking publicly in the first place.
That can come from friends, family, or in sport from coaches, agents, teammates or even governing bodies and contacts in the media.
The Scottish FA clearly backed both Wilson and Napier to tell their stories in a way they were comfortable with, and Wilson is thankful the culture was such that he could speak openly.
“I don’t want to have a go at any organisation, but I have never been to anything that has spoken about diversity as an issue, or as a thing,” Wilson said.
“The Scottish FA have a diversity strategy that’s in place, and obviously that’s available for anybody to look at if they so wish. That’s great, however in terms of practical movement I think there’s always scope for improvement there. Hopefully that’s something that I will help football in Scotland do.
“Obviously I made a phone call to Crawford Allan and said I wanted to do it. Then, it was pretty much a case of if I wanted to do it, the Scottish FA would support me to make that happen. It was very much a case of me making the decision.
“I suppose the question I would put there is how do you create a better environment? You can’t go up to boys and ask them all if they’re gay and hope that one says yes.
“Obviously I used Back Onside. I approached them to support me with that, and Libby – the chief executive there – really supported me to make those moves, and I suppose that the person that was really responsible for me coming out was Hamish.
“What I can say is that I’ve had messages on my Instagram from people who don’t want to take any action around who they are, and that’s okay. It would be categorically inappropriate to out anybody in our community, and that’s not something that any of us intend to do.
“Taking it back to me, it’s a confidence thing. I was always a fairly confident guy, but I think part of that confidence was a facade to defend myself if I’m being honest.
“For me the infrastructure there needs to be around promoting people to speak out – and not just about this, but about everything. People have to be able to speak up and be heard, whether that’s with a problem, a mental health issue, or whether that’s because they follow a certain religion and don’t feel supported enough.
“It’s about a culture of people being able to be open about everything, and not just whether they’re gay or not. It’s great having a diversity strategy, and you absolutely need that, but strategies are just strategies. Unless the culture is safe and open enough, it’s going to be difficult to really create that safety.”
Becoming a safe space for others to reach out to
As so often happens, when people are their authentic selves they make it easier for others going through similar things to reach out to them.
While Wilson speaks of creating a safe culture, by coming out publicly he has become a haven for others to reach out to – and that is a role he has relished so far.
“Obviously it’s an honour to be in that position,” he added.
“It’s an honour that people feel they can come and share what is a very personal story. There’s not just a one size fits all here – everybody has their own unique journey, and it’s an honour that I can now be one of those people that I used to reach out to.
“I really want to help people with this moving forward. I want to get involved in working with charities, schools, wherever I possibly can.
“I think this starts much younger than me – obviously I’m 31, so I’m quite old in terms of this journey – but I am confident that cultures are changing within sport and within football. If they weren’t, I quite simply wouldn’t have done this, so I think there’s some evidence there to say that actually maybe football is changing for the better.
“It is an honour, but I want to capitalise on it, and I want to make this wider now than just what it is. There are some radio channels that want to get me involved as a regular feature, and I think that’s what needs to happen.
“This can’t just stop after a few weeks. It needs to be ‘where can Lloyd fit in here’ so that people are saying ‘this is Lloyd Wilson, a football referee who came out as gay’, so it’s a regular thing in football like in rugby.
“Nigel Owens was involved in lots of things, and it became normal in rugby. We still need to make it normal in football, and the way to do that is visibility.”