I believe that the environment within the white lines and changing rooms is right for a professional player if they choose to come out publicly. I fully believe that they will receive enormous support from all colleagues and fans. –Ryan Atkin

Ryan Atkin is making his mark on the world of Football. Recently coming out of the closet as English Football’s first and only openly gay professional referee. Ryan was also recently elected to the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association. Making him the first person from professional football to work for the organization. The president of IGLFA, Gus Penaranda, shared his thoughts on Ryan joining the board…

“Ryan’s story has been spreading in the soccer community and has given continued hope to many who even today struggle with their identity, especially for those who play sports. As a global volunteer organization, IGLFA has always aimed at finding those individuals from around the world who want to help the LGBTI community in any way possible and for us the common ground is the game of soccer or sports in general. As a ref, Ryan has a great reputation in gay global tournaments such as the Gay Games or the Unity Cup, but it is his knowledge of the game and professionalism that he brings to the game of soccer that has earned him the respect from players and refs alike.

Referees in general are always getting a bad reputation and there is no difference in gay or straight sports, but Ryan has been able to work side by side with refs who have been doing the job for decades and has established himself as a clear role model for those who are just finding their way in gay sports competitions and to his generation in general. As a new member of the IGLFA Board of Directors, Ryan will be part of the team that will take the organization forward so future generations can have a safe place to be who they are and play the sport they love.”– Gus Penaranda, President, IGLFA

We asked Ryan to share his story and his plans for taking on these new roles in helping to build more opportunities for LGBTI+ inclusion in sports.

Why is it important in 2018 to organize football games for LGBTI communities?

I believe it is extremely important to arrange these games to allow individuals to compete against their peers, and in an environment that they feel comfortable. More than that, there are a lot of people who did not have a good experience of sport when they were young. I know I hated Physical Education at school, and I know so many that feel the same. Many of whom felt they would not be accepted or treated equally. The games are a celebration of how far we have come together. But amidst of all that, we cannot afford to be complacent nor can we forget what generations before us have done for our community. Through the medium of sport, we cannot underestimate the power a visible rainbow flag or LGBTI sports person can have on the young people of this great country, especially in those countries where it is less accepted or still illegal. Remember we should not be afraid of sport, and sport is not afraid of LGBTI. The images I have of watching England V Colombia in an LGBTI bar. With individuals who had never watch football, cheering, watching in excitement and then to celebrate and hug with straight allies was amazing to watch. Who says LGBTI people don’t like football!

What do you aim to bring to IGLFA tournaments from your professional refereeing background?

I would like to work with IGLFA to attempt to get a sports sponsor for the next tournament. I want to adapt the tournament to bring it in line and ensure it is equal to other tournaments. The biggest frustration is when people say to me ‘but this is a gay football tournament’. It is a football tournament played by individuals who may identify as LGBTI and so should be respected, but ultimately it is a football tournament. I would like to adapt the tournament to offer a high-quality tournament which offers variety. What I mean by that is, identifying clubs and teams that want to play competitively and those who are less competitive that are attending for other reasons. A division for the slightly older individuals who want to play if there was genuine interest but feel they don’t want to play in the high tempo younger games. My main target is to attract referees to provide training and development while producing a consistent approach to the games that are officiated so that the tournament is enjoyed by all.

In your experience, is homophobia in general regression or increasing and why?

I think as society changes and generations are born and die, homophobia is in regression in some countries, mainly western. However, having just returned from Russia and the World Cup this is not the case. If anything, it is getting potentially worse. That is why Pride and events like the Gay Games are so important. It is no longer just my opinion about sexual orientation, but about acceptance of individuals to be who or what you want to be. However, we must never forget what the generations before fought for, to allow my generation to have this life. To hold hands in the street, to have LGBTI bars, equal rights etc.

Why did you want to come out as gay?

I am now so proud to say that I am a professional football referee who just happens to like men, which means I am Gay. I never wanted to return to my life where I suffered mental health issues because I was hiding who I was and accepting it. Living a life in the shadows or as a lie is no life!

There are often homophobic insults in football. Especially toward referees. Have you suffered from it and is it still the case?

I heard it and sometimes had it directed at me before I was out when I was younger. I chose to ignore it. Something now as a proud gay man, it still troubles me. However, I know that many comments made on the football pitch are not made with an insult intended. Actually, some just lack education or the awareness of what the words mean or what they are saying. That is why we should always give individuals a chance to change. However, if it happens again then it’s time to come down harder.

Since your announcement, is it easier or harder to officiate?

For me my refereeing has not been overly affected. If anything, being able to be me, has allowed my personality to shine through and people manage better. However, if anything, refereeing LGBTI teams can be harder. As I referee every game like I would on a Saturday back in the UK. For some reason LGBTI individuals feel they should have exceptions. The laws of the game are very clear and do not discriminate. For example, no shin pads, piercings, jewelry or foul throws.

And supporters?

In whole positive. I think they get it. I think they watch the game with so much passion that they just card somebody is good at playing or refereeing. They haven’t got the time to think about somebody’s sexuality. It probably hasn’t even crossed their mind. Since coming out, I have had one comment that I heard. A man in the crowd, after awarding a free kick shouted, “you can tell he is one of them, look at his hair cut”. I just turned at him and laughed. It made me feel prouder to be an out gay man.

Being gay, did you close doors in world of football? Or open others in?

It has genuinely not closed any doors, if anything it has opened many. The support from the governing bodies has been fantastic and I think they have enjoyed the journey as well, learning with me along the way. I hope that through the work I’m doing, players have a similar experience if they chose to come out publicly. That is important as some choose not to come out and are very happy, with a partner and that’s their personal life and private time.

Is being gay still a taboo in professional sports?

Conversations are being had across many sports at the highest levels. Honestly, the biggest issue is that because many male individuals don’t identify within the sport to the governing bodies, or publicly they don’t know what to do. That’s why those that want to help or put processes in place are so important. If you can help within your sport, step forward and help the governing bodies to make your sport inclusive and equal.

Do you know referees or players who are gay and do not want to say it?

I know individuals who are gay, but for them they are happy, or happy with where they are at the moment.

Why do they keep it secret?

Is it a secret or somebody’s private life? Only they know. But if it’s something they are hiding through fear, then that’s why it’s important that fans, mangers, agents, referees, governing bodies and the media make being LGBT sport just another day on the pitch, field, pool or track!

What advice do you give to a young footballer who is gay and suffers from being unable to say it?

Give me a message on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or phone call I honestly mean that! One rule in the LGBTI community is that you NEVER, EVER reveal or out somebody. So, if you just want to talk, then that’s fine. I have dated people who are not out in sport or in other careers, it’s not a big deal to me, and wasn’t to them.

Can things like LGBTI Sports Games and Events change attitudes?

Yes! Not only through the games taking place, but the sponsors that step up and address their corporate social responsibility and promote the games. Whether this is morale reasons, business or both it makes a difference. Allies are some important, and I dearly love my heterosexual friends who support me in everything I do, and shout from the roof tops for me. We all have to be a TEAM, shout louder, so that every LGBTI person who fears that the sport they love won’t accept them, and knows that sport IS love, just like #loveislove. Never feel that you have to choose between sport, and who you are. Just remember…. Never forget! Be proud, be you, and be true! Come out for sports!

By Dirk Smith