Friday, February 23, 2024

‘This community changed my life’ Arseblog News talks to Gay Gooners for Pride

This year, Gay Gooners celebrate their tenth anniversary. Today they will take part in the annual Pride celebrations in London with the full throated backing of Arsenal, as has become traditional. Gay Gooners were the first official LGBT Supporters Club in English football and, with over 1,600 members currently, they are the largest in the country. Tim Stillman sat down with co-chair Carl Fearn and members Selena Chambers and Lucy about why Gay Gooners remains such a vital community for LGBT Arsenal fans.

It’s two days before Pride and the Gay Gooners are running a fundraising night at a pub close to Emirates Stadium. The GGs lost two valued members in April and have decided to hold a fundraising evening for the Arsenal Foundation and Willow Foundation in memory of Nicki and Yvonne. Members gather to play a table football tournament and, it turns out, that yours truly is no better at table football than he was 20 years ago.

I first talk with Carl Fearn, the co-chair of Gay Gooners. I ask him what the group aimed to achieve when they officially formed in February 2013 and whether they have achieved them. “Good question!” he laughs. “The goal was to create a safe space for LGBT Arsenal fans to experience a game. In the main I think we have achieved that in a lot of areas but there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Carl says that different games bring different challenges. He talks about, for instance, the difference between away and home matches. Carl, who says he did not go to football for many, many years, explains that Arsenal away matches can often be a little more anxiety inducing than home games. “It is more in the concourses, there was an element I found exciting but at the same time, I was on my guard a little and I didn’t like that feeling.

“I really enjoy the experience of an away game but sometimes that concourse experience can be a tough one. You hear things and chants in the concourse that you don’t hear in the seats. A member heard a homophobic chant in the gents at Newcastle away last year where there is obviously no police and no cameras. That’s not nice- but a chant in the gents is one thing. It makes you wonder ‘is this going to go to the next level?’ That fear of escalation is always in your mind as an LGBT person.”

Carl explains that most members don’t want to be ‘identified’ as LGBT, that really most would rather it was a total non-issue, like being heterosexual is. “We just want to go to a game and enjoy it in peace. I am getting a bit older and thick of skin now so I choose to challenge it (homophobia) more. I didn’t join the Gay Gooners to not say anything. There are certain elements that are still around in certain places and not just with homophobia either. This isn’t an Arsenal issue, it’s a societal issue.”

Last season, the club started playing a video in the stadium featuring several members of Gay Gooners, as well as Aaron Ramsdale and Kim Little, outlining a zero-tolerance approach to homophobic abuse in the stadium. Carl said that video was borne out of an unpleasant experience he encountered at a home game. “I was in a pub just when stadiums re-opened after covid and I heard some horrible homophobic and antisemitic abuse and the landlord said they didn’t really know how to handle it.

“So we went to the club and spoke to them and that video was a direct result of something I heard. I did it because it was important to me that our members don’t have to feel fearful when they go to a football game.”

Many question the need for an LGBT supporters club. Lots of people (usually heterosexual men) will ask why sexuality of any stripe need be an issue when supporting a football team? Often this question is asked in more passive aggressive terms. “We always get the ‘why don’t we have a straight Gooners group?’, Carl explains. “To which our response is always, ‘ok, go and set one up then. See how many members you get.’

“Because you don’t have to get up every morning and think ‘do I have to be careful today? Do I have to disguise how I act?’ Carl says LGBT safe spaces and the community they provide is of critical importance. “The suicide rate among the LGBT community is far higher than the general population, especially among young gay men and a lot of that is due to that continuous pressure.

“So that homophobic chant or comment might seem like banter but for an LGBT person that’s constant, that’s another thing to deal with, then there’s another a few minutes later, then you read something online or in the paper and that pressure builds and people start to think ‘if people really hate me that much what’s the point?’

“That’s why we take it so seriously because when people say these sorts of things to us, that really affects people’s mental health. Loneliness is an issue for LGBT people and when you are alone and you are dealing with that, it can lead to bad things and that’s another one of the reasons we really need a community like Gay Gooners.”

However, Carl is eager to point out that the Gay Gooners is not somehow exotic nor are the members different from any other Arsenal fans. “We’re probably a lot more mundane than people think, we go shopping, pay bills and we are just normal Arsenal fans. We meet up and we moan about the referee just like everyone else. This group helps us to have that normal matchday experience that most other people have without thinking about it.”

While the assumption persists that society gradually liberalises over time, Carl says that homophobia in the stands is very much a live issue. “The ‘Chelsea rent boys’ chant has come into focus now and people always say it’s not homophobic but let’s be very clear, it is. It is belittling gay people; nobody would ever highlight sex between heterosexual people as a reason to mock a player. There are more homophobic arrests when we play Brighton than any other game.” (Brighton is one of the cities with the highest gay population in Britain and Brighton fans have long been targeted with homophobic abuse from opposing fans).

By the time you read this, Arsenal will probably have tweeted about Gay Gooners and London Pride, the annual LGBT festival in central London. And if you see Arsenal’s celebratory tweet, then you will probably see some of the predictable, yet no less unpleasant responses from people that overtly reject the idea that LGBT people even have the right to exist. Carl makes a plea to Arsenal fans who object to this homophobia.

“My comment would be let the homophobes show themselves up with their stupid comments. Don’t attack them by tweeting back at them. I would rather see people post something positive about the post Arsenal will put up and by saying how proud you are of Arsenal being for everyone. To me, that means more than having a go because they will just have a go back and it goes nowhere. Reading positive things about Pride would mean so much more to our members.”

Carl says he and his members always have a great time at Pride, especially with the club’s backing. Last season Jordan Nobbs, Jen Beattie and Caitlin Foord from the women’s team joined the GGs on the parade, while members of the men’s team sent the bus off from London Colney.

“I think Pride started as a protest but I like to think the people that started it fifty years or so ago would be proud to see what it’s become, that it is a proud, uplifting experience. And for us, we can be there representing Arsenal and knowing that Arsenal accept me and Arsenal have been fantastic with us ever since we started.”

I speak to Lucy, a trans member of Gay Gooners. It is easy to forget that this community exists for a broad spectrum of Arsenal fans united by barriers they have faced because people find it difficult to accept who they are. “I joined in late 2019 just before the pandemic,” Lucy explains. “I went to a few meet ups after lockdown had finished. I had been afraid to go to football games as my myself. Gay Gooners gave me the support, just knowing they were there gave me more confidence.”

While trans people have always endured intense social and personal challenges, Lucy says the environment has made life more difficult in recent years. “The media environment around being trans has become a lot more toxic in recent years and it’s not very nice so I just tune myself out of it. I know it’s probably not going to be nice so why would I read it? And it’s just the same old stuff over and over again and I can’t remember a week passing without it just repeating.”

Lucy, who works for Arsenal as a stadium tour guide, was on the end of transphobic abuse from Brighton supporters after the teams played one another at the Emirates in May. “I had an incident with some Brighton fans walking back to the station with some unpleasant chants towards me. I called it in because I felt I should but the sad reality is you get this in your day to day life not just at football. Some people think they can just heckle you in the street or chant things at you at football.”

Lucy draws a parallel between the environment for trans people now to the one gay and lesbian people experienced a few decades ago. “I wasn’t really around in the 1980s but I feel like maybe the trans community sailed under the radar a little. We have always been there. I think in the 1980s there was a lot of focus on the LGB community and now it feels like they are homing in on trans people.

“I think a lot of people, like politicians, in a few years will come out and apologise for things they have said because they will be on the wrong side of history. Theresa May apologised for her part in Section 28. (A series of laws passed in Britain in 1988 that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities).

Lucy says that football’s prevailing macho culture still makes it difficult for trans football fans to be themselves at games. “A lot of people are accepting and don’t really care but a lot still live by that culture of it being a man’s game and seeing trans people as a taint on that. But Arsenal Football Club are the most caring employer I could wish for. They genuinely care about me and making me feel safe and welcome.”

Lastly, I talk to GG member Selena, whom I have known from Arsenal Women games for a while now. “I joined Gay Gooners around five years ago but really only properly got involved last year around Pride,” Selena explains. “I met a lot of people like Carl and wanted to be involved as possible. Selena says the number of gay women who both play and watch women’s football means that the explosion of the women’s game has led to a greater number of lesbian members joining the GGs.

Just some of Selena’s Arsenal tattoos

“The way the women’s game has exploded this year, we have been able to bring in a lot of fans from there so a lot joined this year from the women’s game and now we have a really strong following of Gay Gooners at the women’s games games home and away.” The proliferation of lesbian players and fans has cultivated a far more accepting environment for gay women.

I ask Selena whether there are any other corners of life or culture with a lesbian contingent of this size. “It is surreal, you just don’t get that anywhere else in the world. It’s amazing to have those gay rolemodels on the pitch and in the stands and it’s probably even more amazing for younger gay female fans to really have these high-profile gay women representing their club, who are so open about it.

“I get why it doesn’t happen because there would probably be issues in the stands but I really wish our gay male fans had some of that, those rolemodels in the game who are just like them and out about it.” In the Arsenal Women’s team, for instance, Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema are very openly in a relationship. I ask Selena whether that is important to her as a fan.

“It’s not important to me that it’s those specific players. It’s really nice to have two high-profile gay women who play for Arsenal openly in a relationship. But at the same time, I don’t want to pry into their private lives. The soap opera side of being a fan doesn’t interest me, it’s great they can be open about it but it is still their private life.”

If anything, an albeit relatively minor issue in the women’s game is hyper acceptance. A minority of fans can become heavily fixated on player relationships. “I think some fans come into the game and they see these players and maybe forget that they’re people and not characters,” Selena ponders. “I do think it will die down. Gay women in women’s football have always been there but the spotlight is probably more intense since the Euros (last summer).”

I ask Selena about the importance of Gay Gooners to her personally and her answer is effusive. “This community has changed my life. It sounds like I am overselling it but I have made friends for life here. I used to be much more shy and reserved and I haven’t entirely gotten away from that but a year ago I would never have sat here and spoken to you. I would be hiding in a corner. It’s encouraged me to talk to people and be who I am. To find that acceptance has been amazing and to find it with Arsenal is a dream come true.”

Whether or not you are LGBT, Gay Gooners continue to be a source of Pride for Arsenal fans.

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Onenil

Arsenal for all
All for Arsenal!

Bill Hall

Cracking article Tim
Gay gooner here and proud!

Neil Bamford

It’s really brave of Arsenal to post anything like this on social media nowadays as a lot of fans around the world aren’t as accepting as what I would like to say is the majority of other fans.

Mootilated

Two in the stunning, one in the Brave

Jeremy

Awesome!

Daveo

This is great. Thanks for sharing blogs! Would be great to see some of the men’s team get out and support GGs too. Love is love. We need space for everyone!

Larry Green

Great read I’m a long standing member of the gaygooners and wish them well at pride and hope in ten years we as a group no longer need to exist as people wake up to the fact we are people too

Mårten

Love this!

Baz

Wouldn’t it be nice if FIFA gave a shit about stuff like this. Spineless lot.

Carole

You only have to see the range of hate aimed at LGBT+ people on social media to see why Gay Gooners matters.

It is a disgrace that FIFA won’t allow rainbow armbands at the Women’s World Cup, as they didn’t allow them last year at the Men’s event.

Homo- and transphobia are all around us still and there is a culture war aimed at us going on right now.

Arsenal has to be applauded as a club that is proud to support its LGBT+ fans and long may it continue.

Naked Cygan

Respect to all Arsenal fans all over the world.

Gabriel's Gleaming Teeth

You love to see it

Gabriel's Gleaming Teeth

Awesome stuff – good work everyone

EmileSmithWhoa

Well played! How amazing would it be if instead of just in England it became The International Online Gooners Club. After that if morphed into The International Online LGBTQ+ Nation, the ION LGBTQ Nation. After that we could get an ION Women’s Nation, Peoples of Color Nation, Youth Nation, Climate Nation etc and all of it originated from the article written in Arseblog. Bernard Shaw said: “ You see things; you ask Why? I dream of things and ask; Why not?” Stay Hungry my Friends!

Ally

Fantastic! Thank you!

Gunner1971

All the people who are downvoting the positive comments here, are you confident enough to actually say something? Or do you prefer to hide?
I have my own reservations about some things that are associated with the LQBTQ movement but acceptance, tolerance and respect are the basic principles of civilized behaviour. Nobody should feel disrespected or fearful because of who they are.

Arron

Yeah, noted the down votes too. Maybe homophobic, or maybe don’t understand the relevance of positive representation/community. Or just conservative and bitter regards the world. Meh. They’ll fade into history soon enough 🙂

Arron

Bigots = cowards. They’ll hide. Anyway… time changes people, so there is hope they’ll reflect on their perspectives and change. Thanks for posting.

Arron

Or maybe they aint hiding… in which case, thanks moderators! Arseblog is fuckn excellent!

Tim Stillman

Yes, those sorts of comments aren’t getting through and deliberately so.

EmileSmithWhoa

That is a double edged sword Tim. I fully understand many of the reasons why. We should all realize that the LGBTQ+ community has been chosen by their detractors/enemies as the softest target. The primary reason is that centuries of religious lies and misinformation rely on this to retain control and power. They will either relegate LGBTQ+ back to second/5th class human status while crippling democracy or democracy will reduce their status to being far less powerful and relevant. Self determination of individuals never remains stagnant, it ONLY grows or shrinks. When it shrinks, LGBTQ+ is always at the frontlines.… Read more »

Arron

Thank you ..and thanks for the brilliant article. Enjoy and appreciate all your humble, considered writing.

PB70

I’m not big on censorship, but based on some of my own posts towards people I disagree with here, people like me hide behind that word, as well as ‘free speech’. This place would be as shitty as twitter if some of us aren’t moderated, as sad as that is. As always, a brilliant and inclusive article. Another thing to love about our club and the many online contributors (not all) who add to the AFC ecosystem/family with positivity. I wish I had that in me. Affecting positive change without losing your shit, is not an easy thing to do… Read more »

Kubaz

They’re all on the Club’s Pride Insta post.

Onenil

Imagine a young lad, the next Fabregas/Saka – A world class talent who every club wants. But he’ll choose Arsenal rather than City or Madrid or Saudi or whoever has the biggest bucks, even if we are not challenging for honours at the time. Because we will love him for his talent, and defend him from the haters and refuse to judge him for who he loves, and he will make us better on the pitch… and off it.

Onenil

I guess some down voters prefer to miss out on a generational talent rather than accept their sexuality. And love prejudice more than The Arsenal.
That I cannot understand

Arron

Beautiful comment for the beautiful game!

Arron

Ha, two downvote own goals so far… but men, you lose, so keep on firing em in! Love ya xo

Arron

Proud to be a LGBTQIA ally. Let’s live in hope for a future of full acceptance and respect for all <3

Wetdog

Arsenal leading the way again. Proud to be part of a club that includes everyone and shows it.

kaius

Really good, vital piece of journalism, well done Tim. Very proud of the club and our fans

BillyKrystal

Well done, Tim, vital work right now. I’m sorry to say our Supreme Court just made an appalling decision, giving companies here in the US carte blanche to discriminate. As we take several steps backwards thank you for shining a light on the joyous Gay Gunners. Makes me proud to be a fan.

Sean Poe

The percentage of downvotes aimed at the positive comments is disgusting, and frankly quite shocking. I dread to think what some of the moderated comments contained. I can only assume that those views either come from people in a place where prejudice is still a normality and education is not yet up to speed with a world in which the ability to understand the difference between right and wrong is instantly accessible, and certainly accessible to any readers of these blog posts.  Or perhaps there is a young audience here who are still some way from reaching adult mental maturity –… Read more »

arseblog

None of it was from ‘regular’ posters. The responses have been overwhelmingly positive, but nobody who tried to comment negatively on this post is welcome to post on anything else we publish here.

Sean Poe

Cool. I realise my last line probably sounded a bit demanding,. The intent was a meant to be framed as more of a question. The response is overwhelmingly positive, though it’s sad to see some posts that detail nothing but support having so many downvotes. Thank you for the great content and also a willingness to publish articles on matters like this

arseblog

We have to maintain standards!

Sauce Thompson

Forgot to add a few more paragraphs in there blogs.. haha
Not a fan of the LGBT but I’ll let them breathe

Rosicky87

Long time reader but have never felt this compelled to leave the first comment.
Proud to be associated with the club and people as eloquent, compassionate, and open minded as Tim and so much commenters!

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