Personal Column: Out on the pitch

Footballer Andrew Walmsley knows all about homophobic prejudice but says the game is almost ready for an out star
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The Independent Online

To be honest, when I heard about Stonewall FC, my thoughts about gay men playing football were as prejudiced as the next person's. I thought their football would not be good enough. But when I found out more, I was impressed.

The team, named after the bar at the centre of gay rights riots in New York in 1969, was set up 15 years ago. The world was a different place then, and people's attitudes towards gay people have improved a lot since then. It was set up by a group of gay lads who were just interested in football. But many of them felt intimidated about being themselves as part of a straight team. I've heard the stories. There was name-calling. They didn't get a fair crack of the whip in terms of team selection. There were people not wanting to shower with them. In any team there is going to be mickey-taking, but some of the sniping was at a pretty base level.

From the start, we were the only gay team. Stonewall has always played in straight leagues and, at the beginning, it was sometimes difficult. They played on Sundays, and when a team was playing Stonewall they would get a much bigger crowd to support them. Their wives and friends would turn up. Even their kids would come and shout hate. They would shout, "You're a queer", "don't touch him, you poof." It was quite evil. You still get a bit of that, but generally things are very different now.

I heard about Stonewall in 1997, and, soon after, I joined the team. By this stage the abuse was coming not so much from the sidelines as from the other players. I had it from a couple of teams, they'd say, "Have you got Aids?" Some teams were fine, others were always a problem. Strangely, some of the younger teams were worse than the older, more mature teams.

In 1999 we went into the Middlesex County first division, and won that. Now we are in the Middlesex County premier division. We're not having a very good season this year - it's a team in transition. But in 2004 we won the County Cup.

Every four years we enter the Gay Games, which were started in 1990. It has the majority of sports that are in the standard Olympics: swimming, athletics, football... It's not so much that all these athletes feel too intimidated to play in the standard Games, but it's more a celebration of a culture and a way of life. But you don't have to be gay to play in the Gay Olympics.

We have straight players in our team now. It's not a gay boys' club. We would always want to be known as Stonewall, but as we've become more successful there seems to have been less homophobic abuse towards us, and what we represent to people is slightly different. We were a solace to players who wanted to play football and felt they couldn't because they were gay. Now we are about celebrating a way of life.

This year we had a tough decision to make about sponsorship. We were offered sponsorship by, and we had a big debate about having "" across our shirts. We said yes in the end, but some people felt uncomfortable: they didn't want to single themselves out. We share a training pitch with other teams and, when we walk past, they do tend to stop and stare at the chest. But I think it's breaking down a bit of a barrier.

I've heard about the two gay footballers in the Premiership; we all know who they are, but I understand why they don't want to come out as gay. A lot of non-celebrities take a long time to come out, too. In Premiership football, coming out as gay would mean singling yourself out. And there's something about the crowd mentality that brings things down to such a base level. Do you really want to be that player who is on the pitch for 90 minutes with people shouting abuse? Just coming out anyway can be a very difficult time, for your friends and family as well. And having a negative reaction like that would make it incredibly complicated.

Somehow, I think homosexuality is the last acceptable prejudice in football. You hear it on the radio and TV all the time. A couple of months ago there was a series of sketches on one of the football shows. The presenter was in the Everton dressing room, and Marcus Bent was playing for them. There was a shirt hanging up and it had the number seven and his name on it. And the presenter said: "Well this proves that the number seven for Everton is Bent, ha ha ha." You get a commentator saying: "He's gone down like a poof". It's common language and is not meant to be hurtful, but it doesn't help. Most of the people in the game grew up in a working-class environment where it is very macho. That's why football is different.

It's wonderful that this year the FA has recognised this as an issue. Just think of the way the race thing has moved on. Ten or 15 years ago when John Barnes was playing for Liverpool he used to get bananas thrown at him. That would never happen today.

The same process will occur with homophobic abuse, as long as the FA and the players get behind it. It wasn't the black players who co-ordinated the campaign against racism in football; it was people in the game as a whole, saying, "This is not acceptable". With government backing and the support of people in the game, there will come a day when premiership players will be able to come out as gay and it will not be much of an issue; but it won't be for a long time.