In late November 2010, Aslie Pitter, an about-to-turn- 51-year-old assistant manager of a branch of Boots in south-east London, received what looked like a rather official-looking letter. It turned out to be very official indeed – from the Palace no less, capital P. Pitter sat down at the kitchen table to open it. "It said I was being considered for an MBE, and they wanted to know whether I would accept. There were two boxes you could tick, Yes or No. I ticked Yes."
A compact man with heavy-framed glasses and a mile-wide smile, Pitter is still bewildered about the honour a couple of months on. "The letter also said I shouldn't tell anybody beforehand," he says, "which was obviously very difficult, sitting on news like that." He did tell one person though, albeit in secret: his 85-year-old diabetic father. "I'm glad I did. He died just before Christmas."
I meet Pitter on a rainy mid-January weekday afternoon in the cramped Boots storeroom. Though he initially harboured ambitions to become an actor – he trained at theatre school, and had bit parts in the occasional sitcom and TV drama – his professional life has revolved mostly around retail. But football has been Pitter's abiding passion, and it is his devotion to, and work for, one particular team that has prompted the MBE. A gay man, Pitter has spent the past 20 years playing for Stonewall FC – once the only gay team in the country, now merely the best.
Pitter has played football since his youth, moving up through a variety of Saturday and Sunday leagues and occasionally trying out for semi-professional teams. Though he has never hidden his sexuality – he was comfortably out during his school years in 1970s south London – neither did he make a point of advertising it. "It's just not information you readily offer up," he says, "though most people's reaction, when they did find out, was fine. But of course there were exceptions, and a certain change of atmosphere in the dressing-room..."
The point at which he began turning up to football functions with a "friend" was when the murmurs invariably began. Mostly, this was all they were, murmurs, and harmless enough. But other times, they snowballed into something more ruinous. He recalls one team he played for in the early 1990s, which he declines to name, who, upon learning of his sexuality, promptly cast him from the first team. "I was demoted and not just to the second team but all the way to the fourth. They just wanted me gone."
He went. And so, consequently, when he learnt of the existence of a gay football team, located in London, he thought it worthwhile checking out. He went along to the next training session, full of helpless preconceptions. "I was pleasantly surprised," he notes, "as the level of talent was high – higher, if I'm honest, than I expected. k I can't tell you what a relief it was to learn that I wasn't the only gay man in the country interested in football."
This was in late 1991. Pitter stopped playing for straight teams altogether, and concentrated his efforts instead on Stonewall FC. Twenty years later, he is now the club's longest-serving player, and manages the second team. On 8 February, he will duly be rewarded for his efforts by the Queen. He has already bought a hat.
"It's still only just sinking in," he says, "but I'm relieved it's public knowledge at last." (The honours list was announced on New Year's Eve.) "It means I don't have to keep it a secret any more, that I can actually tell people."
The reaction it has prompted from friends and colleagues has, he admits, been curious. Many have called to congratulate him, while others have opted not to mention it at all. At work, humour has been the great leveller. Just as well: a recipient of an MBE working in a high-street chemist needs all the levelling he can get. "They've taken to calling me Lord Pitter," he says, a blush rising to his cheeks. "One of the security guards bowed at me other day..."
A freezing Tuesday night two days later, and Stonewall FC's first team are at their regular Tuesday-night training session, at a five-a-side complex in south-west London. The place is packed with nine-to-fivers working off the myriad irritations of the day on the pitch, and taking it all as terribly seriously as any self-respecting nine-to-fiver should. To the casual onlooker, who may or may not approach the concept of gay footballers with a certain level of misconception, Stonewall FC's collective ability quickly quashes any prejudice. They do not, in other words, stand out in the crowd. No player rushes in the opposite direction of the approaching ball, arms flailing and shrieking theatrically. They perform much as one would expect of any team that plays in the Middlesex County League (albeit one currently languishing towards the bottom of the table).
Their ascension into this league, several years ago now, played a crucial part in cementing their reputation as, for want of a better term, a "proper" team. Previously, they had played only other gay teams that began to spring up in their wake – and, every four years, in the Gay Games, the world's largest sporting and cultural event organised by and specifically for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) athletes. When they found themselves promoted into a straight league, says 29-year-old first-team captain Doug Edward, straight players had to take them seriously.
"The initial reaction was, I suppose, inevitable," he says. "Most of the teams were wary of losing to a bunch of queers, or else were convinced they'd beat us easily. But once we proved our worth and beat them, regularly, that attitude stopped pretty much all together. We were just another football team, and treated accordingly."
Any vocal criticism that has come their way has emanated, perhaps surprisingly, from within the gay community itself.
"We've had far more prejudice from the gay community than we ever had from the straight," confirms team manager Eric Najib. "When they first heard of our existence, we got an awful lot of sniggers. They asked whether we were trying to be butch. All ridiculous, of course, but I suppose, to many people, gay people included, being gay means going out and drinking and dot dot dot, not indulging in sport."
Pitter says he has frequently come up against similar reactions: "I had to explain to many of my friends that, no, I don't just like show tunes but Van Halen as well. It is possible for a gay man, or woman, to like things other than the obvious. Should it really be such a surprise?" He sighs; this isn't the first time he has had to stress this.
Yet most of the team themselves will admit that they too initially arrived at the club with much the same preconceptions. Few seem to have known any other gay men who not only followed football but played it with anything approaching finesse, and each was convinced, as was Pitter, that they wouldn't be very good.
Najib blames society. "We live in a society which suggests that a gay football team, while no doubt a nice enough bunch of people, will very likely be hopeless," he says. A no-nonsense 34-year-old who works at the gay nightclub Heaven, Najib is gruff and tough, about as camp as one imagines Andy McNab to be, and there is something about his attitude that suggests you wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of one of his tackles. "The average stereotype of a gay man is all fake tan and prancing about," he says. "We are still to have within the media – and I dread to use the word normal here – but someone with, well, normal characteristics. Look at TV. You've got Alan Carr and Graham Norton, both terrifically funny, and dreadfully nice, but they don't do anything to quash the stereotype."
Which rather means the job instead falls to the likes of Stonewall FC's players themselves. "The terraces echo society," Najib says, "always have. So when society decided that Bernard Manning, Jim Davidson and Roy 'Chubby' Brown no longer performed acceptable material for Saturday-night television, the terraces soon followed suit, and racist name-calling dropped away – rightly so. But if you watch any stand-up comedian today, from Michael McIntyre to pretty much anybody else you can think of, it is still OK to make gay jokes, albeit supposedly ironic ones. Consequently, the terraces reflect this."
What this means, he concludes, is that any professional player who dared come out would have his life made hell, and not just from the crowds. He could be transformed into a figure of sniggering fun and could well lose his individual sponsorship deals, which are often worth millions.
But from this we are not to derive, Najib insists, that your average gay footballer is any more sensitive a soul than a straight one, "because we aren't". He recounts a story from a few years ago, when Stonewall FC was embarrassingly trounced by an opposing team 9-2. "Their manager came into our dressing-room afterwards and said that, for the first time in five years of playing us, we played like a bunch of gays." He grins. "You have to admit that's funny, and beautifully timed, too. Besides, who wants to live in a Peter Tatchell-inspired world where we have to watch k everything we do and everything we say? Don't get me wrong, Peter Tatchell has done a lot of great work, but sometimes you just want to relax and lighten up a bit, right?"
He also suggests that a little homophobia on the pitch is certainly not suggestive of any deep-rooted homophobia off the pitch, where it counts. "On the pitch, it is simply an attempt at one-upmanship, trying to get an advantage, mental or physical, over your opponent. That's football."
And it's a side that Najib indulges in himself. A Manchester United fan, he went to see them play Liverpool recently, for what was Kenny Dalglish's first match back as manager at Anfield. He spent the entire 90 minutes screaming abuse at the dour Scot. "But if he walked past us now," he laughs, "I'd be the first to ask for his autograph."
Nevertheless, there are people who believe that an all-gay team this far into the purportedly enlightened 21st-century is somehow reductive and separatist. Shouldn't we be encouraging instead integration and acceptance, all-round unity? Edward, the club captain, insists that, in an ideal world, yes we should, but that we don't yet live in one. He used to play regularly for straight teams but was never wholly comfortable doing so, and says that he knows of many gifted players who came out when they joined Stonewall but promptly went back into the closet when they turned semi-professional. "It's difficult for them. There is no role model to look up to, no trailblazer to make that step any easier."
To date, just one professional footballer has come out. That was Justin Fashanu back in 1990. His career suffered "heavy damage" and he never played at the top level again; he committed suicide eight years later. More recently, Gareth Thomas became rugby union's only openly gay player, though he is nearing the end of his career, which, notionally at least, makes it easier. Najib also suggests that a rugby union crowd might just be a little more emancipated than a footballing one. "Unfortunately, I don't think the world of football is quite ready for its first openly gay player yet," he laments. "Would I like one to come out? Certainly! They can come and play for Stonewall..."
As the team prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, two decades that have seen fluctuating fortunes, cemented only recently upon securing Barclays as their shirt sponsor, they are a promising squad – but they need new recruits, more choice. And herein lies a very specific problem. "We struggle to source new players all the time," Najib admits. "We rely on word-of-mouth mostly, the internet, and adverts in gay publications. What else can we do? We certainly can't hang around schools, or even think of setting up a youth team. We need to tread carefully. It's a bit of a minefield, to be honest."
Which is why Aslie Pitter's MBE is so very timely, the accompanying spotlight bringing to the club a level of public awareness it's never had before. "Moving up to the next level will help us no end," Pitter says, "and that's all we want, really. Ideally, I'd like Stonewall FC to be around in 100 years' time, and for people to have forgotten what it is we represent, but just to accept us for what we are: a decent football team with potential."
Potential: all any team can hope for.
For more information, visit stonewallfc.com