Football ref Ryan Atkin: Why I’ll wear rainbow laces

Football referee Ryan Atkin is the sport’s first openly gay professional official in the UK.

He writes about his experience and his support for this weekend’s Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, which is raising awareness across sport of anti-LGBT language and behaviour that makes gay, bi and trans people feel unwelcome and unsafe.

I’ll wear rainbow laces this weekend because being the first openly gay referee operating in professional football, I believe it’s important to visibly support LGBT inclusion, and tackle homophobia within sport.

Within men’s football particularly, it’s still considered taboo by many to discuss homosexuality, while those involved in the sport often don’t feel comfortable speaking up and challenging homophobia.

It would be a simple gesture for big football names – the opinion changers – to state “homophobia is not part of the game, nor is it acceptable”.

But to date, the reality is, they haven’t done so.

Ryan Atkin, referee, Sutton United v Chelmsford City friendly

Image: Atkin says he has worked at many games where homophobic language was used

So many people idolise these stars, and they are the role models for the sport.

I’d like players to challenge homophobic abuse on social media, and educate themselves on language that can be discriminatory or offensive. We continue to see high-profile people let themselves down with tweets where they have used inappropriate language and words.

In the past, I’ve officiated games where homophobic language has been used. “Get up you f****t”, “you’re so gay”, “f**k off you bender” – all phrases I’ve heard used by players or spectators.

As a young and inexperienced referee, I didn’t truly understand the impact of that language and I didn’t know how to deal with it.

I was probably distancing myself deliberately and doing what the other guys did – just ignoring it or pretending I didn’t hear it.

Looking back, I feel ashamed. That’s why, now more than ever, it’s important for me to campaign for acceptance, education and drive the change necessary for all in football.

The match officials wearing rainbow laces before the Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool in 2016

Image: The match officials wearing rainbow laces before the Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool in 2016

I hit the headlines last summer for being the first openly gay referee operating in professional football, but I didn’t come out to my mum until 2014.

She was visiting Brighton to see family and over dinner, I thought “it’s now or never”.

I felt she was missing out on so much that I wanted to share – I was basically lying to her by omission and she deserved better.

I took a large gulp of wine and told her – it didn’t go as I imagined at first, as she had a lot of questions, but she seemed fine with it.

I then threw her in at the deep end as I was meeting friends in a gay bar on the seafront – they had a drag queen on stage and she didn’t hold back with my mum! I haven’t been brave enough to take her out with me again…

Ryan Atkin refereeing a game of football

Image: Education is the key to stopping homophobic abuse in sport, Atkin says

There are those who would argue that it’s almost a gimmick to have a week-long campaign like this in November, but there’s so much work happening within football governing bodies, all backed by Stonewall – the charity that runs Rainbow Laces – and also TeamPride, which is a group of businesses and organisations such as Sky Sports which supports the campaign.

This year has seen further developments from the football world, such as a large increase in the number of LGBT fan groups at clubs, rainbow corner flags at EFL matches, the Premier League signing up to a three-year partnership with Stonewall, and more companies joining TeamPride.

Moving forward, I’d like to see an announcement before kick-off at all grounds which states that racist or homophobic abuse is not acceptable, and that any offenders will face police action.

Football is the only sport in the world that truly touches all four corners of the globe – it’s played in the street, the local park, and stadiums – it impacts on us all.

Football has an obligation to ensure that it reflects the diversity of its players, fans, administrators – whoever.

I truly believe that education is the catalyst – when you change your mind, you will change the game.

I can now be me, within the beautiful game. Will you help others be themselves too?