Two groups of Owls and Blades are part of a growing movement across the UK to tackle abuse and discrimination on the terraces.
"I've heard racist abuse while at games, and I've also been accidentally whacked in the face by drunk fans, which were both intimidating enough to put me off attending Wednesday matches for almost a decade." These are the words of Chris Ledger, a lifelong Sheffield Wednesday fan and founder of Rainbow Owls, the club's brand-new LGBTQ+ supporters group.
It's fair to say football has not always been known for its progressive values. In the 80s and 90s, Black players were frequently subject to monkey chants in English grounds (something that still sometimes happens today), while more recently social media has offered a safe space for bigots to direct racist abuse at players while minimising the likelihood of getting banned from match-days.
With football's traditionally macho culture, and with the lack of openly gay players in the professional game until recently (thanks to Adelaide's Josh Cavallo and Blackpool's Jake Daniels), the prevalence of homophobia, transphobia and other forms of anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice has arguably been even worse. A survey conducted last year found that half of all football fans felt that homophobia was a serious problem in the sport – and of course racism, homophobia and transphobia often go hand-in-hand.
"While there has been progress, you only have to look at the comments under any post when a club celebrates [LGBTQ+ initiative] Rainbow Laces for example, or posts something in support of pride month," says Lewis Parker, a committee member at Rainbow Owls' Sheffield United counterpart, Rainbow Blades. "There is still a lot of hatred out there."
Ledger describes anti-LGBTQ+ abuse as a "huge problem" in world football, citing incidents ranging from "top-flight French footballers refusing to take part in anti-homophobia campaigns to UK fans being banned for chanting such abuse."
"The likes of Josh Cavallo and Jake Daniels have made a huge difference to LGBTQ+ inclusivity and visibility in the game, but the media, in particular, still seems keener to curate the perfect coming out headline and LGBTQ+ icon than looking at the bigger picture."
Those 'coming out' headlines haven't always been to players' benefit. In 1990, Norwich City striker Justin Fashanu became the first professional footballer in the world to come out as gay. But the dozens of other LGBTQ+ players who must surely have existed at the same time did not join him – he remained the sole example in English football until Daniels' announcement in 2022. After a decade of crowd abuse and homophobic headlines in the tabloid press, Fashanu took his own life in 1997.
Ledger believes that rainbow armbands and pro-equality slogans are not enough to support today's closeted players, who will have seen what happened to Fashanu. "This is the root problem," he says. "Glib and tokenistic gestures at the expense of building a less fragile infrastructure where LGBTQ+ players, out or not, are comfortable being their authentic and proud selves."
While footballing bodies like FIFA are happy to pay occasional lip service to equality, their decision to host the last men's World Cup in the notoriously homophobic and transphobic Gulf state of Qatar felt like a slap in the face for LGBTQ+ supporters. "Heads of certain large footballing organisations will preach equality and acceptance right up until someone writes a cheque big enough to convince them to look the other way," points out Parker. "This is still an institutional problem, not just on fans."
Transphobia is sharply on the rise, not just in football stadiums, but in the UK in general. It is now commonplace for very senior politicians to openly make jokes about the existence of trans people in a way that would have felt less acceptable ten years ago, when the Tories were still trying to shed their 'nasty party' image and when Labour were actively trying to further LGBTQ+ rights. While progress on gay rights has come to a standstill, queer activists fear that when it comes to trans rights, the UK is going backwards.
"Attitudes to the LGBTQ+ community in football will mirror those of society at large – football fans don't exist in a vacuum," says Parker. "While in broader society most people are loving and supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, there are still often noisy pockets who continue to spread hate, particularly towards trans people in the UK at the moment."
But amid the gloom, some hope. Over the past ten years, dozens of LGBTQ+ supporters groups similar to those in Sheffield have formed at clubs across the UK – both in the Premier League and throughout the football pyramid. Arsenal's Gay Gooners (the players themselves are the Gunners, their supporters are the Gooners) were the first in 2013, and are now the largest in England. The club's website proudly states that the group has over a thousand members, both in the UK and around the world.
Set up in March 2020, Rainbow Blades are now one of the more established groups, and boast over 650 members from among the wider United community. The acrimony that usually accompanies intra-club rivalries is refreshingly absent in the queer football fan community – Ledger says the support and mentorship he received from Rainbow Blades was crucial when setting up Rainbow Owls, and he wanted the group's name to reflect this.
"There aren't many gay bars in Sheffield or fortnightly social groups, so it's difficult for LGBTQ+ people in our city to meet new people and build a support network," he says when asked why he wanted to form the group. "Football is an accessible way of bringing people together when it can be such a universal pastime that so many people enjoy."
Ledger describes the response from Wednesday as "excellent", while Parker says United have been "incredibly supportive”. Despite only forming last month, Rainbow Owls have already been promised at least one full-page feature in an upcoming match programme, and have welcomed Heaven 17's Martyn Ware and openly gay local MP Clive Betts – both staunch Wednesdayites – as ambassadors.
Meanwhile, over at Bramall Lane, the more established Rainbow Blades have been invited to speak to fans from the pitch at half-time, and have had their videos played on the stadium's big screen. "Even what might seem like a small thing, having a 'Rainbow Range' in the club shop with the progress pride flag on a lot of the merchandise, shows visual allyship inside the ground, creating an inclusive experience for LGBTQ+ fans on matchday," says Parker.
Both groups are now sharing their experience and expertise with fans across the country who want to do something similar. Rainbow Blades chair James Laley recently attended Chesterfield Pride to welcome Rainbow Spireites into their growing family. Chesterfield F.C. may have dropped out of the Football League entirely in 2018 (they finished third in the National League last season), but they can still boast a brand-new queer supporters club of their own (the nickname 'Spireites' comes, of course, from the twisted spire on top of the town's church).
Ledger and Parker say they are making progress – not just in their local communities, but inside stadiums too. Rainbow Blades' annual member survey shows a 20% rise in LGBTQ+ supporters saying that they always feel safe at Bramall Lane, and in stark contrast to the boycott by French players, the group have seen first team players get involved in their work, with club hero Billy Sharp starring in a video welcoming trans and non-binary supporters to the stadium.
Although Rainbow Owls are yet to witness a full season at Hillsborough, they see the immediate support they've received from the club as a good omen. "[Our] development is still very primitive, but the club has given us more than mere lip service in their genuine desire to engage and promote social inclusion," says Ledger. The group have already announced a full programme of pre-match socials at craft beer bar Pangolin, and are planning joint events with their red-and-white rivals.
Despite this sense of optimism, there is still a long way to go. Even the most supportive clubs can't force fans to change their attitudes, and 57% of football fans believe that the potential reaction from opposition supporters is what keeps LGBTQ+ players in the closet.
Parker points to away days, which are usually attended by more hardcore fans and which take place away from the familiar atmosphere of Bramall Lane, as a potential problem. "People might have been drinking a bit more, maybe feel a bit more emboldened to say inappropriate things and, as you're not in a familiar ground, it can be less clear for someone in an away end how to report or deal with these kind of incidents," he says.
He goes on to say there is still "a lot of progress to be made" in getting to the point where match attendees never feel comfortable saying something homophobic or transphobic because they know they will be challenged or face consequences. "I don't think we're there yet in all grounds or circumstances," he says.
With a tacit acknowledgement that football culture still has a long way to go, both men see the role of their respective groups being to carve out a safe space for queer supporters within their wider club communities. For Parker, who attends matches with his daughter, the discovery of Rainbow Blades "finally ticked the boxes that had been missing for me as a fan of my club."
"It was a weight off to be honest, simply being able to enjoy spending time with other football fans, talking about United, without the need to wear any kind of metaphorical mask."
For Ledger, the positive impact of these supporters groups resonates far beyond Saturday afternoons in S6. "Providing LGBTQ+ fans with a safe space to make friends, discuss their lives and talk about football can be a genuine lifeline," he says.
by Sam Gregory(he/him)