Gay Gooners are true pioneers in English football. Founded in 2013, with over 650 members and counting, the group are football’s largest LGBT fan club.
They were also the first to represent a football team at London Pride, and this year’s march on July 7th will be their sixth, helping to create a public image that chairman Dave Raval says represents a key part of the group’s remit.
“It’s no good having lots of LGBT fans in football if people don’t know you exist, and it’s a bit different from racism campaigners because you can tell when somebody’s black, but you can’t tell when someone’s gay or lesbian or trans,” Raval says.
“So we thought we’d do things publicly, which is why we have the banner up in the stadium, why we go on London Pride, why we tweet quite a lot.”
For Raval, Gay Gooners have three clear objectives: they exist first and foremost as an Arsenal fan group. Secondly, they operate politically, working with organisations such as Rainbow Laces and Kick It Out to raise awareness of homophobia in the game. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the role that they have taken on as public figureheads for LGBT football fandom.
“We also exist to be a safe space for people,” Raval says. “So people can come to us regardless of their sexuality or their gender identity, or if they’re not sure, and as long as they’re Arsenal fans we welcome everybody. So it’s a place for people to come to if they feel they don’t quite fit into football as it currently stands as they perceive it.”
As well as being stalwarts at London Pride, they routinely participate in the Rainbow Laces campaign and were founding members of Pride in Football, an umbrella body for LGBT fan groups in the game. At their inception they were the only organisation of their type representing any of the 92 league clubs in England and Wales. Today there are 42.
And Raval is aware that, despite the innate partisanship of each of these fan groups, at the heart of Gay Gooners lies an issue that transcends football, transcends club loyalty. He admits that, at times, this can prove difficult, but that rivalries cannot get in the way.
“We even get involved in things that Spurs – the Proud Lilywhites – organise, we’ve played five-a-side games against them. On this issue at least we’re in the same position!
“We’re the first, but we’ve got to try and help all the other 92 clubs in England and Wales to have the same sort of group, and try and get the same way.”
And whilst, by and large, Raval notes that overt instances of homophobia at football grounds today are rare, there remain a number of more subtle issues that need tackling before stadiums can be deemed a truly welcoming environment.
“People have got no problem going to the Emirates with us, as a group, it’s perhaps the level below. So would you go to the Emirates and hold hands with your boyfriend or girlfriend? Possibly not, so we’re not quite there yet.”
And this isn’t the only example of latent homophobia that still exists at football matches. Whilst Rainbow Laces last year reported an 8% decrease in young fans deeming homophobic language to be acceptable, this is a problem that persists, and something that Gay Gooners are currently focusing on.
“One of our core campaigns for this year and going forward is to cut out this so-called banter.”
“And people say it’s just banter: ‘we can see you holding hands,’ ‘stand up cos you can’t sit down,’ all that’s just banter. But of course, there’s no such thing as racist banter, and we would argue that there’s no such thing as homophobic banter either, it’s just homophobic,” adds Raval.
“We want to get to the point where it self-polices, where fans don’t accept that sort of thing.”
This is exactly what Gay Gooners, however, through their presence at events such as London Pride, and at the Emirates stadium, are trying to tackle.
“It’s not just about getting it right at the Emirates, but it’s about getting it right when our fans travel to other grounds, it’s getting it right for all the other teams, and helping them to get it right as well. We’re never going to win this on our own.”