GFSN League: 20 years of LGBTQ+ league purpose not existing

Leicester Wildecats squad for their first GFSN game in 2002

At the turn of the century, homophobia was common in English football.

The suicide of Justin Fashanu, Britain’s first gay professional footballer, in 1998 was fresh in his memory.

However, there seemed to be an attitude where abuse was acceptable. Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler admitted as much years later when he apologized for homophobic comments against Chelsea’s Graeme le Saux in 1999.

It was against this troubling background that the Gay Football Supporters’ Network (GFSN) was first created. Its initial aim was to give gay football fans a space to meet and discuss, without fear of abuse or discrimination.

From these meetings came the occasional five-a-side game. It was 11 out of five. An organized league was created from casual games.

The first GFSN League match was on 29 September 2002, Leicester Wildecats beat Yorkshire Terriers 5-1 at Thornes Park, Wakefield.

As the league celebrates its 20th anniversary, the landscape of LGBTQ+ football players and football fans is markedly different, although the nature of the league remains the same.

GFSN’s “safe and inclusive” origins.

The GFSN League is a unique competition – the only national LGBTQ+ football league in the world.

It has the specific aim of providing a safe and inclusive place for anyone to play football, regardless of age, gender and sexuality. Being a mixed-gender competition, it also provides an environment for trans people to play competitive football without any problems.

Founded in 2002 with four teams, it currently has 17 teams in two divisions, with many more participating in the international GFSN Cup.

In last season’s cup final, Village Manchester beat Dublin Devils at home to Shelbourne FC, the first time the final has been played at a men’s professional league ground.

“They were expected to walk around in high heels”

Two Leicester Wildecats players attach a soccer net to a goal frame
The opening days of the league were “rustic”.

Mike Kalogerou, who is the president of the GFSN, has played for the Wildecats since 2009.

The 39-year-old is a Grimsby Town fan and says it’s a “privilege” to be in charge of a league reaching a milestone.

Landmark moments like the Blackpool striker Jake Daniel’s decision Coming out as gay while an active Football League player, or intense scrutiny Qatar’s treatment of homosexuals Ahead of this winter’s World Cup, it may be clear that being LGBTQ+ in football is no longer a taboo subject.

And Kalogerou says he often wonders what role the GFSN League realistically plays today. But he has a strong answer.

He tells BBC Sport: “Straight people often ask, ‘Why are you bringing sexuality into football?’

“In fact, sexuality is invisible, so people don’t filter themselves. On the terraces, people will shout the worst abuse at the players. You hear it everywhere, from the national stadium to the village matches.

“How can we expect people to enjoy the game when these things happen?

“Just one listen when you go to an English league game, or afterwards in the bar. Then you will understand why GFSN exists.”

But going back to that first game 20 years ago, the beginnings were hardly auspicious.

Although the Terriers lost, it was they – through Ian Collins – who scored the first league goal. Historical? yes Glamorous? Far from it.

Collins – who owns a pub in Beale, near Pontefract – said: “It was complete and utter mud. You had mud on your shoes, but Leicester traveled and we wanted to play. Any other game, against a local team, would have been postponed. “.

Steve Niblett, who previously joined the Wildecats in 2002, has similar memories of a stereotypical Sunday league scene.

He says: “The changes were rustic, shall we say – cold showers are a clear memory.

“But it was the social side that drew me in. I remember the nights – in my 20s, shortly after I came out. It was great meeting players from all over the country.

“The league was a real step forward. The structure was very exciting.

“It wasn’t the most technical league, but we had a real range of players – players between 19, 20 and 50.”

Niblett, a Cardiff City fan who grew up in south Wales but moved to Leicester for university, is still playing for the Wildecats.

The 46-year-old says: “The level of football has increased, it is much more competitive.

“This shows the progress of teams and players, people are coming out younger and that means the quality is better. The progress reflects the progress of LGBT people in society.”

Despite the early difficulties, the league has survived and thrived.

Collins has donated his first-match shirt to the National Football Museum in Manchester, and is “honoured to be named on Wikipedia”.

He’s also seen firsthand how the league can change and challenge perceptions of men’s soccer.

He remembers inviting a group of straight friends to watch a game at Ilkley and they asked which players were gay because they were “tough as nails”.

“They realized we were serious about our football,” added Collins. “We can’t drink half, we were tough as nails, and they expected us to walk off the pitch in our heels.

“We were a group of ordinary boys who wanted to play football.”

‘Life is a series of adoptions. The terriers got me’

A player tries to shoot from above during a game of GFSN
On its 20th anniversary, the GFSN League is going stronger than ever

A big part of the league is the “spirit of GFSN” – an ethos of inclusion and friendship where everyone has a chance to play.

It has also had the added effect of bringing people together in unexpected ways.

Pete Farrar was the first head coach of the Terriers and a former semi-pro player.

He lined up at centre-half for the Yorkshire side in that first game against a Wildecats side that featured Michael Hall.

Farrar and Hall properly met a few years later on the aptly named GFSN Get Together, and have now been in a relationship for 16 years.

Farrar told BBC Sport: “It never happened to tell people [in football] I was gay. In the mid-90s I had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble town fighter, and I was proud of it.

“Terrier was a huge change. It was about playing for the love of the game, about bringing people together. It was a relief, and it made me more comfortable within myself.

“The biggest influence in my life was playing with the Terriers. Life is a series of adoptions. People, groups, groups adopt you. The Terriers adopted me and made me a more aware and aware person.

“Obviously there’s Michael, but there are other people from that first game that I still talk to now. I made friends for life.”

“The purpose of GFSN is not to be a GFSN”

Leicester face Mersey Marauders in a 2021-22 league match
Leicester face Mersey Marauders in a 2021-22 league match

So what’s next for the league as it turns 20?

Kalogerou wants to expand to all parts of the UK – there are no GFSN teams in East Anglia, for example, and only one in Birmingham, which means he sometimes has to deliver bad news to hopeful players trying to find a league nearby.

He also wants to take the league international, with a team of GFSN All-Stars at the Gay Games in Hong Kong next year.

Kalogerou also aims to increase trans membership at a time when trans participation in sport – particularly for transgender women – is such a divisive and controversial issue.

TRUK United, a group founded and led by trans people, is participating in the GFSN competition for the first time this year, and Kalogerou sees this as progress.

“The goal of the GFSN is not to be a GFSN. We want to break down all barriers to play grassroots football. Is that realistic? Not in the short term,” he says.

So equality in the game is far away, but the league that started as a joke between friends will continue to do so.

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