Orient’s big step forward

The club have announced that an LGBTQ+ supporters group has been set up at the O’s. Chris Knight gives us his take on a progressive move at the club

Borehamwood away September 2017. Orient are playing in the National League and we are losing (unsurprisingly). As the second half struggles on, a Borehamwood player is fouled in front of the Orient fans and falls to the ground. Amongst the general groans of frustration and disappointment an Orient fan and part of part of the community I belong shouts extremely loudly: “get the fuck up you fa***t!”. That singular moment of isolation I felt as a LGBT football fan was instant, but the moment that has stayed with me even more is the silence that followed. In fact silence would have been better, that would have suggested that some people were at least acknowledging it had happened. None of my fellow fans were moved to comment on the clearest discrimination I had ever heard at a football game. The same Orient fans who I’d been so proud to be part of when chasing the EDL out of Brentford away; the same fans who in pubs around the country pride themselves on their inclusive nature. I ended up shouting something there being no place for those sorts of comments in football (it’s 2017!) and some of my fellow fans and friends thanked me but the damage had been done. On three more occasions that season I heard clear homophobic abuse, once more away and twice in the East Stand – and on all of these occasions nothing was said. What is so different about homophobic abuse that fans who usually challenge the worst aspects of football remain unmoved?

I’ve not been to Orient much since 2017. The Sun sponsorship was a big factor, but even before that, the passion had gone. I no longer felt part of the community. For the first time since supporting Orient I didn’t feel like an ‘Orient fan’ - I felt different, I felt outside. With this in mind I was extremely pleased to see that Leyton Orient have launched their first ever LGBTQ+ supporters group this week. This is an amazing and positive step and shows that attitudes in football are changing. Groups like the Proud Lilywhites have shown how clubs that actively engage with their LGBTQ+ fans can create a more welcoming and inclusive environment. In the press release, Orient Chief Executive Danny Macklin says that the “The Breyer Group Stadium strives to be an inclusive environment for everyone, and this group will help us to improve that experience wherever we can.” For this quote to mean anything, the club will have to come through on its promise and really engage with this group and any plans it wants to put in place. Optimistically, however, this is a great thing. This shows that Orient are wanting to improve, and whilst I, (along with many others) will want to see some tangible results before getting too excited, this is certainly a big and positive step.

Not Today or Any Day

For those who aren’t part of the LGBTQ+ community, it may seem unnecessary for groups like this to exist. At this point it’s worth noting that a PFA study last year found that homophobic abuse was the most common form of abuse aimed at players on the internet; whilst a 2017 Stonewall report said that 7 in 10 football fans had heard or witnessed homophobia on the terraces. The impact of homophobic and other discriminatory abuse is hard to quantify as people will be affected differently but the reaction is never positive. Another factor to consider is that there are most certainly gay professional male football players in England. They are people in the public, cheered by thousands of fans week in, week out, who feel that they can’t be themselves. I can only imagine the emotional toll that would take on someone. Having hid my sexuality for most of my teenage years, I know how painful that can be and it’s not something I would wish on anyone. Every homophobic slur directed at fans or players in a football stadium (or online) has the potential to completely isolate someone who you are standing next to, someone you are cheering for - someone you know. I would strongly encourage any LGBTQ+ Orient fans to join the group and strive for change at Orient, that will hopefully inspire other clubs and fans to follow suit. I would also say that if you are straight, it’s even more important to stay involved. Don’t take the space or voice from a LGBTQ+ fan talking about their experience, but also don’t make us do all the work. If you hear homophobic abuse in stadiums, you should report it. And if you feel confident enough, you should call it out (although I understand that’s not for everyone). When you are online and see homophobic abuse, challenge it. And if you do know any LGBTQ+ fans, you might not think you do, but I’d encourage you to think again, make sure that the environment you are creating at football is an environment that is welcoming and inclusive. .

I look forward to seeing Orient and football continue to take strides towards making sure everyone feels welcome at football, and it’s the job of all football fans to ensure that continues to happen.

Chris Knight