An integral part of the annual football calendar, last year the ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign reached more than 12 million people, using brightly coloured rainbow laces to increase the visibility of LGBT players and their allies within sport.
Tackling all types of discrimination, including homophobia, has long been a key focus for the PFA. The organisation continues to lead the way in trying to establish an inclusive environment for everyone within football. Despite years of efforts to shift the perception of homosexuality in sport, Justin Fashanu remains the only player to have openly come out as gay while still playing football.
Jehmeil Lemonius is the Sports Campaign Manager at Stonewall, the charity for LGBT rights. He also captains Stonewall FC – the country’s first gay football team - in the Middlesex County Premiership Division. A lifelong West Ham fan, Jehmeil coaches an LGBT team on Sundays and has always played and worked within football. We caught up with Jehmeil to find out more about this year’s Rainbow Laces campaign, and how we can all get involved.
Hi Jehmeil, what is the Rainbow Laces campaign?
Rainbow Laces is a Stonewall campaign where participants do something active while wearing Rainbow Laces in their boots or trainers, to show their support for LGBT equality. It has grown from a campaign that specifically focused on homophobia in football, to something that now acknowledges the challenges all spectrums of the LGBT community face within sport as a whole. It’s a positive campaign that celebrates LGBT people and helps to start conversations about how we can improve LGBT inclusion across sports so that they become everyone’s game.
What does Stonewall hope to achieve with a campaign like this?
There’s only a certain amount of visibility that the campaign can create, but Rainbow Laces is an incredible first step in showing support of LGBT people and showing your allyship.
We work hard with clubs and their community groups to establish inclusive environments for LGBT players. Through the power of storytelling, we hope to inspire people to take action and empower them to report and challenge abuse.
Rainbow Laces is one of our flagship campaigns and a perfect engagement tool that leads to wider, more nuanced conversations within sport about how we can better support the community to create a more inclusive workforce.
We still don’t have any openly gay players currently in the men’s game, why do you think that might be?
For many athletes, becoming a professional has been their primary goal and their sole focus their whole lives. When the stakes are high and it feels like your career is in the balance, you just want to play football. Your identity as an LGBT person might feel less important at that time.
Sports as a whole has its challenges, and outside football, there are still no openly gay or bi males within Premiership rugby either. The media tend to focus on the idea of ‘the first gay player to come out,’ and it becomes almost a witch-hunt. We know that one player coming out is not going to solve the issue, and there will be lots of barriers ahead. For us, it’s crucial to challenge some of the unhelpful cultures that are currently in place.
To do this, we need to work with sporting organisations to foster an inclusive environment so players who might be gay, bi or questioning their sexual orientation will feel comfortable coming out. While a male player coming out would be incredible in terms of visibility, we understand what a personal and brave decision that would be.
How do Stonewall and the PFA work together towards their shared goals of inclusion within football?
We’ve been working with the PFA for a number of years now on various things behind the scenes. They support our work with football’s governing bodies, specifically around LGBT issues. We both want to ensure we can best support players who might be gay, bi or questioning.
The PFA has worked to ensure football is a welcoming environment for everyone, and we have been adding our expertise where valuable. It’s incredible for them to take part in the Rainbow Laces campaign again this year, especially because we’re aiming for a unified level of support across the whole of football, to shape those inclusive environments.
We work closely with the PFA to make sure we’re supporting any LGBT players currently in the game and particularly players who may not be ready to come out yet. Together we create the processes, mechanisms and procedures to be able to offer support for any individual player or as a collective when necessary.
How can people get involved with the Rainbow Laces campaign this year?
The first step is to wear the Rainbow Laces. A lot of people still don’t understand the history of the laces and what it means to wear them. It doesn’t mean you’re gay, but shows that you support LGBT inclusion and that you would support your teammates if they happened to be gay, bi or questioning their sexuality.
If you can’t wear the laces, you can share your stories of how you support LGBT inclusion. Most people have an LGBT relative, friend or colleague, so share the experiences that you’ve had with that person and how you’ve supported them. Storytelling and visible displays of support are powerful and can encourage others to step up as an ally and support their family, friends, colleagues and teammates who might be LGBT.
This year’s Rainbow Laces campaign runs from the 22nd of November to the 8th of December, with Rainbow Laces Day on the 27th of November. You can find out more or get involved here .
If you are a professional footballer struggling with your sexual identity and would like to talk to someone about your experience, the PFA’s Equalities department is open to you. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and a member of the team will be in touch.
We also have a support policy in place to assist any player considering coming out as gay. To learn more, visit here.