As Gaygooners celebrates its tenth anniversary this month, we journey back to the beginning to see how the first LGBTQ+ supporters’ group in UK football came to be.
For Stewart Selby, founder of Gaygooners, the disparity in the matchday experiences for some supporters compared to others was startling. A Gooner since the 1980s, Stewart had been following The Arsenal to Highbury, Emirates Stadium and beyond, yet he still felt unable to bring his true self to matches.
“I was a football fan and supporter of Arsenal but my visibility as a gay man simply didn't exist. It wasn't allowed to because it wasn't safe for it to exist.
“The homophobic abuse at that time that was being screamed at games, at our stadium and across football, was frankly disgusting. The threat of violence was never far away.”
This abuse did not exist in a vacuum and the legacy of LGBTQ+ discrimination enshrined in law for centuries would not be easily dismantled overnight. Stewart grew up in the UK only a few years after homosexuality had been decriminalised and was constantly reminded that achieving that much in 1967 must have been a tremendous battle.
Section 28, which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools and local government, was only scrapped as recently as 2003. Yet another piece of legislation, the Equality Act of 2010, is where the Gaygooners story truly began.
As a club, we created a new seat on our supporters’ forum specifically for a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Stewart applied for the role, was accepted, “and the rest was history. We were beginning to claim our space in football."
He set to work with then-CEO Ivan Gazidis and Communications Director Mark Gonnella, exploring how to begin the mammoth task of kicking homophobia, biphobia and transphobia out of our game.
“The club did have a responsibility to its own supporters, but it also had a responsibility to football. Arsenal were in a good place to help use the vehicle of football to bring about change.”
The question of how to turn that spark into a flame rested with the first step: ending the invisibility of LGBTQ+ supporters within the club.
A small piece in the matchday programme in late 2012 soon became an invitation to watch an FA Cup match from an Emirates Stadium box during LGBT+ History Month in 2013.
Despite the fifth-round game against Blackburn ending in a 1-0 loss - “I remember thinking that this was a good start! Every supporter can probably relate to that” - the small group of supporters stayed behind to discuss how to build on this momentum as a collective. That was the moment Gaygooners was officially born.
In June of that same year, the very first members of Gaygooners carried that momentum all the way to Pride in London. We were the first football club ever at the parade and people were visibly shocked to see representatives from any football club marching at Pride.
“It was an unforgettable day. It felt like we were making our own piece of history.”
From those initial foundations, Gaygooners grew throughout 2013, as their supporters’ banner took up its home at Emirates Stadium and our captain Thomas Vermaelen and vice-captain Mikel Arteta wore rainbow laces in the first awareness campaign of its kind in football.
Gaygooners began to hold meet-ups before games for LGBTQ+ supporters and allies to feel a true sense of belonging. For many who joined, it was the very first time they'd ever felt safe to see Arsenal play in person.
"One of the things that kept driving us forward was that we had as much right as anyone else to be there,” Stewart reflected. “Why shouldn't the LGBTQ+ community feel safe to be in the stadium and support the club we all love?
“It completely changed my experience of football. You're not only changing the experience for yourself but for everyone else involved. By that point, we were up and running and we’ve never looked back.”
Looking ahead to the next ten years and beyond, Stewart pays tribute to the achievements of the past whilst recognising the huge role football still has to play in eradicating not just homophobia, but all forms of racism and discrimination.
"We have a lot to celebrate but we also have a lot to protect. The danger when you tolerate something or don’t speak up is that you give it permission to continue. Homophobia is no longer tolerated by our club.
“Nobody from my generation could have foreseen that we would have equal marriage in our lifetime. My hope is that one day, the LGBTQ+ community has no reason to fear.”
Our CEO Vinai Venkatesham has paid tribute to Gaygooners as true trailblazers, saying: “Gaygooners has worked tirelessly to spread the message that everybody should feel welcome at Arsenal. They’re fearless campaigners and they’ve had a profound influence on ensuring visibility for the LGBTQ+ community in football and wider sport.
“They embody the values of our club with a determination to push the boundaries in the courageous pursuit of progress. We’re so proud of their ground-breaking work, and everyone at Arsenal wishes Gaygooners a very happy 10th anniversary.”
It’s been a life-changing experience for Stewart. Illness and the Covid-19 pandemic has kept him away from Emirates Stadium alongside thousands of his fellow Gooners. He’s looking forward to heading back to our N5 home before the season is through.
“Today, we have almost 1,400 members globally and I couldn't be prouder of what we've achieved and continue to do. It might seem standard now, but I'm so proud that our club was the first to do this and to continue to support us year in, year out.
“Gaygooners has changed my life in so many ways. I'll never forget all the wonderful people I've met through the group. The greatest honour is when people tell us that we've helped bring them into football. That's a beautiful feeling.”
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