An image of a gold Premier League trophy

Lia Walti visits Clubs United

As part of our Pride Month celebrations this year, our club will highlight individuals, communities and initiatives that champion the LGBTQ+ community within our game.  

Grassroots football has long provided an opportunity for everyone across the country to participate in football, yet challenges remain around ensuring true inclusion.

Clubs United is a league designed to remove some of those barriers to entry. Set up by Hannah Thornley in 2022, the league provides a safe space for all cis, trans and gender non-conforming identities to do what they love most: play football.

In June, Lia Walti headed down to meet Hannah, Betty, Rowan and Sarah who compete in Clubs United every week to learn more about their journeys into football, the ongoing importance of LGBTQ+ Pride and how the environment allows them to proudly be themselves.

Photography by Matilda Hill-Jenkins

HANNAH

When Hannah set up the Clubs United league two years ago, inclusion was front and centre in her mind.

"We exist so trans people, non-binary, gender-nonconforming folk and cis women can partake in fun, wholesome and safe five-a-side football" reads the league's mission statement. Those founding principles are shared by the teams who compete, week-in and week-out.

“When doors are open at the very base, it just opens those doors across the whole spectrum," says Hannah.

“I’ve played football since I was four and I thought, I feel like I can probably set up a space. Over the last couple of years, we’ve reached around 100 teams.

With Pride Month providing an opportunity for reflection every year, Hannah wants to ensure that Clubs United shares those principles all year round.

“I think football as a whole means that pride is always. It doesn't just fall on a particular month. Every week, people can come and feel very comfortable just being whoever they want to be.” 

“You do not have to think about who you are here at all. You can just be.”

Hannah is hopeful that more awareness of collectives like Clubs United will continue to bring people into football with open arms.

“I do hope that by talking about these spaces and these teams, a lot more people now come forward and know that this sport is for them.”

An image of Arsenal supporter, Lucia Gatward, along with the following information: Born 15-05-04, Arsenal 2-1 Leicester
An image of Gilberto and Arsenal supporters, with all of them modelling our new Invincibles Collection

BETTY

Through the grassroots side Black Footy Babes, Betty has found a group that shares her love of football and her desire for a welcoming environment.

“We have a lot of non-binary players, a lot of people across the LGBTQ+ community. It just makes sense for us to have that family feel while playing football," she says.

Black Footy Babes found the perfect fit in the Clubs United league and haven't looked back since: "We played one season and just had fun every single week.”

When she's not on the pitch playing football, Betty is down in N5 cheering on the famous red and white.

“For the last four or five years, I've been a dedicated Arsenal fan. It was the women's team that brought me here.

"I just love the culture. I love the community when you go to the Emirates. I love how diverse the fan grouping is as well. It just feels like a whole sense of community every single time.

"With Arsenal, it feels like one big community."

An image of Arsenal supporter, Lucia Gatward, along with the following information: Born 15-05-04, Arsenal 2-1 Leicester
An image of Gilberto and Arsenal supporters, with all of them modelling our new Invincibles Collection

ROWAN

Rowan, who plays for Babe City FC, found a true sense of belonging through football. 

“As a trans woman, it’s quite a difficult time to be in sport at any level," she reflects. "Football is one of the first places where I felt truly accepted in sports."

That acceptance was not always a given. Rowan's experience of football now is light years from how they used to feel in the sport. “Growing up, I never felt like football was a place for me. I always felt excluded.

"It wasn't until after I came out and found spaces like [Clubs United] that I realised just how much joy it could bring me.”

As Clubs United encourages its players to be "unapologetically themselves", Rowan appreciates how much that has helped take the anxiety out of the game.

"Just being in a space like that, where we can all come together and enjoy sport without worrying.”

An image of Arsenal supporter, Lucia Gatward, along with the following information: Born 15-05-04, Arsenal 2-1 Leicester
An image of Gilberto and Arsenal supporters, with all of them modelling our new Invincibles Collection

SARAH

For Sarah, joining Hells Bells FC wasn't simply a case of finding a football team: it was finding a family.

“What's been so nice with this team is that I really feel like I've found a family where I can be myself and be comfortable and out. I think it's just so nice to [play football with] people I love.

“It's been lovely to also just see [the league] grow, to see more teams join. Everyone feels welcome, which is really nice."

The radical acceptance of everyone reminds Sarah of how the sport used to feel growing up.

“When you come into football, you're having fun, you're with your friends, you're just playing around. It's like being a kid again, you know?

"You just lose all sense of what's around you. I don't see why people's gender or sexuality matters within that.”

An image of Arsenal supporter, Lucia Gatward, along with the following information: Born 15-05-04, Arsenal 2-1 Leicester
An image of Gilberto and Arsenal supporters, with all of them modelling our new Invincibles Collection

LIA

After hearing the stories of grassroots players, Lia Walti reflected on what Pride Month means to her as a footballer and a person.

"It's a really important month. A happy month. It's really important that everyone feels included, everybody feels a part of us, of something, of Arsenal.

"But also for me in general, I think it's important to make people feel welcome no matter who they are, who they love or where they're from. It's a bit sad that we have to celebrate that in just one month because it technically should be for the whole year."

Lia keenly recognises the responsibility of professional footballers to champion inclusivity at all levels of the game.

"I think it's our role to be good role models. As a team, we want to do the next steps, the right steps. We have a lot of players who have a big voice in their countries and it's really important to share our experiences to help and support each other.

“We want to spread the word. We want to make sure that everybody feels good and welcome, no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love. Be consistent in that and make sure that everybody understands.”

“It’s because of people like [Hannah], who take courage and responsibility to start something like Clubs United. It’s so, so important.”

The remarkable Emirates Stadium atmosphere, built together with the supporters, is a clear point of pride for Lia.

“It’s just so nice when football is inclusive with the fan culture. When you look around [the Emirates at our games], the best thing about it is that everybody feels like it's a safe place. We need to keep spreading it, keep spreading positive energy and inclusivity.

“We always speak about inspiring a lot of young girls, but that is already exclusive for me. It's not only about girls, we just want to inspire everybody!"

An image of Arsenal supporter, Lucia Gatward, along with the following information: Born 15-05-04, Arsenal 2-1 Leicester
An image of Gilberto and an Arsenal supporter, with both modelling our new Invincibles Collection
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