In an inconspicuous park on the periphery of London Stadium, Stonewall FC’s women and non-binary (WNB) soccer team are darting around the pitch in their signature powder blue and fuschia kit. Team coach Amii Griffith, 32, has one eye on me and one eye firmly on the game.
“I’ve been with Stonewall more or less since the beginning as a player,” Griffith says. “The club was 30 years old before they managed to form a women and non-binary team, and for a sport that is quite inherently queer in the women’s space, it took a long time.” Using crutches to stay upright after a sporting injury forced her off, but not away from, the pitch this year, Griffith quickly turns to her frustrations with FIFA’s recent decision to once again ban “One Love” LGBTQ+ solidarity armbands from the Women’s World Cup tournament, which is taking place across Australia and New Zealand from July 20 to Aug. 20.
The tournament comes amid a flourishing wave of mainstream popularity gathering behind women’s soccer. Historically, the sport has acted as a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community and welcomed queer players openly in a way that men’s soccer has broadly failed to. But Stonewall members say there’s a chance that newfound levels of global attention could jeopardize decades worth of inclusivity and political defiance that form the DNA of women’s soccer.
“It harks back to the problem that I had with the Men’s World Cup and [players] not being able to wear the armband, which I thought was very disappointing,” Griffith says of the soccer association’s decision. Instead, eight armbands with messages of social inclusion have been approved, but none mention LGBTQ+ rights. “You can’t step up for all these people who live in a society that doesn’t accept them?” asks Griffith.
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“It all feels very performative to say you can’t wear this armband. It dictates the terms in which inclusivity can take place,” adds Julia Apthorp, a 30-year-old Stonewall player. “The point of inclusivity is that people can express themselves wherever and whenever.”
Founded in 1991, Stonewall FC is the U.K.’s first LGBTQ+ soccer club. The WNB division is just two-years old but there are now six teams; players who do not identify as members of the community are still welcome to join. The club takes its name from New York City’s 1969 Stonewall riots, which became a historic watershed moment in the gay liberation movement in the U.S. and beyond. Stonewall provides a home for players to enjoy their sport without having to conceal or dilute their identity.
When asked if conversations around sporting inclusion are heading in the right direction, Griffith says some players remain as vulnerable as ever. She points to the case of double 800m Olympic champion Caster Semenya, who was legally identified as female with differences of sexual development (DSD) at birth. In 2018, regulations were introduced by the World Athletics governing body that forced Semenya to have hormone treatments to reduce her testosterone levels in order to participate in women’s races—a ruling that she has been fighting against. As athletes have to fight to show up as themselves in their sport, Griffith says, spaces like Stonewall should not be taken for granted.
Read More: How Women’s Soccer Exploded in Britain
“The environment that WNB teams can provide is 100% inclusive, super safe, everyone understands each other and can be super open. It just means you can let your guard down a bit,” says Apthorp, who joined Stonewall two years ago after playing for a predominantly cisgendered men’s 11-a-side club in southeast London. “Stonewall has really helped me progress and fall in love with the game again.” She has played for all three of Stonewall’s WNB teams and says the club has allowed her to develop a greater breadth of skills across a variety of positions.
Griffith says Stonewall promotes inclusivity by implementing simple habits; the team starts a match by exchanging their names and pronouns so transgender and non-binary players feel seen and heard.
Women’s soccer has always pushed boundaries
Women’s soccer has long been a more empowering space for LGBTQ+ individuals, with more openly queer players than their male counterpart teams. At the last Women’s World Cup in 2019, there were at least 41 players or coaches who identified as gay or bisexual, while during the men’s tournament in 2018, there were no known gay players. There are also no Premier League male players who have publicly identified as LGBTQ+ but in England’s Lionesses squad alone, there are at least five players who are gay or bisexual.
This discrepancy is likely due to women’s soccer having “historical roots in challenging gender norms and embracing diversity,” Stefan Lawrence, a senior lecturer in sport business management at Leeds Beckett University, tells TIME. “As a sport that emerged as a form of resistance against societal expectations, women’s soccer attracted people who were more open-minded. This inclusive environment created a space where ‘out’ players felt supported and valued, fostering a culture of acceptance and diversity within the sport.”
That has meant less sponsorship funding and fewer structures, such as youth training academies. While this has limited the progress of women’s teams, it also means there are fewer rules and expectations that dictate what the space should look like. “Its existence is a political statement in itself. The struggle for gender equality and women’s rights is deeply embedded in the fabric of women’s soccer,” says Lawrence, referring to England’s 50-year ban on women playing soccer in FA-affiliated grounds that was only lifted in 1971.
In recent years, there has been some progess on LGBTQ inclusion on the men’s side. In May 2022, Blackpool FC midfielder Jake Daniels became Britain’s first active professional player to publicly come out as gay since Justin Fashanu in 1990; the former Norwich City and Nottingham Forest player died by suicide eight years later. Adelaide United player Josh Cavallo and Sparta Prague’s Czech international Jakub Jankto had also previously come out.
Despite this progress, it will take more than that to shift male soccer’s unruly culture. For Jess Keating, a women’s soccer fan who plays for Goal Diggers FC, a “non-ability womxn and non-binary football club” in London, women’s soccer has always provided her with a comfortable and accessible arena to enjoy her sport.
Keating recalls attending men’s games where fans are more likely to become disorderly and violent if they are unhappy with a result or make queer spectators feel out of place with bigoted language. “When I went to [Women’s] Euro games with my partner we would be able to celebrate together and hug or kiss in a football stadium… It’s really beautiful,” says Keating. “I’ve never had the feeling in women’s football that things could tip over into a frankly dangerous space,” she adds.
Yet players fret that long-overdue recognition and financial backing could upend all this. A staggering 1.12 billion people tuned into the 2019 Women’s World Cup to watch the final between the USA and the Netherlands. Ahead of the 2021/22 season, the Football Association signed an annual £8 million ($10.4 million) deal for three years with Sky Sports and the BBC for broadcasting rights to the Women’s Super League; the deal was no small feat and has catapulted interest in women’s soccer.
“It is crucial for the stakeholders in women’s football… to preserve the inclusive culture that has made the women’s game so special,” Lawrence, the sports lecturer, says.
Still, Griffith is hopeful that the next generation of female soccer players will continue to uphold the unapologetic, political messaging of those who went before them: “Hopefully these women have laid the groundwork so that it moves forward in the same way it always has.”
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