Multi-colored shoe laces
Public Relations

Baby steps… in Rainbow Laces

Much has changed since LGBT charity Stonewall launched its Rainbow Laces campaign but, in one respect, nothing is different: there is still not one ‘out’ player in the Premier League.

Perhaps it is understandable. Homophobia remains a major issue in football, with two in five LGBT supporters telling campaign group Football v Homophobia that they had experienced or witnessed abuse regarding sexuality or gender identity at matches during the last season.

Similarly, figures from organisation Kick It Out suggested that reports of homophobic abuse had risen nine per cent last year, although this is also partly attributable to increased accessibility to reporting methods. But Stonewall is not deterred by such progress. The charity remains determined to change the game and, today, five years on from the launch of Rainbow Laces, which allows people to demonstrate their backing for LGBT equality and inclusion, support is greater than ever.

More than 75,000 rainbow laces were distributed to supporters in 2017. ‘When we started Rainbow Laces, we asked people to lace up to raise awareness of the issue of LGBT equality in football,’ explains Kirsty Clarke, Stonewall’s director of sport. ‘Since 2013, the campaign has grown phenomenally and is no longer just about football. Our focus has shifted from changing sport itself, to using sport to create change.’

She explains: ‘Too often football is thought of as the only sport that has a problem with homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. We know that’s not the case. Rainbow Laces now covers all sports and we want to see everyone involved stepping up to make LGBT people feel included. Commitments from the Premier League and the FA show football is ready to tackle the problem. It’s the collective responsibility of everyone in sport to make change happen. Rainbow Laces is about helping people take that step to ensure no one or sport is left behind.’

The ubiquity of the campaign today can make it easy to forget the initial setbacks. Support from the Premier League players initially struggled, not least because the rainbow coloured laces arrived just days before that season’s kick off, but also because many clubs feared ‘ambush marketing’ from Stonewall’s original partner, outspoken betting firm Paddy Power.

Too often football is thought of as the only sport that has a problem with homophobia, biphobia and transphobia

The bookmakers had calculated that the chances of there not being a single gay football player out of the 5,000 that play professionally in the UK were one quadragintillion to one – that’s a one with a whopping 123 zeros. There were also few precedents. Clarke explains: ‘Before Rainbow Laces began, there was little understanding of or the tools available on how to promote LGBT equality in sport. Thanks to Rainbow Laces, we’re now seeing everyone from sports leaders, organisations, grass roots clubs, fans, athletes and the wider public competing with each other to put on the biggest show of support for LGBT people in sport.’

Indeed, more brands than ever are keen to get involved with Rainbow Laces while support from the Football Association has proved invaluable. In fact, Clarke claims that supporters are now looking for bigger and better ways of getting behind the campaign.

‘Sport is competitive and this applies to Rainbow Laces,’ she explains. ‘Every year we see fans, clubs, and organisations vying to outdo each other and be the one with the biggest, most innovative display of support for LGBT equality. Also, campaigns take a village and our Team Pride members, comprising adidas, Aon, Aviva, Barclays, eBay, Manchester United, ASOS, Premier League, Sky Sports and Visa, have been crucial in amplifying the campaign’s impact and reach.’

Rainbow Laces coincided with the launch of the Premier League’s first LGBT supporters club, Arsenal’s Gay Gooners. In 2014, the club had around 250 members; today, the number has trebled. Other fan groups have sprouted too, including Manchester City’s Canal Street Blues and Leicester City’s Foxes Pride.

‘Sports fans don’t want to sit on the sidelines waiting for change. They want to get involved and play their part to make sport everyone’s game. We know from our research that more than half of British people believe we all have a responsibility to call out anti- LGBT abuse, but only a quarter feel confident enough to do so. That’s why our campaign is about giving people that confidence to challenge abuse and show their visible support for lesbian, gay, bi and trans people. The more fans we have standing up for equality, the more it shows sport is open to everyone.’

The most recent Rainbow Laces campaign ran from 30 November to 5 December last year, and there were bespoke Rainbow Laces pitch flags, ball plinths, handshake and substitutes boards at all Premier League fixtures during that period.

There were also rainbow captains’ armbands as well as laces, whilst the Premier League changed its logo on all social media channels to feature the assorted stripes of the LGBT flag. A special match was also arranged between Stonewall’s own football team, Stonewall FC, and Wilberforce Wanderers at Wembley at the end of November.

Stonewall FC is the world’s most successful LGBT football club, winning every LGBT tournament it has entered since 2000: it triumphed, 3-1, over the Wanderers. It now plays in the Middlesex County Division One. To play at Wembley is described as ‘historic’.

‘To have The FA invite Stonewall FC to play at Wembley was a huge symbolic demonstration of their commitment to our Rainbow Laces campaign,’ says Clarke. ‘Playing under a rainbow arch, this historic fixture sends a powerful message that LGBT people are welcome at every level of football, from the grassroots to the elite.’ There is, of course, more work to do and Clarke has her eye on the future of the campaign.

‘We want more sports and more grass roots organisations to get involved in Rainbow Laces,’ she explains. ‘Working at a community level is essential to changing hearts and minds. Here we can build greater awareness of the issues affecting LGBT people and show people how they can ensure all sports offer a welcoming atmosphere. This is about long-term change, not flashy headlines during the campaign week. Ultimately, we want the message of Rainbow Laces to be woven into the very fabric of all sports, at every level.’

But there are signs that progress is being made. In 2010, the FA asked players to take part in an antihomophobia video, but struggled to find any to take part. Now many high-profile members of the footballing community have come out to condemn homophobic abuse at matches, including Huddersfield Town defender Mathias Zanka, who talks candidly about his support for Rainbow Laces in a video on the campaign’s page on the Premier League’s website. ‘As a football player you have an incredible platform to try to influence people in the right way,’ he said. ‘What we as players and the clubs and fans can do to get behind this campaign is to be aware about it and speak about it. That’s what sometimes we need in a very macho and stereotyped world.’ No matter what team we support, this is one message we can all get behind.