Stonewall head to Wembley and break vital new ground

The Wembley lights will be on for a special fixture this Friday night. Stonewall FC are playing Wilberforce Wanderers to honour the trailblazing work of Britain’s first LGBT football team. If that were not occasion enough there will also be three points at stake in the Middlesex County Football League Division One Central & East.

“We’re going to meet at the station and have the whole squad walking down Wembley Way together,” says Stonewall’s manager, Eric Najib Armanazi. “Everyone will be dressed in their club tracksuits and they’ll have 10 minutes to walk on the pitch and take a selfie. But once they are in the dressing room, they have to realise we have a match to win.”

Stonewall are on a bit of a roll in the league and will go top of the division with a win.

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The match will also be the first non-league regular-season fixture to be played at the national stadium. But these are not the only reasons why Armanazi calls the experience “the proudest moment of my managerial career”.

Since Stonewall FC’s inception in 1991, few teams have combined sport with political activism as effectively. They are affiliated to the campaigning organisation of the same name, and this match commemorates their achievement in advancing LGBT rights, and signals an intention to push on. Bringing the curtain down on Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces week, it also marks the beginning of a new partnership with the Football Association.

On one level, the Rainbow Laces campaign is simply about raising awareness. Over the past week, clubs, players and fans up and down the country have been wearing the laces (or flying the flags or changing their social media avatars) to bring attention to LGBT rights.

More specifically the campaign is also hoping to identify allies; non-LGBT people who want to better understand the issues and lend their support.

Jay Lemonius is both Stonewalls No 10 and the head of sporting campaigns. He has spent much of his week co-ordinating Rainbow Laces events and media coverage, and posting bundles of them around the country. On the field he is on something of a hot streak with five goals in seven matches. He says his personal target for the match is to “bag and bring home the three points”.

A few years ago Max Clifford said that coming out would be career suicide for a player. The situation has changed.

Eric Najib Armanazi

With his professional hat on, Lemonius makes the case for togetherness, off and on the field. “There’s lots of research that shows there are allies out there and that they want to do the right thing but don’t know how,” he says. “It’s important to address the inequalities, whether that’s challenging slurs or looking at the letters in LGBT individually and understanding the challenges they all face. We want to give people the tools to do that.”

Allies can be made simply by playing the game, however. “Stonewall FC have had challenges over the years, for sure,” Lemonius says. “They’ve had unsavoury encounters with other teams. But there has been support too and this fixture is a great example of that. Wilberforce are allies and have a long history with Stonewall.”

The ethos of Stonewall FC, Armanazi says, is to create a place where people, whoever they are and whatever their identity, can be comfortable playing sport. “We’re an inclusive football team that caters for everybody,” he says, estimating that around 80% of the current squad are LGBT. “We welcome people of all sexual orientations and wouldn’t exclude anyone. We embrace diversity and think it’s a wonderful thing.”

Football is often a crucible for issues that exist more broadly in society and homophobia is no exception. Historically it has been ingrained in the game. But there is a sense that a shift in values is taking place.

The FA’s new role as one of Stonewall’s “diversity champions” will result in the governing body implementing a strategy that, it claims, will “embed LGBT inclusion” across the organisation. Armanazi says he is delighted by this development and also notes the work done by supporters’ organisations in pushing LGBT issues up the agenda.

There is one challenge that still remains and that is for LGBT players to feel comfortable in the professional game. “The final thing that needs to happen is for a professional player to come out,” Armanazi says. “We’re all hoping that it will happen. A few years ago Max Clifford said that coming out would be career suicide for a player. The situation has changed. There’s far more of a support network there now. It shows the wheels are turning.”

There is much still to do, of course. “You can’t allow complacency to set in,” Armanazi says. “It’s like racism in that it may be far reduced from the 80s and 90s but the fact it still exists means we must always remain on top of things”.

At the same time there will be celebration at Wembley on Friday night. Provided Stonewall win, that is. “It will be embarrassing if we get turned over,” says Lemonius, who goes on to offer the ultimate forward’s sacrifice. “I’d swap a goal for the three points.”