They waited in the tunnel – nervously, excitedly – at Loftus Road Stadium for a moment never seen before in football history. Just after midday on Saturday, London Titans FC were to become the first LGBT team to be invited on to the pitch at a major club’s stadium and presented to the fans before a match.
The Titans began to prepare – joking, hugging, peeling off coats to reveal their yellow strip. They wore badges on their arms, the blue-and-white emblem of their hosts, Queens Park Rangers. Some wore the QPR shirt. Two clubs entwining for one goal: a new era.
Nearly half an hour before kick-off, spectators began streaming in, primed for a match between bitter local rivals: a London derby of QPR vs Fulham. Muffled noise from the Tannoy – music and announcements – mingled with the noise from fans gearing up. Would they cheer the Titans? Or boo?
The occasion marks a new partnership between QPR and the Titans, and forms part of the “Football v Homophobia Month of Action”, a series of events throughout February designed to confront the anti-gay prejudice that has long infected the game.
Rain spat down. Through the tunnel, frigid, dank air greeted the Titans’ two-dozen-or-so gay men who love a game that has never loved them back.
A page in the match programme was devoted to the Titans, the partnership, and the special welcome they would receive at the stadium. It featured quotes from Andy Evans, chief executive of QPR in the Community Trust: "Over the last 10 years we've come a long way," he said. "And it's great to see the community that has grown around a love of the game free from the homophobia you may find elsewhere. The Titans are a wonderful club and we look forward to working with them to ensure the game of football is accessible to all."
The feeling among the Titans, waiting to go on, was mutual.
“It’s a big day for the club and for the players,” said Stuart Forward, a Titans player and the team’s secretary, looking round anxiously. “It’s a recognition of our partnership, but also of LGBT football as more than just a fan element – that there’s a playing element as well. Today represents that going to the next level and being publicly recognised.”
He looked through the tunnel to the pitch, and to the crowds forming in the stands: “It’s a great step forward for QPR to show that level of acceptance in such a big arena, and on such an important game for them.”
Forward glanced over at the pitch again, eyes moving back and forth, trying to predict the reception that awaited them. “We’ll see what happens. A lot of the fear that comes with homophobia in football is fear of the unknown: fear of the terraces and fear of chanting. And you see it, you see it on trains, on YouTube, but I’ve got faith in QPR and the wider community that now is the time that things are changing.”
He paused for a second as the noise rose.
“This is a first. It’s quite daunting, I am a bit nervous. Hopefully, the fear of the terraces will be gone in the near future and events like this will change that.”
Shortly after midday, the call came. The London Titans walked as one through the tunnel on to the edge of the pitch, and waited again for the next cue. “Where’s the makeup?” quipped one of the Titans, to a peal of laughter.
With the stands of the famous QPR stadium beginning to fill, Ollie James-Parr, another Titans player, turned to BuzzFeed News to convey his first impression. “There’s a lot of people here but it’s the right step to take in terms of showing our visibility, so if there’s thousands of people just seeing that we’re putting ourselves out there then why not?” With a shrug, James-Parr added, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
The sport knows what the worst that can happen when homophobic culture meets football is – because it has happened already. In 1990, Justin Fashanu became the first Premiership player to come out. Eight years later he killed himself. Since then, the upper levels of the men’s game have remained closeted, a silence born of fear, as Fashanu’s shadow falls long and far.
BuzzFeed News suggested to James-Parr that in this moment the worst that could happen is booing or chanting. “Well if that happens then that just shows that we’ve still got a way to go,” he said. “But if people cheer then PARTY!”
David East, the Titans’ captain, was equally fearless. “It’s a big stage for us, to actually be at the stadium on a day like today, kicking homophobia out of football. But looking at the crowd it should be fine. The majority of people here won’t care that we’re gay.” For East, there was extra resonance for what was about to unfold.
“I was brought up with football – my dad had trials with Brentford, so I’ve loved football all my life,” he said, before adding with a smirk, “Admittedly I’m a Chelsea fan and this is QPR so it goes against my religion, but it’s a good thing, unheard of. Considering I grew up in the '90s where there was a lot of homophobia and racism in football to actually be invited on to a pitch in front of 15,000 people is momentous.”
And with that, the voice over the Tannoy turned its attention to the huddle of gay footballers who, on cue, walked on to the pitch, formed a lineup and looked out at the stadium, and at the thousands of fans. The announcement bellowing out informed the spectators that the London Titans, an “LGBT football team” were here for a new partnership with QPR and would therefore be “presented with a signed shirt”.
“Please give them a nice round of applause and a welcome to Loftus Road!” said the compere, ending the address. A ripple of applause went up. Some stood and simply watched, perplexed. There were no boos. No chants. It was, in the end, a reception like any other, for an occasion unlike any other.
The chairman of QPR hurried on to the pitch to shake hands with the Titans. They stood, proud, beaming. Moments later they walked back to the edge of the pitch. Some took selfies with Jimmy Floyd Haisselbank, the QPR manager, but mostly they clapped, buoyed by the casual acceptance from fans – a sign perhaps of football’s future, one in which the reaction to LGBT players is nothing more than benign indifference.
“It’s a nice recognition,” said Stuart Forward afterwards as his teammates went up to the stands to watch the match. “And no booing.”
“To be part of that was great,” added fellow player Renee Karras. “To make a stand about homophobia in football was exciting. It made a statement.”