The UK’s first out professional football referee Ryan Atkin opens up about coming out, breaking into football and why he thinks football officials need to do more to encourage gay players to feel comfortable to be themselves….
It’s 2020, and although we are currently locked up in our homes trying desperately trying to avoid spreading the coronavirus, gay men can pretty much achieve anything they set their minds too. When once upon a time, there was little to no positive visibility, we see gay guys are everywhere, offering young kids essential role models to aspire to. But even though we have fabulous out and open popstars like Sam Smith, Ollie Alexander and Saara Aalto, actors like Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and Russell Tovey, and athletes like diver Tom Daley, rugby player Gareth Thomas and sprinter Ethan Akanni there are still areas, particularly in sport, where gay guys find it hard to penetrate.
Take football for example. In the UK there are still no out footballers in the Premier League. There are rumours that there are, but for some reason, players are yet to find the courage to step forward and be true to themselves. Whether it’s due to homophobia amongst players and supporters is unclear but we are still waiting for a league player to come out and throw open those doors. Former player and pundit, Graeme Souness has even stated that he thinks players are offered very little encouragement from the football fraternity to feel comfortable to come out.
“The PFA and Premier League have to look at themselves,” he said in an interview. ”Why has nobody ever come out? I don’t think football has created an environment where anybody would feel comfortable or confident if they did.There must be gay and bisexual players in the Premier League but nobody has felt confident enough to say ‘this is me’.
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But things are changing. In August 2017, Ryan Atkin became the first man refereeing in England’s professional leagues to come out as gay. Praised for his openness at the time, his career has since flourished and he has gone from working as an assistant referee in the English Football League to refereeing in the National League this season and was even nominated as one of Stonewall’s Sport Champions for 2019.
But in spite of being happy to be a role model to future sports legends, Ryan is adamant that on the pitch he is a referee first and foremost who just happens to be gay.
“You’re either good at refereeing or you’re not, and your sexuality shouldn’t come into that,” he told BBC LGBGT Sports’s podcast last year. “Ultimately, within sport, you want the best people to get to the top, and it should only be through their profession and how good they are that they do progress. But what we do want to ensure is that we’ve got a diverse pool of people who have the same opportunities if they are good enough.”
We caught up with the handsome fella to chat about the difficulty of a gay man breaking in to sport but also to find out more about how he became the man he is today.
Ryan, was sport always something you wanted to get into when you were younger? Did you think being gay would always stand in the way?
I really did at the time and dare I say I wholeheartedly believe that this stigma is still present. You only have to read or listen to other athletes who talk about the struggles they faced when they were in the closet, and how becoming their authentic selves they have gone on to excel at their sport. They realised, I realised, that holding things back can actually impact on your performance. I have always enjoyed sport. My dad played rugby and boxed while he was in the navy and my brother played football and rugby so it was a natural step for me to take. Sport was our lives. However, when I started out, not being out in sport hampered my progression within refereeing because I wasn’t truly being me, and the best referees are exactly that.
Being named England’s first openly gay professional official must have been so empowering for you and for those who are in the closet?
I received some wonderful messages from players, athletes, fans and match officials. It was empowering to show others that you can actually succeed no matter what sexuality you are but also to show that there is further work needed within sport especially football to help more men and women to be out and open. Football has so many cracks and desperately needs fundamental changes to fill them. It requires direct positive action which has tangible goals and objectives. It is not enough to fly a rainbow flag or sign up to a partnership with a charity in the hope that it will solve the problem. We need to encourage players to feel comfortable to be who they are publicly.
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Rugby stars like Sam Stanley and Gareth Thomas and Simon Dunn appear more at ease about coming out. Why do you think the football fraternity is so different?
Football has not evolved as fast. I think it remains very much in the past. While it may have changed in speed, technology, money, it is still in the dark ages when it comes to LGBT representation and the way players of colour are treated. Football continues to allow intolerance of others, most notably toward those of a different race. Why would gay players want to come out when they see football officials dragging their feet when it comes to stamping out the vile racist behaviour of fans in the stands. There is just not enough direct action or collaborative work across sport to stamp out homophobia or racism. But are we surprised? These sporting worlds are dominated entirely by straight white men.
Do you think there is still an element of homophobia within the football world?
Yes, homophobia is definitely prevalent in football, from professional to grassroots, but I don’t believe players actually fear their peers, as within those protective environments they know more about individuals and their teammates.
Do you think players worry more about reactions of the fans rather than their teammates?
Yes ultimately, but football players also have to think about employment in countries where LGBT+ laws are different to the United Kingdom. Sometimes, keeping your personal life private can have advantages, but certainly has negatives. Only each individual can make that decision.
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Do you think we’ll see a footballer come out soon?
Hmmm, define soon… Remember there are footballers who are out, especially within the women’s game. However, I do think as we continue to hold to account those in the game, we will create an environment in which it will be safe and comfortable to be who and what you want to be.
What kind of impact do you think it would have if a premiership footballer did come out?
I think it would have a huge positive impact. But it’s not just about the players. Sport is made up of so many other individuals and if they cannot be open about their sexuality how do we expect others to? Football is not alone in this. Tennis, rugby and cricket all lack male individuals identifying as LGBT+. The focus needs to be on sport overall and to create environments where people can identify publicly if they choose to.
Let’s take a step back a bit…. When did you realise you were gay?
It was when I was at secondary school, growing up in Plymouth. I looked at other guys and had different emotions and feelings than I did when I looked at girls. When I went out clubbing with my mates, I would always be looking at the guys and not the girls, but I suppressed those feelings for many years and didn’t say a thing to anyone. As a result, that certainly impacted on my life, and I became very closed off about my emotions. In some ways, it’s still how I feel today and is something that I am constantly working on.
Can you remember your first gay experience?
I was 18 years old. I was having drinks in Plymouth with friends but during the evening, I snuck off from my group of friends and went to see what the local gay bar Zero’s was like. While I was there, I met a girl who was with a friend, a guy who was an actor and dancer. I ended up kissing the girl, but after we dropped her off at home in a taxi, I went back to the guy’s parents’ house in a small village on the outskirts of Plymouth.
You say you suppressed your feelings. So being gay was clearly something you didn’t want to accept…
Most definitely. I went to school and hung out with my mates, but when all my friends were getting with girls, I constantly questioned myself about why I didn’t have the same feelings as they did. Growing up in a heterosexual environment, with no LGBT education around me, and thinking I might be gay, left me feeling frustrated with myself and I felt like I had no direction in life. Not knowing other gay men or having any role models made me think being gay wasn’t normal. And so I dated girls for many years before moving to London.
When you told your family, how did they take it?
It took a little time for them to understand and embrace my sexuality. When I reflect, I am a bit more accepting of their position, although the unconditional love from my parents never changed. My mum had actually asked me if I was gay about a year or two before I did come out on a visit home to Plymouth. I flatly refused at the time, and we ended up arguing. Looking back, I just don’t know why I didn’t open up and tell her there and then. It was many years later in Brighton that I felt it was the right time for me to tell her and then took her and my aunt to some of the gay bars to see some famous Brighton Cabaret. My dad was fine.
Some young people dealing with their sexuality tend to suffer from mental health issues. Did you?
If I’m honest, I did, but I don’t think I ever really understood at the time. When I was coming to terms with my sexuality, mental health wasn’t discussed as openly among people as it is now. I think society is still very much geared towards the heterosexual world. Only in the last twenty years have LGBT people started to be seen and heard much more in everyday life. When I realised I was gay, the age of consent was still unequal, and Queer As Folk was the first major TV programme that celebrated gay sexuality. It is so important that LGBT identities become more visible and accepted within society. But there is still such a long way to go. Thankfully LGBT identities are increasingly being discussed more at school. There are more and more pride events across the country and there are more and more TV programmes that show diverse gender and sexual identities.
Have there ever been times in your life when things have got too much?
Men have always been taught not to talk about their emotions and mental health from a very early age. Historically men have been encouraged that they must not be girlie or be overtly gay. Yes, there have been times when things got too much for me and that isn’t something I would always have admitted. I know and will accept now that I have made some decisions I regret and yes, I did hit some very low times. But I am so fortunate to have friends who have supported me all the way through it. Friends who have made sure I do not stick my head in the sand and helped me when times are tough. I’m lucky, as not everybody has that support, which is why it is so important to be kind in actions and not just words and to support charities that help LGBT folk who don’t have that support.
Was life at school tough?
I actually enjoyed my school years at Eggbuckland Community College.I knew I was different back then but couldn’t quite quantify it at the time. I played rugby for my school in the early years, before taking up refereeing. I did everything I could to fit in with the ‘lads’, but I look back and that I know that that wasn’t the right thing to do. So now, my advice to a young person would be to embrace who you are as soon as you can. Of course, I recognise that can be very challenging in many schools. It’s not easy! I was lucky that a couple of teachers who I could talk to.
When you were properly out did you throw yourself into gay life?
When I moved to London in 2006, I found the scene, or maybe I should say, it found me. I remember going to Soho and Brighton and it was something I had never seen or experienced. I have to admit I was slightly overwhelmed by it all. I felt like I had entered a world with even more stereotypes and labels than the ‘straightworld’.
Yes, it can be an intimidating world.
I had mixed feelings about it, but mostly I enjoyed it. I was always considered ‘straight acting’ and would often be asked if I was straight. Looking back, I’m not sure if this was a natural barrier that I put up. I needed to accept that my sexuality was a big part of me. How was I supposed to convince the world that being gay was natural and okay, if I hadn’t even convinced myself. I had to remember that the scene wasn’t life and balance real rather than the extremities of life on the scene. The great thing about it is, I met some of my friends during those years, who I have gone on to share some unforgettable memories. I certainly think the scene can be a great place to meet people and enrich your life. You just always have to be careful!
Was love always the goal? Or were you more of a sexual being?
I think everybody wants somebody special in their life, but it doesn’t always come at the point in your life when want at that time. During those times, I was starting to explore who I was and being a pretty sexual being. But then, when do you grow out of that?
Have you experienced any homophobia?
I haven’t experienced much homophobia in person, but I’ve certainly endured some rather nasty online abuse from people who are not brave enough to say what they think to my face. It is just as challenging to deal with a torrent of homophobic abuse from social media but I don’t tolerate it and will always call it out.
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You’re a good-looking guy have you ever been insecure about the way you looked?
I’d say I am a fairly confident man, but I do sometimes get insecure about how I look. The gay scene seems to be particularly obsessed with achieving the perfect stereotypical body. That said, I do train regularly and have a PT, but sometimes it never feels enough. During COVID-19 I’ve been intrigued by the significant reduction in body pictures on social media. I wonder if it’s because people are adjusting to the challenges they are facing with Covid19 that these frivolous posts now feel more irrelevant and unnecessary. There are too many people who want to knock us down, it is my hope that we start to lift each other up. But I am sure for some, Onlyfans has been a godsend.
Have you ever felt that you feel not part of the gay world?
I think as a community, we can all make others feel ostracised from the gay world, which is terrible. Social media plays a big part of this, which I think doesn’t help the general mental health of the LGBT community.
Are you currently seeing anyone?
Not at the moment. Why? Do you know someone? I have met some great people over the years and cherish how they shaped my life. But right now I’m single. What am I looking for? Hmm.. Well, that’s never an easy question to answer. I think I’d like to meet someone who is confident, spontaneous, good sense of humour, likes to travel but who is ambitious and wants the best out of life. It helps if they look after themselves and take pride in their appearance.
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After an awesome day at the beach, it’s back to the villa and pool! I may have caught the sun a little to much & need to higher the sun factor 🙈 Off to #Oystins fish market tonight and some local delicacy 🐠 #Barbados #royalwestmorland #tedbaker #lgbt 🌈 #friends #HolidayVibes #picoftheday #instagram
How has this Covid-19 situation changed your life?
It has impacted massively. I have not officiated a football game since the beginning of March, but to be honest football is certainly not at the forefront of my mind. I work within operations on the railway, and so classified currently as a key worker. As a senior manager I feel it is important to support my team and front-line colleagues.
How are you dealing with isolation?
I am using the time to keep my mind active. I love to travel and obviously can’t, so instead, I have taken up Spanish, and learning to cook cuisines from around the world.
Not being able to get out and about must be frustrating.
It is! I often travel with my friends and sometimes by myself. I have visited most of the USA and Europe. I am now looking at South America, India and more of Asia. Some of the best trips I have had have been Thailand, Key West, Barbados, Sitges and Dallas to name a few. I am always open to new travel partners!
And what about fitness…. Are you still trying to keep in shape at home?
I’m working to stay fit through resistance training, high intensity running and general jogging. As the gyms are closed, strength training is difficult but it’s amazing how creative you can be with house furniture. My brother uses my twin nephews, who are three years old. Luckily they seem to find massive enjoyment out of it, as they get to play with their dad.
Has this experience been a scary time for you?
I have to admit I am scared of losing family and friends, however I am trying to look at this from a logical perspective. I am aware that not every disease is treatable and some of us will depart well before our expected time. We are born into the world and at the end of our journey we depart. None of us know when that is. Life for many is getting longer and we rely on medicines and treatments to keep us alive, death could be forever getting further away for many of us. But I am so proud of our awesome NHS and all the hard work they are putting right now. They’re risking their lives.
What do you think you have learnt about yourself during this time?
I have learnt that I must cherish the time I have with my family and friends. My priorities in my life certainly need to change and after this I think they will do. We take for granted the freedom we all have, and the wonderful environment all around us. It is so delicate, and I need to be more aware of my surroundings.
Do you think we will all come out of this changed people?
I think people will realise what is important in life. I hope we will be more community spirited and will not take nature and open spaces for granted. I hope that governments, corporations and communities start to fundamentally change how we will save our planet and that we will kinder to one another.
When do you think football will be back in action after this virus?
I am hoping football will return in June/July but how it will look, we just don’t know. We have to make sure it is safe for all those involved.
Was it right to cut the players’ salaries?
I personally believe footballers are very generous and many of them work with charities and donate lots of money already. I think to ask players to take salary cuts publicly was unfair, and the question I ask is where is that saved money going to? What has annoyed me in this scenario is that there are some company owners – not just within sport – who plead poverty but have just turned over multi-million or billion-pound profits or taken huge bonuses. Everyone needs to be prepared to tighten their belts and make changes so that the economy and businesses and communities survive. #inthistogether
Finally, Ryan, what advice would you give your 12-year-old self about the future?
Embrace who and what you are. Grasp opportunities and make time for your family and friends. To quote Avengers: Endgame: ‘Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be. A measure of a person is how well they succeed in being who they are’! I wholeheartedly believe that.