'We love football as much as anyone else' - How the Gay Gooners and Arsenal are tackling homophobia

Gay Gooners Gunnersaurus 2022Arsenal FC/GOAL

It was Sunday, January 23 and Arsenal had just been held to a frustrating 0-0 draw by Burnley at Emirates Stadium.

Carl Fearn and a number of fellow members of the Gay Gooners, the largest LGBT+ football club supporters’ group in England, made their way to one of the many pubs close to the Emirates to chew the fat over a post-match pint.

However, as he stood at the bar, Carl heard something depressingly familiar: a homophobic chant being sung by a group of Arsenal fans on the other side of the pub.

With so much previous experience with the situation, the 58-year-old kept his feelings in check. 

Later on, though, he would have a conversation with the landlord that would set in motion a series of events that would culminate in Arsenal celebrating their relationship with the Gay Gooners throughout Saturday’s game against Brentford.

"The landlord didn’t like the chants but he said that he didn’t know what to do to stop it," Fearn tells GOAL.

“I told him that I was happy to talk to the club and try and get some flyers and posters to him which would help get the message out that he and the pub won’t tolerate it.”

Fearn, who is co-chair of Gay Gooners, was true to his word and spoke to Arsenal.

Within 24 hours it was decided that flyers and posters wouldn’t just be given to that one pub, but instead handed out at every pub around the Emirates by Gay Gooners members and Arsenal staff.

Emile Smith Rowe Bukayo Saka LGBT flag Gay Gooners Emirates 2022 GFX

“We’re trying to get it out there that we love football as much as anybody else,” Fearn says.

“We’re nine years old now and we’ve made tremendous progress, but there is still some way to go. We just want to be able to go and watch our team like everyone else.

“We just want to be able to go to the games comfortably and not hear inappropriate stuff being chanted. That’s the message we want to get across.”

To help spread that message, Arsenal did far more than just printing up some flyers ahead of Saturday’s game against Brentford.

Several Gay Gooners members were filmed discussing their relationship with the club and some of the difficulties they’ve faced just trying to be themselves at games.

The video footage was broadcast on the giant screens inside the stadium at half-time and was also put out across the club’s social media channels.

Two giant rainbow flags were commissioned and two members from the group were positioned pitchside to wave them as the teams came out and when goals were scored.

LGBT flag Gay Gooners Arsenal Emirates 2022 GFX
Arsenal FC/GOAL

The centre spread of the matchday programme featured a Gay Gooners banner, along with the quotes of three Gay Gooners members which spelled out what the group means to them.

Arsenal also allocated one of the executive boxes at the stadium to the Gay Gooners as a way of giving a space for LGBT+ fans who hadn’t been to a game before or who had issues or concerns about attending a match on their own.

“It was a way of people being able to enjoy the game in a welcoming space as their authentic selves,” says Joe White, who is co-chair of Gay Gooners and who hosted the box on Saturday.

“It also allowed them to get to the ground earlier and avoid the rush with travel, where there might be additional issues.

“I think anyone who is trans, non-binary or gender diverse has experienced issues on the tube just because of their identity, so we were very keen on trying to make sure that everyone could get to the ground safely and be able to just enjoy the game as themselves.

“And I think that’s what really shone through on Saturday. There were some teary eyes. It was a really, really special day."

Gay Gooners was established in February, 2013 and is the first and largest LGBT+ football supporters' group in England, with well over 1,000 members in the UK and overseas.

The group holds regular meet-ups before home games, organises group trips to away matches and represents the club at the annual London pride parade every summer.

Long-term members, such as Carl Fearn, have seen some significant progress made over the years when it comes to making LGBT+ fans feel more welcome when watching their team.

“I’m happy that the vast majority of the fanbase are behind us and support us,” he said. “It’s more than just being tolerated, they see us as part of the furniture almost.

“After that incident at the pub after the Burnley game, a guy came up to me and said he was sorry about the chants. He accepted they shouldn’t have been doing it.

“We exchanged numbers and he told me to text him if I heard it again and thought his group were involved. He said he would make sure that they stopped.

“For me, that’s absolutely fantastic. I saw that guy again at Wolves and he came up to me and shook my hand. I really, really appreciated how he talked to me.

“We just want people to see things through our eyes and I think this young guy is an ally now.”

The overriding message that the Gay Gooners want to get out and that the club tried to share on Saturday is that Arsenal is for everyone.

Any fan should be able to go and support their team without having to hear discriminatory abuse or be made to feel uncomfortable about their appearance.

So, the Gay Gooners will continue working with the club to ensure LGBT+ fans are made to feel as welcome as possible at Emirates Stadium.

“A big part of it is that things like the box on Saturday are not the permanent solution,” White adds.

“We most certainly want people to be on the North Bank cheering and screaming along with everyone else, but we need to help make people feel confident, comfortable and safe at Arsenal. 

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“There’s been a lot of progress. If you would have played a video like the one that went out on Saturday five years ago, I don’t think you would have had the response from straight fans that we have had.

“People are growing into becoming vocal and active allies and we are seeing so much support from other Arsenal fan groups, from Arsenal as a club and from the staff.

“I think that is really helping make a difference and it makes a really big impact when wonderful things like what took place on Saturday are done.”