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'Trying to organise an LGBT+ fans group at Man Utd was like turning the Titanic'

09:00 BST 08/05/2021
Man Utd LGBT Rainbow Devils
In the last of Goal's series speaking to gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgender fans of Premier League clubs, Rainbow Devils reveal their experiences

Attempting to organise and set-up an official Manchester United supporters’ club for LGBT+ people was like “turning the Titanic”, the chair of the group has admitted.

Eric Najib is the head of Rainbow Devils, the group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender fans of the Old Trafford club, which was set up in February 2019.

This was significantly after many of United’s fellow Premier League giants had become officially affiliated with their own LGBT+ fan groups – Arsenal’s, Gay Gooners, was founded six years earlier – though a lack of enthusiasm cannot be blamed.

Instead, the sheer levels of bureaucracy involved at a club of United's stature proved to be a major roadblock.

Speaking exclusively to Goal, Eric says: “A club the size of Manchester United, it’s the difference between turning a speedboat and turning the Titanic. You saw that with the formation of the women’s team.

“I don’t want to be critical; the timing was right for us. Could it have been done sooner? There are always lessons that can be learned, and things we and I could have done differently, but we need to concentrate on where we go from here.

“One of the positives of being a newer group is that we can learn from the established groups. Despite rivalries on the pitch, we learn from Canal Street Blues [Manchester City’s group], and we have a very good relationship.”

Rainbow Devils is one of many supporters’ groups for LGBT+ fans of English top-flight clubs, providing a space for supporters from many walks of life to come together in their mutual love of their football club.

A relatively new group, they have seen their growth stunted somewhat by the coronavirus pandemic, so have had to try and reach members through online events and get-togethers, while also spreading as much awareness as they can offline.

“This is a horrific time for so many people, we are also a platform for anyone who wants to chat," Eric says. "We are just trying to be there for everyone.

“We want a banner at Old Trafford, like the other Premier League clubs. We were in discussions to have something like that, but events halted that, so it’s on our agenda.”

In non-Covid times, Eric would be a loyal, match-going, season-ticket holding fan.

And though he has not had any particularly negative experiences attending football as a gay fan, having spoken to his fellow Rainbow Devils, he acknowledges that he is one of the lucky ones.

“I’ve been very fortunate, my experiences have always been quite positive,” he says. “I know some of our members have had less positive times.

"I feel like I’m cheating a little bit because I get asked about this a lot, and for me it has always been positive.

“I did an article in the Man Utd programme, and there were people in the ground who had perhaps nodded at me before who came up and shook me by the hand. I didn’t have any negative comments – although what was said privately, I don’t know.

“I can categorically say I know of people in our group who have had bad experiences, more at away games than at home. It’s a different crowd that goes to away matches, it has a different atmosphere.

“One that springs to mind is one of the female supporters, who said she was at a game with her partner, and they were holding hands going to an away game, and they were just getting verbals from ‘lads’, who think they are being funny.

"I’m not saying all heterosexual couples who attend games do so while holding hands, but that is a block for some members of our community.

“I know the FA are trying to get reporting mechanisms into place, but it is not easy, because there is an intimidation factor to football.

"It is hard to go up to stewards and be discreet; then they say there is an app. Well I can tell you something for a fact: 80 per cent of grounds, there is no phone reception!

“You’re supposed to report people, put the seat number in and whatever else, but they are absolutely fruitless. You’re left until the next day, and the moment has passed.”

The constant question around LGBT+ inclusion in English football concerns when a Premier League player will feel comfortable enough to come out publicly – something which Eric feels should not be forced, but which he is hopeful will be accepted.

He says: “Nothing irritates me more than when people say a ‘player needs to come out’. The decision has to be voluntary, it cannot be pressured.

“I don’t think a player coming out now would have a negative reaction, but then I’m not a professional footballer, I’m not in that bubble.

“What clubs are trying to do now is create an environment for all their players to be as comfortable as possible.

“Ultimately, no-one knows what the reaction is going to be; maybe I’ve got blind faith, but I hope we are in a situation where if a player comes out, opposition fans don’t see it as an opportunity to take the mickey.

“It is not about sanitising football, it has to have edge, but it cannot have stuff that goes over the edge, stuff which is personal.”

Eric says the ultimate purpose for groups like Rainbow Devils is to ensure teams and authorities never rest on their laurels, and complacency never allows backwards movement, particularly with abuse on social media being such a pressing issue.

“You look at the abuse players and officials are getting, it is absolutely essential that we don’t rest.

"Our group is not just about opposing LGBT+ abuse, it is about making football a safe and tolerant place, an inclusive place for every fan regardless of any issue.”