Earlier this week, Blackpool forward Jake Daniels became the first male player in the UK to come out as gay since Justin Fashanu in 1990. A decision that single-handedly ended a 30-year silence surrounding homosexuality in English men’s football.
Having only made his senior debut for the club this month, the teenager explained how he was ready to act as a role model for others in the game after deciding “the time was right to be myself, be free and be confident” in his identity. “Now is the time to do it,” he said. “I feel like I am ready to tell people my story. I want people to know the real me.”
Jake Daniels has become the first male pro player in English football to come out as gay for 32 years. The 17-year-old Blackpool striker paves the way for everyone in football to feel more comfortable in living their true self. A moment that will mean so much to so many people. pic.twitter.com/hamvdZWQCB
— VERSUS (@vsrsus) May 16, 2022
Coming out is never an easy step to take, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Everyone’s story is different, but something they all have in common are the indescribable feelings of relief and pride. Relief you no longer have to hide who you are for fear others won’t accept you, and pride for knowing you’ve just taken one of the most challenging steps in your life. Coming out can be painful but living in the closet is a lifetime of pain, something both Daniels and his family recognised in the lead-up to making a public announcement via Sky Sports News. With the support of his loved ones, Blackpool FC and the LGBTQ charity Stonewall, Daniels carefully planned his coming out story months in advance of the broadcast. The youngster considerately explained why he’d chosen to come out, when generations of players before him felt unable to do the same.
“For a long time I’ve thought I would have to hide my truth because I wanted to be – and now I am – a professional footballer,” he said. “I asked myself if I should wait until I’ve retired to come out. No other player in the professional game here is out. However, I knew that would lead to a long time of lying and not being able to be myself or lead the life that I want to.”
Last year, Adelaide United’s Josh Cavallo became the only male top-flight professional footballer in the world to come out as gay. Earlier this year, Cavallo spoke of his disappointment regarding those who targeted him during an A-League game by hurling homophobic abuse in his direction. The incident occurred just two months after he made the decision to come out.
Towards the end of 2022, the men’s World Cup will be held in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal. Cavallo himself recently revealed that he would be “scared” to play at the tournament. Every footballer dreams of representing their country at the World Cup, the most prestigious tournament in footballing history, and to think you can’t do that simply because of who you are is completely unjust.
“We need to make sure the footballing community does all it can to safeguard this young player.”
Although Daniels’ story has clearly been treated with the utmost care – especially by his club – and is definitely one that needs to be celebrated, we need to make sure the footballing community does all it can to safeguard this young player.
He might have just signed his first professional contract, and currently plays Championship football – something he’s dreamed of his whole life – but he is still a child. He’s just dipping his toes into the very first stages of his football career, let alone navigating the murky waters of adulthood. On top of all that, he’s now taken up the significant mantle of LGBTQ+ role model. Everyone has a role to play in making sure that Daniels doesn’t feel overwhelmed and regret his carefully planned decision to share his personal story with the world. In the coming months and years, there’s no doubt he will be inundated with requests from brands and publications to front their campaigns and covers. His actions will be scrutinized, with the smallest of mistakes being turned into the most calamitous of errors. Daniels’ story has reached every possible corner of the globe with the likes of Prince William, Pernille Harder and Jurgen Klopp praising the teen for taking such a huge step. Life as a professional footballer comes with an immeasurable amount of pressure to be ‘perfect’, add another layer of expectation to that and it has the potential to become too much.
Right now, the reception to Daniels’ coming out has been nothing but positive, with fans flocking to Blackpool FC’s online store to purchase shirts in support of the local teen hero. Yet, there will come a time – just like with his peer Cavallo – when he experiences homophobic abuse. That is the sad reality of the world we live in.
Recently, LGBT+ anti-bullying charity Gallop discovered that 64% of the people they surveyed, admitted to experiencing violence or abuse at the hands of homophobic individuals, with verbal abuse accounting for 92% of their experiences. Whether it’s from fans, teammates or opposition, Daniels will be included in that worrying statistic at some point in the near future.
The world was built for and by white cis-heterosexual men, therefore those who don’t fit within any of those intersections will be ‘othered’, sometimes in the most extreme manners. Hate crimes related to sexual orientation and gender identity have increased year on year in the UK since 2015. From January to August last year, at least 14,670 homophobic hate crime offences were recorded, compared with 11,841 in the same period of 2020. Throw football into the mix – an environment where toxic masculinity has run deep for generations – and the likelihood of hearing and seeing homophobia is so much higher.
Resorting to homophobic chants to denigrate the opposition has plagued the ‘beautiful game’ for far too long. The infamous ‘Chelsea Rent Boy’ chant has only recently been deemed a ‘hate crime’ by authorities, with players Conor Gallagher and Billy Gillmour both subjected to the abuse this past year.
“Football has changed, and will continue to change, but we are still living in an age where some players refuse to wear apparel decorated with rainbow motifs.”
Jake’s story is one that should be celebrated, but it’s also an opportunity to work hard to ensure football is a space where everyone feels safe to be themselves. This doesn’t just happen by heralding a teenager’s decision to come out, it happens by implementing measures that prevent abuse from happening in the first place. All in the hope of fostering an inclusive and safe space for players and fans alike to thrive.
Football has changed, and will continue to change, but we are still living in an age where some players refuse to wear apparel decorated with rainbow motifs. The simplest acts of solidarity aren’t embraced by all, regardless of their positive messaging. People are of course free to have their own opinions and beliefs, but they’re not free to hold ones that damage and perpetuate unnecessary hate.
The next time you hear a friend refer to something in a derogatory manner as ‘gay’, pull them up on it. If you hear or see someone use a homophobic chant at a football match, report them to the appropriate authorities. The more people know that it isn’t okay to have such ill-formed, hate-fuelled ideas, the more chance we have of players like Daniels coming forward and expressing themselves honestly and openly. The LGBTQ+ community doesn’t exist in isolation from the rest of the football community. It’s very much a part of it and Daniels has helped to remind people of that. Now, it’s our responsibility to ensure he doesn’t once again feel the weight of the world on his shoulders for being who he is.