This partnership between VERSUS and Sports Direct celebrates the impact football fans have on their communities across the UK. Football has the power to change the world for the better, and these individuals embody that message better than anyone else.
Chris Paouros is no stranger to the complexities of building a community. She’s a trailblazer in the sport, working to make football a safe and welcoming space for everyone. She co-founded the Proud Lilywhites – one of the first LGBTQ+ supporters' associations in the country – in 2014, and her work in the community doesn’t stop there. Her name is attached to roles at Kick It Out, the Football Sports Association, and the FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board.
Inclusion is something Paouros holds close to her heart, and her work to increase diversity and representation off the pitch and in the stands proves it. Before all of this, however, she’s a fan.
A Tottenham Hotspur season ticket holder since 1996, Paouros' love for the club and football is the driving force behind the work she puts in to ensure the beautiful game stays beautiful for supporters of all backgrounds - regardless of race, gender and sexuality.
VERSUS sat with Paouros to discuss growing up in a Spurs household, LGBTQ+ visibility in football, and the future of gender equality and inclusivity in the sport.
Photography by Holly-Marie Cato for VERSUS.
“We just started building relationships centred around bringing about change in football by making it a more inclusive space.”
VERSUS: How was it that you first started to incorporate football into your work, or has it always been a major focus for you?
Chris Paouros: I feel like I’ve been an activist all my life. If I look back to being a kid, I ran my first petition when I was 13-years-old because girls weren’t allowed to wear trousers at school – so I’ve always had a sense of wanting to right wrongs in terms of injustice. In terms of working in football, I co-founded and I still co-chair the Proud Lilywhites – the official Tottenham Hotspur LGBTQ+ supporters association – and we’ve been doing that for just over nine years now. But by trade, I’m a business consultant.
VERSUS: How did your two worlds – business and football – collide?
Chris: I’ve spent nearly 20 years working with clients and solving business related problems, and in those instances and spaces, I realised there was a lot of really good non-profit, community-related work going on. I wanted to try and bring people together from the business and football worlds, which nine years ago wasn’t a particularly revolutionary thought, but it also wasn’t necessarily something too many people were doing.
VERSUS: What do you mean?
Chris: If you look at equality work in football nine years ago, it was really badly funded. Everyone was competing for the same pot of money – funds were limited. But as a voluntary organisation, we didn’t really need funding because we were just a bunch of people with some ideas, and wanted to do stuff we cared about! We knew we could bring people together, so the first thing we did when we started Proud Lilywhites was: meet Troy Townsed at Kick It Out, Jo Tongue at Women in Football, Lou Englefield at Football vs Homophobia and Anwar Uddin who’d not long started the fans diversity campaign. We just started building really solid and fruitful working relationships – ones centred around bringing about change in football by making it a more inclusive space. I also realised really quickly just how much I had to offer, personally.
I was at a point in my career where I could afford to do more things on a voluntary basis, but also, to be a bit more of an activist.
VERSUS: Just like when you were 13-years-old?
Chris: We started the Proud Lilywhites in early 2014, and later that year my wife died unexpectedly. My whole world got tipped upside down when she passed away. I didn’t know what I was doing or what my purpose was. That first year after her death, I didn’t know which way was up and so wasn’t thinking very straight. But the first Proud Lilwhites’ event was in October, and at that time, my wife’s family – who come from New Zealand – were in London so they came to that first event.
My wife was also a Spurs fan, we had our season tickets together. I remember thinking I wanted to do something that would honour her and her legacy. She was a primary school teacher who always worked in inner-city schools, loved football, and really wanted to make sure children who suffered at the hands of injustice were supported; she wanted them to grow up and realise the world can also be a place of justice for people who looked like them. She worked in Tower Hamlets and Newham, and mainly taught Black and Brown children, and I could see that, what the world looked like for them, wasn’t necessarily what it looked like for the kids that lived in our area. I gave up my job after she died and decided to work for myself – which I’ve done ever since.
VERSUS: Has that enabled you to focus on areas both you and your wife cared about most?
Chris: It’s definitely given me the chance to do all of the work I currently do in football. So, as well as being the co-founder and co-chair of the Proud Lilywhites, I also co-founded Pride in Football; a network of LGBTQ+ fan groups across the UK. When we started there were four groups, now there are 50 – which is so cool! I want to see these big changes both on and off the pitch, but in the meantime, if there are other things we can do to make people’s lives better whilst waiting for the big changes to happen, then we’ll give it a good go!
VERSUS: Have you always supported Spurs?
Chris: I grew up in Southgate, which is in the suburbs of North London, and I have always been a Spurs fan. I can’t remember not being a Spurs fan! My parents are from Cyprus, and my first uncle came over here in 1961 and landed in Haringey – like all good North London Cypriots. Haringey is a Spurs borough and the year my uncle arrived, Spurs was a double-winning team! So, that was that! A number of years later, my mum arrived in London with her younger brother and my granny. At the time, my mum’s younger brother was about 15-years-old and was really into football. When I was growing up – roughly 15 or so years later – he had a Spurs season ticket. One of his mates couldn’t go to a match with him one day, so he took me instead – I was about six.
“In this country, football is how we learn to work, play, celebrate, and even commiserate together. If you’re separate from that sense of belonging then that matters.”
I didn’t play with anything else but a ball when I was a kid. What was interesting about my relationship with football, growing up in a Cypriot household – it was quite a traditional Cypriot household, as well – I’m first generation born here. So, like any immigrant story, your parents come to a new country and they want to retain their culture, but also want for you to ‘fit in’. That was complicated, and also there were restricted gender norms about what it meant to be a girl, particularly in the context of also wanting to retain your culture. I always confounded them, and one of the main ways of doing that was through football. So it always felt like an act of rebellion, my love of football. But I just loved it, and I cared about it.
VERSUS: Do you remember your first game?
Chris: I remember the first time walking up the stairs at White Hart Lane and seeing the pitch for the first time and all those people, and everyone wanting the same thing as you. That’s like magic when you’re a kid. I still get that feeling now, when the ball is flying through the air, and is about to hit the back of the net, and everyone rises in unison to cheer at the same time. There’s nothing like it. And so I’d always promised myself, literally from that first day, that when I grew up, I would get a season ticket.
VERSUS: How did your family and neighbourhood growing up influence your career and work now?
Chris: From a family perspective, it’s weird because they’re sort of proud of me now! But they also kind of wish I was a bit more like their friends’ daughters.
VERSUS: What do you mean?
Chris: I’ve always felt a profound sense of injustice. I think being a girl in those environments – I don’t have brothers – but I know that I was treated differently to how my cousins were, and just in terms of what my opportunities would be, or what was expected of me because I was a girl. I was not having that, even as a small child. I can still remember that feeling of not buying into traditional societal norms. That feeling has helped me to navigate my life. And from a football perspective, the thread is that same sense of injustice, and that’s why I think starting the Proud Lilywhites. I can’t tell you how many people from the LGBTQ+ community might have had that same feeling at some point. And then you ‘come out’ and you think, “this isn’t for me anymore, it doesn’t feel safe. I don’t feel welcome. I don’t belong”. Particularly for a lot of gay men as well, because of what ‘that idea’ of being a man in football ‘should’ be. It’s equally as complicated for a woman, particularly for a lesbian, because again, it’s those gender norms. “Oh, you’re a bit of a bloke anyway, so it’s alright, somehow you fit in.” And that’s not right, either.
What do we do to make sure that if you’re an LGBTQ+ football fan, all those things we’ve described about how brilliant football is, are still relevant? Participating in something, being part of something, is on par with love – that’s how much human beings need belonging. In this country, football is how we learn to work, play, celebrate, commiserate together. If you’re separate from that belonging, then that matters. So all of that is what drove me to say, “okay, this is what we want to do in football. Engender that sense of belonging for the LGBTQ+ community”.
“I don’t think you can underestimate how important visibility is. There’s a great big ‘Progress’ flag in Spurs’ Northeast corner. It’s a really simple thing, but it means: “you belong here”.”
VERSUS: How does it feel knowing the Proud Lilywhites have gained more visibility as the years have gone by?
Chris: I think it matters a lot. I don’t think you can underestimate how important that visibility is. We used to have a flag up in White Hart Lane – now, if you watch any game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, there’s a great big ‘progress’ flag in the Northeast corner. It’s a really simple thing, but that marker says “you belong here” – whether you’re a member of staff, a fan, someone who just happens to be visiting for the day, you belong at this club. The number of messages we get from all up and down the country and all over the world of people saying exactly what I’ve just said to you: “I fell out of love with football because I thought it wasn’t for me and then I saw your flag and I came back to it”.
My co-chair Lee Johnson, because of a particular homophobic chant, he stopped going to football for nearly seven years. It really affected his mental health, it affected his work, all sorts of things. He saw a flag and thought maybe football’s changed. He came back, got involved, and now he’s the co-chair. That visibility really matters. Now though, visibility on its own isn’t enough. There has to be real, tangible things underpinning it, but that’s why we’ve worked really hard with Spurs and other LGBTQ+ fan groups. We’ve always stayed really conscious of the fact that visibility matters, but we also want to create that sense of belonging so people have got someone to watch a game with, someone to chat about Spurs with – it feels like a safe space.
VERSUS: Where do you think the sport needs change in order to progress in terms of gender equality and LGBTQ+ representation?
Chris: Well, understanding there’s an issue and accepting there’s an issue first and foremost. There’s some research that Stacey Pope did from the University of Durham around men’s attitudes to women in men’s football. They don’t like it, so even making the point that it is not necessarily a man’s sport is a challenging place to start. There are plenty of women football fans around, so how do you make a football stadium more welcoming and a place where women feel as if they belong?
Football is a place where the patriarchy really does continue to play out, and I think particularly for men’s football, in terms of LGBTQ+ inclusion, you’ve got no representation. I’m not suggesting that we need to ‘out’ people, but you’ve got LGBTQ+ people who work in football and you’ve got queer fans. That’s what we need to think about in terms of what a sense of belonging should look and feel like.
VERSUS: You found community within football very early in your career. How important is it to continue forging those communities within the sport?
It’s crucial and you can’t underestimate it. I keep talking about the same things in terms of ‘belonging’, but that’s what matters most.
The semi-final of the Champions League, I was sitting in a stand in the Amsterdam Arena, when we were playing Ajax. I was talking to this woman about her dog grooming business in the last 10 minutes because we thought we hadn’t ‘done it’, that connection was so real. We were sort of commiserating one another through that conversation. I don’t want to lose that sense of community from football because more often than not, it means we can come together when needed most to make positive change.
The Nike and Spurs 2023/24 home and away kits are available to buy from Sports Direct Football now.