“I got a lot of people just patting me on the back and saying ‘well done, it doesn’t matter that you are gay’.”
In August 2017, Ryan Atkin became the first man refereeing in England’s professional leagues to come out as gay.
Since then, he has gone from working as an assistant referee in the English Football League to refereeing in the National League this season.
From running the line to being the man in the middle, he has been nominated has been named as one of Stonewall’s Sport Champions for 2019.
Before the charity’s Rainbow Laces campaign, which started on Friday and is aimed at tackling homophobia in sport, Atkin spoke to the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast and says he hopes that others can follow in his footsteps.
“You’re either good at refereeing or you’re not, and your sexuality shouldn’t come into that,” he said.
“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.”
‘Still work to be done’
Many referees working in English football can speak of the insults they are exposed to from the stands, and even as recently as the past week, there was an alleged incident of homophobic abuse in a League One game.
It occurred during Tranmere’s match against Wycombe and led to a man being arrested.
But it was not an isolated incident, and there have also been instances of racist abuse, prompting Atkin to call for the problems to now be tackled seriously.
“I think what we’ve seen over the past couple of years is, unfortunately, a real undercurrent of racism, which I think is terribly sad in 2019,” he said.
“It has to be stamped out and addressed. And if we haven’t even achieved that, then homophobia in football is trailing behind. There is still a lot of work to be done.”
‘The culture is slowly changing’
Similar problems exist in other sports too.
Earlier this year, Australian rugby union authorities ended Israel Folau’s contract over a social media post in which he said “hell awaits” gay people.
And England forward Billy Vunipola was later warned by his club side Saracens about his behaviour after defending Folau’s actions.
Meanwhile, no professional footballer in the United Kingdom has yet come out as gay, a situation Atkin is hopeful will change.
He said: “It can sometimes be slightly disheartening to think that there are other people who are LGBT who don’t feel that it’s the right time for them or have the confidence to come out.
“I often speak to people who are not out in sport, and ask them, ‘What are your fears?’ You get a mixture of responses about why they wouldn’t chose or won’t come out.
“I’m just hopeful that, as time progress, and especially within football, the culture is slowly changing.”
Stonewall’s Sport Champions 2019
- Amazin LeThi (bodybuilder)
- Charlie Martin (racing driver)
- Corinne Humphreys (sprinter)
- John Dickinson-Lilley (Paralympic skier)
- Lizzie Williams (wheelchair racer)
- Michael Gunning (swimmer)
- Philippa York (cyclist)
- Ryan Atkin (football referee)
- Tom Bosworth (race walker)
- Beth Fisher (former hockey player and sport journalist)
- Huw Ware (PDC darts referee)
Building a dialogue
With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar – a country where homosexuality is illegal – fast approaching, Atkin says his experiences at last year’s World Cup in Russia gave a flavour of what to expect.
“Having attended [the 2018 World Cup] in Russia myself, and having had dialogue with people in Russia who are LGBT, who actually embraced the World Cup coming, what it does is bring the media and bring a spotlight onto some of the issues these countries face, and it allows for dialogue to open,” Atkin said.
“It lays paving slabs to hopefully build a path to where further discussions can take place. So, for me, while it is a massive negative that we are endorsing going to these countries, on the flip side of it, there are massive positives to come out of it.”
So, would Atkin feel comfortable refereeing at the World Cup in Qatar in three years’ time?
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“Yes, I think I would. I think I would embrace my sexuality,” he added.
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