February marks LGBTQ+ history month and Football v Homophobia’s month of action.
We spoke to Level 5 referee Josh Smith, who referees in several leagues across London, about his experiences being an openly gay referee and his advice to other officials who are considering coming out.
*Please note that there is language which is offensive to the LGBTQ+ community used in this article.
What made you want to become a referee and what do you enjoy about refereeing?
I started refereeing while at university up in Leeds. Too often when I was playing, our referee didn’t turn up or there was a shortage of referees which meant we didn’t get allocated one and having a good, fair and safe game without a referee is pretty much impossible. I volunteered to ref a couple of times and really enjoyed it, even if it was tough, and just carried on! I have officiated games comfortably above the level at which I could have ever played, and I really enjoy giving back to football.
Could you tell us about your coming out story in the football community?
LGBTQ+ people don’t just come out once and then it is all over, we come out pretty much every day. There is no specific moment in football I would consider my ‘coming out’, it is more about correcting people over time when they ask if I have a wife or when I mention my partner and the next question includes “she”. I don’t blame people for making assumptions, but I do make a conscious decision to point it out rather than just continuing the conversation. It is important to remind people to reconsider the assumptions they unconsciously make about others.
On occasions I have heard comments during a warm up or even during the game when teams are ‘bantering’ saying things like 'don’t be so gay' or using words like 'queer', 'fag' or 'faggot'. I am always quick to have a conversation with them about it, but the focus is to educate them rather than to tell them off (although I have taken disciplinary action during games). More often than not they’ll ask, “Are you gay then ref” and I will always tell them, “Yes”.
What has been the reaction been to being an openly gay referee? Have you had to face any unexpected challenges?
The reaction when people find out is often surprise, but I think that is mostly because a lot of people do not expect to come across an openly gay person involved in football.
Having said that, I don’t turn up to matches wearing a badge declaring “I’m gay.” Just because I am open about it doesn’t mean it comes up a lot. And why should it, it has not impacted on my ability to ref.
I recently asked a question on the London Refs’ WhatsApp group about what people would do if homophobic insults were used in their game. If I am honest, I was nervous about what the outcome would be. I was really pleased that the overwhelming consensus was that some action must be taken. I followed up with some personal thoughts on the conversation and mentioned in the message that I was gay. The reaction from other referee’s was fantastic, really positive, welcoming and supportive. It honestly meant a lot.
Do you think homophobia is still prevalent in football?
Absolutely yes, undeniably so. I am sure we have all been in the stands and have heard people in the crowd call players 'fairies', 'poofs' and worse. I and other refs have taken disciplinary action in our grassroots games for the use of homophobic language. There are still no openly gay players in the Football League. A National League referee who came out as gay has recently talked about how he received a death threat as a result. In the last month, a player had to be sent off in a League Two match for calling another player a 'faggot'. I could go on.
A plea not only for my fellow match officials but also to players, coaches and spectators – if you see or hear homophobia, call it out. The vast majority of us in football are not prejudiced against others for who they are. We all need to work together to clamp down and stamp out all forms of discrimination in football.
What advice would you give a referee who may want to come out but is afraid to do so.
Do it in your own time and on you own terms, it does not have to be a grand event. No one should be pressured into coming out and everyone has their own limits of how much of their personal life they want to share with others, it is up to you. I am confident that you will find an overwhelmingly positive response, especially from other referees. I personally find it a lot easier to live my life, both on and off the football pitch, knowing I can be my authentic self and be fully ‘me’, it is one less thing to worry about. I am always happy to lend an ear to anyone who wants to talk about experiences or get support.
For more information on Football v Homophobia, and the work being carried out to eradicate discrimination in the game, please click here