This year, the Stonewall Rainbow Laces campaign runs during Black History Month. As part of both important campaigns, London FA sat down with Jahmal Howlett-Mundle. Jahmal is from Southeast London, who was scouted aged 10 for Crystal Palace and has played semi-professionally for clubs such as Sheppey United FC. He came out as bisexual to his teammates back in 2021 and he spoke to us about how football has changed as both a Black and LGBTQ+ player.
What got you into football in the first place?
It just felt right. My first team was when I was 7 or 8 years old because my mum had this newspaper and there was an ad for one of the local teams, Dulwich Devils. I asked my mum to go and try out as I had been playing football at school and she knew that it made me happy. So, we went to the team, and I ended up playing for them for about two years. While I was at the club, I was spotted by Crystal Palace and ended up signing for them. It was crazy to go from grassroots and just playing during school and on a Saturday morning to then all of a sudden, I was playing at such an established club. This was mad for a 9-year-old, and it felt like the start of a dream coming true.
Although this was such a big transition for a 9-year-old, the biggest feeling was that of joy for me. Moving from training Saturday morning and playing on a Sunday to having the opportunity to go and play against other established professional clubs and competing. It was making friends not just with my teammates at Crystal Palace, but also with the players at the other clubs, some of which I still keep in contact with and are friends with to this day, 15 years later!
In your playing career, have you experienced any racial discrimination?
Not directly off the top of my head. I know there have been instances, probably more during secondary school, where someone might have been called the N-word for example, but this wasn’t directed towards me. It almost felt as though that affected not only the black players, but the white players and other ethnicities as well because it is not acceptable, and no one should go onto the pitch and feel as though they could be potentially discriminated against because of the colour of their skin.
Thankfully, I haven’t been directly racially discriminated against but, again, it is just not fair on the people who have had to deal with that. It of course has an after-effect because us as a team would sort of look at each other thinking ‘Ok, so what are the next steps if this does happen again and what actually happens now?’ we were just not sure as youngsters.
When you witnessed or heard about racial discrimination while playing, what was the discussion around it and was there anyone for you to go?
To be honest, it didn’t really fell as though there was anyone who we could directly go to because we didn’t know what the process’ were or what the protocol was. Not to say our coaches dismissed it, but it was almost a case of ‘right boys, this has happened but there is still a game to be played’. This is something which has lived with me to this point; just because someone doesn’t necessarily know how to deal with something, this doesn’t mean you can’t be one of the first to say, ‘no this isn’t right’. We need to make sure that we do something about this because otherwise there is the potential for that to continue happening and that is not what anybody wants.
What are your thoughts on the London FA Racial Equality Plan (REAP) and what do you think the impact will be on black players in the capital?
I think it is brilliant because there are going to be players, staff, fans, whoever it may be that is associated to football clubs which are going to be affected by racism. So, without knowing this is how we can deal with these situations, this is the person that is responsible for dealing with that and this is how we are going to make sure your wellbeing is cared for, it makes it really difficult as people who have suffered abuse do not know how to cope with that, how to report it and what would happen to the person who is their abuser. Without having those clear steps in place, without having a procedure, there are too many blurred lines and players may not feel confident to say ‘actually this happened, and I need to talk about this’. People need to know what the plan is in place otherwise; they may feel like nothing will be done moving forwards.
You are also part of the LGBTQ+ community and have played a high level of football, at what point did you decide that you weren’t going to share your sexuality and why?
There were many points that I wanted to and the biggest thing for me as to why I did decide to finally come out was because I didn’t want to get towards the end of my career and look back and think I really could have shared more of my personal life and experiences with people I enjoy spending time with, I enjoy playing football with and feel comfortable and safe around.
The first time within football that I spoke about my sexuality with a manager was during the 2018/19 season when I played for Hastings United. I was regarded as one of the more senior players, despite only being 22/23, because of the way I carried myself and respected others, resulting in receiving that respect back. I was trusted by my manager but within myself, I was having so many mental battles that there were times I couldn’t perform well on the pitch. I knew my ability, as well as my manager and teammates. but there was always that thought in the back of my mind that if I speak about what is happening in my personal life am I going to be shunned, am I going to be turned away from the team? I was thinking of what negative things could happen rather than thinking, I want to be a positive for myself and share who I am.
I remember breaking down after a game and saying ‘Gaffa, I need to speak to you’ and we went to a private space at the ground, and I just let it all out. I told him I was having some issues with myself, and I was not in a good place mentally which was due to me being scared to speak about my sexuality, about not being accepted. He said for me to not worry about it. My coach was thankful for me telling him as he had never come across a LGBTQ+ player before. He left it down to me as to whether I wanted to share this or if I wanted it to be kept between us, which I was thankful for. I wasn’t ready as I was still young and insecure, so I didn’t know how to handle it. At the end of the season, things had just gotten worse for me which came to the point where I didn’t play football for six months.
Looking back at it now, at the time I wanted to focus on other things and making excuses because I didn’t want to deal with it. I was running away from football because I didn’t feel good within myself. In January 2020, I joined my former club Sheppey United and one of the conversations I had with the assistant manager at the time was similar to the one I had at Hastings. I said I wanted to play football but only on the grounds that I am accepted as being bisexual. I didn’t want to get back into football and deal with any issues due to my sexuality. At the end of the day, I am a human being, a person who enjoys playing football. He was great and spoke to the club about the situation, they wanted me to come and be myself. I kept my sexuality to myself to start as I wanted to just come in, play football and earn my teammates respect.
I made some great friends with the people I travelled with from London and at one of the training sessions, I told a few of the boys a story from the weekend which led to me telling them that I was bisexual. They all asked why I hadn’t something before and my reaction was why do you think I didn’t say something? The response was one of love and respect. This was the start of a lot of banter and good times which helped me feel really secure as I had teammates who were happy with who I was and what I contribute to the team. It took a few more months but I got to the point where I didn’t want to hide who I was anymore. I told the club I wanted to be more open about my situation, share who I am and be more supportive to my community. They worked with me to get the players together so I could speak to them, and we could figure things out from there. Some already knew and their opinions of me never changed, I would be treated the same way as I had been before.
Did you expect the response you received from the media about coming out?
A few of my teammates had said a few things might come from this and would I be okay with that. I didn’t really know if I would be because I didn’t have any frame of reference. On the media side of things, I have had so many genuine, wonderful people that want me to tell my story in the way I would like it to be shared. More than anything for me now, it about being able to give back as opposed to what is in it for me. I want to help other people in a similar situation to myself, to look back on my career and be able to say I did something that made myself proud, my family and continue to help as many people as possible because I know how difficult it can be. I grew up in Southeast London in quite a rough area and me being bisexual doesn’t coincide with what I am ‘supposed’ to be like. I am trying to change the narrative that if you are from a particular place, you must look a particular way and must be romantically interested in a certain type of person. That is just not true, you can go and be whoever it is that you want to be.
You’re going to be joining us at the Rainbow Laces event at City Hall on the 26th October, what do you think about campaigns like that? Do you think that it has an impact on players and is there something which could be changed about the campaign?
The campaign has been running for such a long time and it shows that things are moving in the direction that we hoped it would be because without seeing the rainbow laces or the armbands, people don’t 100% get it. It gives a visible representation of supporting the LGBTQ+ community allowing to explain why we are doing it and this is how you can do it. It doesn’t matter whether you are part of the community or you’re an ally, you can see that people are being represented. Even if it might not necessarily apply to me as an individual, I can show my support by wearing rainbow laces or armband.
A Sunday league team which I am closely affiliated with called Hatcham FC, they wear rainbow armbands and I think it is brilliant because it is made up of a group of guys from Southeast London who are being visible allies. Sometimes even doing that can be difficult because of some of the comments you might get about why you would wear a rainbow armband. On the flip side, why would you not? There is absolutely no reason not to.
Do you have a story you would like to share during Black History Month? Let us know!