I’ve loved football all my life. I love the skill, the drama, the emotional highs and lows and match day traditions. I especially love the fact you can strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere in the world about football, and you’ll have something in common, you’ll make a connection. Even in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh where, despite the language difficulties, I connected with young refugee children living in the most appalling circumstances through Lionel Messi and Gareth Bale.
But there’s an ugly side to our beautiful game. There’s a minority of so called fans who make matches and grounds an unwelcoming place for people they perceive as different, whether that’s due to the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation or gender identity. Too much abuse still exists on the terraces.
As the most popular spectator sport in the UK, we know there are no prominent openly gay footballers. Hardly surprising when homophobic chants at matches are commonplace and homophobic leaflets have even been distributed outside a ground at a premier league match.
That’s why, together with my colleagues on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, we are publishing a Bill to amend the 1991 Football Offences Act.
Our Committee produced a report on homophobia in sport last year and today we launched our Bill to change the 1991 Act, which makes racist abuse at football matches a specific, punishable offence, to add additional specific, punishable offences to combat homophobia, transphobia and any other abuse which is targeted at someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
We were joined for the launch of the Bill in Parliament today by Gareth Thomas, former Wales rugby captain and role model for out LGBT+ sportspeople everywhere. ‘Alfie’ has been on a mission to get football authorities to take homophobic abuse seriously. His landmark documentary Gareth Thomas vs Homophobia was a lesson in persistence.