Charlton Athletic became the first professional club in the UK to be officially affiliated to an LGBTQI+ friendly team this summer, as Bexley Invicta became CACT Invicta. Adopting the team colours, the side play their home matches at the Addicks’ training ground in New Eltham.
The Addicks have always been a family-friendly club and one to include all - something that player manager Gary Ginnaw didn’t always have.
Growing up as a boyhood fan, Gary loved playing football. And yet he felt denied of that chance to play the game he loved for so long, because of his sexuality. He didn’t play from 18 until 31, because he felt pressured out of playing.
“It was difficult because I loved football,” he said. “You just fill the time up with other hobbies. I never felt I could be myself. I felt uncomfortable around men asking if I had a girlfriend, or asking if I thought someone was good looking. I couldn’t live a lie with my teammates, so I just quit.”
But after seeing the advert for the team in Bexley, the 34-year old found the courage - even if he felt like he had to push himself. “I was 30 when I found out about the team and yet I didn’t join until I was 31, because I didn’t have the courage. I wish I had done it sooner - I have met so many great people and made some fantastic friends.
“The Link up with Charlton is wonderful. They support us and stand side-by-side with us. We want to be successful on and off the pitch, and want everyone to feel welcome playing in our team.
“It’s great to have Charlton on board to raise awareness and tackle homophobia - and show it’s OK to be gay. We allow everyone in the group’s voice to be heard. We hope we can inspire other clubs to follow suit.
“I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.”
The move attracted a lot of publicity in the summer. It was covered on BBC and Sky News, as well as in various newspaper such as the Guardian. But Gary says results on the pitch will be the main focus and wants the team to remain grounded.
“We knew there would be a lot of publicity” he said. “We didn’t want that to deter from playing football. Going back 12 months, when we started playing at Charlton, we got too excited and overhyped. We took our eyes off the ball and that’s what hurt us.
“We all have day jobs - we are grounded and we want to be successful. By adopting the Invicta name and with the publicity we knew teams would raise their games and we we’re there to be shot at. But we are not big headed and we want to taste success - even if I just win one thing I’ll be delighted.”
Despite their media attention as being the first LGBTQI+ friendly team affiliated with a professional club, Invicta are drawing plaudits for their actions on the pitch. Three wins from four have the side sitting in third place in the London Unity League, two points off top spot with two games in hand and fresh from their biggest ever win - 10-2 against Stonewall 3rds.
“We’ve had a really great start to the season,” Gary said. “We lost home and away to the top two last season - but we have gained four points from those two already, which is better than we expected. We’ve won both games at home and we were well in control of both.
“90% of the squad is the same as last season. We’ve brought in a few reinforcements and tightened the defence. Of course, the affiliation has helped, but the core has really kicked on from last season.”
CACT Invicta face a big match against Soho on Sunday afternoon and Gary hopes that the affiliation to the Addicks - and their impressive form – can draw a few more spectators to their games.
He said: “The supporters are normally just friends and family. I’ve made flyers and I hope more people can come.
“There’s been times when there’s only been one fan, so having just 10 or 15 really makes a difference. I couldn’t imagine what a few thousand would feel like!
“It’s a big game - they’ve made a surprisingly slow start, but we’re hungry to succeed this season.”