Tomorrow the Charlton family are to become one of the first professional football clubs to participate in Pride in London.
CACT Invicta FC, the first LGBTQI+ friendly football team affiliated to a professional club’s community trust, will join Charlton’s LGBTQI+ supporters’ group, the Proud Valiants, at the procession in Central London, which first took place in 1972.
We asked Proud Valiants chairperson Rob Harris why #PrideinCharlton is so important to him.
So as I sit writing this blog for the Proud Valiants on the eve of another Pride (think this is my 32nd) I recall how far life for the LGBTQI community has changed during that time. We have seen equality achieved on so many levels, for example in adoption rights, roles within the military and equal marriage. I am also aware that on many levels we still have a long way to go.
I remember I first approached Charlton about setting up an LGBTQI+ (not that we had all those letters then) group about 15 years ago and at that point in time the doors were very much shut to the idea - football and gay supporters was not such an issue for them, they had bigger fish to fry. I can’t blame the club as even the LGBT media at that point played into the dichotomy of either straight footy or ‘gay' music, clubbing and fashion - they weren’t interested in talking about sport.
I continued to support the club but never felt 100% welcomed. This was the second time I felt a huge gap between myself and football. The previous time was as a teenager, when I was fighting my sexuality and the language on the school football pitch was tainted almost continuously with homophobic slurs. I loved playing the game - but could never see myself finding a comfortable point where my being gay could sit easily with it. With all the other things going on in my life I became very depressed and now I can see at points I was on the verge of taking my own life. I wasn't really bullied but felt that being gay was wrong and could only be a life of shame.
Happily over the years things have changed, the gay community and its media (which I use in the wider sense) has become much more interested in the diversity of its members and clubs have been more open to setting up supporters groups.
The second time I approached the Charlton with the support of Anwar Uddin from Fans For Diversity and Di Cunningham from the Proud Canaries (Norwich’s LGBTQI Supporters Group), the notion was received with open arms. Wheels were put in motion and before we knew it the Proud Valiants were up and running.
The group has three main aims, the first is as a support mechanism to help and support all Charlton fans who identify as LGBTQI, secondly, we wanted to have a more social network to meet up with members for special events such as Pride and finally we wanted to become a political player in trying to get homophobia stamped out of the game. We always realised that we were stronger with as many people helping in this as possible - so the group was always open to allies who may not identify on the LGBTQI spectrum but hated inequality. On formation we received an encouraging response from most of the fans and since that point Charlton has become one of the front-runners in the campaign.
Since formation we have had two professional games dedicated to Football vs Homophobia and have also hosted three Charlton vs Homophobia Tournaments which have got bigger every year. We have been consulted by organisations on issues about homophobia, covered in local and national media and were also invited to meet Damian Collins MP who was head of the House Committee review into Homophobia in Sport.
In the past few years the Proud Valiants have taken part in the Pride Parade as Pride in Football (the umbrella group for LGBTQI fan groups). Tomorrow, however, we will be part of a "Charlton Family" group of more than 100 members and supporters, including representatives from the club, the Trust, Football's leading bodies, local youth groups and fans of the mighty Charlton. In addition there will also be members of CACT Invicta - for those unaware they’re our LGBTQI+ friendly football team, their formation again another huge milestone in our fight.
On a personal level I have spoken to a number of fans both young and old who have said it is great to feel accepted by the club. As a group we wait for the day when this fight is over but till then we are here. We want to let older fans, who have not felt able to be themselves, know that you are not alone and the same message to every fan, especially anybody feeling the way I did as a teen, is to tell them that it does get better, however bad life may seem right now, there are other options and we are there to support you.
We as a group we will continue to work with the club and Trust until the whole of society realises that homophobia has no place in sport, especially football.
So as I walk as part of the Charlton Family, with my co-chair, Gary and our Women’s Officer Bhav and members of the Proud Valiants, other fans and groups supporting us - I will feel unbelievably Proud. Pride is not just about the day, it is about living life to the full whether LGBTQI or straight. We should be proud of what we have achieved and who we are.
The Proud Valiants are proud of the amazing work that the club, The Trust, our members and our supporters put into supporting us and today we celebrate this.