‘Until you hear those chants you can’t know how it feels’

Gay Hammers fan James Dolan on why we need a new LGBT group

Football grounds are a very unique environment. The passion and the excitement of a game can take over and, before you realise it, you’re no longer just yourself.

You’re a part of something much bigger. A huge collective all seeing and experiencing the game together. The highs and the lows. The songs and chants. The cheers and the sighs. It can be a fantastic feeling as you feel like you’re part of something special. You’re all the same and nothing can break the ties you share. Almost like a family.

But occasionally for some of us, that connection is broken. Something happens in the ground and suddenly you’re not like everyone else. You’re ‘different’. A stranger. You feel like you’re hiding and – if you’re discovered – something terrible could happen. By now some of you would have guessed I’m talking about homophobic chanting. Now I know what you may be thinking. I’m taking it the wrong way. It’s just banter. Or maybe I’m ‘too sensitive’ and should ‘man up’.

But until it’s you on the receiving end, you can’t understand how isolating it feels. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying football fans are homophobes. In fact, although I do lack the necessary levels of ‘fabulousness’ to fit the stereotypes, I don’t hide who I am in any facet of my life. It doesn’t matter if I’m at my desk at work or in a pub with a load of Hammers fans, and someone asks me if I have a partner I’ll happily talk about my boyfriend.

But until it’s you on the receiving end, you can’t understand how isolating it feels. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying football fans are homophobes. In fact, although I do lack the necessary levels of ‘fabulousness’ to fit the stereotypes, I don’t hide who I am in any facet of my life. It doesn’t matter if I’m at my desk at work or in a pub with a load of Hammers fans, and someone asks me if I have a partner I’ll happily talk about my boyfriend.

I’ve never had problems with West Ham fans – or any other team’s fans in fact – one-onone. But it’s in that cauldron-like atmosphere of a football ground where we all lose a little of ourselves temporarily and become part of the crowd when one person will start a chant and almost automatically hundreds – maybe thousands – of people join in and before you know it, every gay person within earshot feels unwelcome and a little disappointed.

Disappointed because we know our club and our fellow fans are better than that. West Ham fans are salt of the Earth people. Year after year of disappointment but we still show up cheering on our boys with good humour and undeniable passion. We’re realists. Honest down-to-earth people and fiercely loyal. I know this about my fellow Hammers. I know they’re better than those chants I hear.

So I decided to do something about it. I saw the groups the other clubs were setting up and decided to see if there was an appetite for it. I had met other gay West Ham fans in my life Proud: Matt Jarvis was on the cover of gay mag ‘Attitude’ but not many. I didn’t even know if there were that many of us.

I set up a Twitter account and before long had a fair few people following and showing interest in the group. GFSN (Gay Football Supporter’s Network) got in contact and offered their help. Having worked with plenty of other clubs in the past to make the groups official, they started liaising with West Ham directly and after a few discussions agreed to support the group officially if there was enough interest. Just 20 members was the minimum requirement and before long we had more than enough .

Along with Leviathen from GFSN I attended a face-to-face meeting with James, the West Ham fan liaison officer who was very keen to get involved. We had a chat about what they were willing to support and what I saw as the role of the group and I have to say I was amazed that we were on the same page completely. In my opinion it’s not about putting up banners or waving rainbow flags.

It’s not about chants of ‘We’re here, we’re queer’. It’s about bringing people together and showing the world what a progressive and diverse club West Ham are. I remember reading one of Cass Pennant’s books about racism in the 80s and him stating that inside the ground the only colour people cared about were claret and blue. His way of saying West Ham fans accept anyone as long as they’re wearing the colours and supporting the team.

I’d like to think that applies to everything; race, gender, nationality, class and yes, sexuality too. Although I was buoyed by the meeting, I was cautious in my optimism. Ultimately although I was involved, at this point there were 43 people who had signed up for the group. We got down to business and went around the room asking what it was people wanted to get out of the group. The themes were all very similar: raising awareness, bringing people together, improving the image of the club, having a presence and maybe changing opinions about LGBT people.

It was also great to see we all had the same opinions about how to approach it and the West Ham way of doing things. It’s a fantastic commitment from the club and one we are grabbing onto with both hands. We decided to call the group the Pride of Irons, and are planning an official launch as well as voting in chairpeople and other roles. It is a very exciting time for LGBT Hammers and we’re so proud that our club is onboard and showing such commitment to the fans. For more information you can find the group @PrideOfIrons

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