“I felt empowered enough yesterday to challenge homophobia at a match, it’s only because I knew I would be backed up. If POI had not been set up I would have not had the confidence to do that.”
My good friend and fellow committee member Dave1 sent this message in our WhatsApp group the day after our trip to Brighton. We’d had a great day by the seaside; drinking prosecco on the train down after a frantic run (on my part) to not miss it, arguing about who the best Spice Girl is (it’s Baby Spice) over pints of beer in a pub overlooking the pier and starting rousing renditions of bubbles as we ate lukewarm, soggy pies surrounded by our fellow travelling fans squashed into the away area at the Amex stadium. The actual game was almost an afterthought to all the fun we were having on our Pride of Irons Day Out (and let’s be honest, it really isn’t a game worth remembering).
The chanting started after we conceded our third goal; everyone was cold, damp and frustrated and emotions were running high. Suddenly the fans in the row behind us stopped directing their anger at the Board and instead at the home team and fans. “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” Within seconds all eleven of us had turned around in our seats, and I watched as my brave, wonderful friends shut it down. Here are the accounts of those brave, wonderful friends of mine:
“I spun around and said ‘Well MY boyfriend knows I’m here!’” – Jim
“I just tapped the guy who was saying it directly behind me and I said ‘can you stop saying that, it offends me’, and lo and behold he stopped” – Dave1
“I turned around as most of us did. I cannot remember what I said as I was enraged.” – Jo
“I just asked the guy behind me to ‘give it a rest, mate’. To which he apologised and then said nothing else the rest of the game.” – Kez
Pretty great huh? There was no more chanting and once the dismal game finally ended we bundled onto a bus which took us back to the pub where we discovered mac n cheese pizza (MAC N CHEESE PIZZA!).
Dave’s message at the top of this blog though got me thinking about why we exist as a group, and how important it is we exist. Within 30 seconds we managed to shut down and shut up some boring homophobes and we managed to do that because of the united front we presented, and the knowledge that we would be backed up by each other and the Club.
A few years ago, before Pride of Irons was even an idea sent bouncing around Twitter by Jim I went to a game at Upton Park with my friend Ella. I can’t even remember who we were playing now, maybe Norwich – as with a lot of West Ham games it wasn’t remarkable. After the match we got chips and joined the long queue to get back on the tube. As we nattered away our conversation turned to Ronaldo’s girlfriend at the time, Irina Shayk, and we were rather enthusiastically appreciating a recent photo shoot she’d done and agreed whole heartedly that Ronaldo was punching. As we descended into girly giggles over how fit Irina is an older guy in front of us turned round. He didn’t say anything, he mostly just looked confused. But what if he had? What would I have done? I’d like to think I’d have stood up for myself, but in reality I would have done nothing. I would’ve done nothing except unlink arms with Ella, smile to placate him and shuffle away, too scared for a confrontation.
But now? Now, knowing a group like Pride of Irons exists and would back me up, now knowing there is a chance a member is in the queue behind me, now knowing the Club fully and unequivocally supports me as a bisexual female West Ham fan, what would I have done if that older guy had been aggressive instead of confused? Well, who knows? But that fact that I have the support of Pride of Irons is a huge comfort and a powerful tool. And THAT is why we exist.
Last November West Ham and Pride of Irons played a big role in the launch of Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, and as a result there was a very visible social media presence. I normally steer clear of reading the comments on social media, but as I sat on the train that was taking me to East London where I was due to be interviewed (or rather due to stand next to Al as he was interviewed) by the Club I decided to dive in. The usual comments were there waiting for me, and with an unprecedented feat of patience I decided to calmly and gently reply to all the “but why do you feel the need to make a big deal of it???” and “no one cares if you’re gay no need to make a song & dance about it” and “politics should stay out of football” and (my personal favourite) “there are kids who read this you know” comments. Much to my everlasting amusement, I got called a filthy woman. I was so delighted I screen shot it and sent it to my mum.
But all jokes aside this is serious, and it highlights the exact reason we exist as a group. Contrary to popular belief, we would love it if we didn’t have to exist! We DON’T want to need to exist! We want to live in a world where we don’t hear chanting that makes a joke about boys having boyfriends. We want to live in a world where we don’t get called a filthy woman on Instagram for being open about our sexuality. We want to live in a world where we have overpaid male footballers walking out a nightclub holding their boyfriend’s hand and all anyone cares about is how with all that money he still can’t dress with any style. We want to live in a world where people are not disowned by their family, assaulted by strangers or killed by the state for being attracted to their own gender. We all want to live in this world. But we don’t. And until we do, that is why its important groups like Pride of Irons exist. It’s still a fight. Our group’s fight is small. It isn’t going to stop the systematic assault on the rights and humanity of LGBT citizens in Russia, but our fight will make that kid who thinks he might be gay who saw the homophobic chanting at that Brighton game he went to with his Mum shut down by a hodgepodge group of supporters feel welcomed and safe. That’s our fight.
Here’s another quote from one of my brave, wonderful friends about the game on Saturday. It makes me swell with pride.
“I imagine they were surprised to be challenged … what a diverse group we were. Male and female pretty much equally, and a kid. That doesn’t say ‘gay’ to them and challenging them shows that their preconceptions are wrong. ” – Ian
We’re doing good, team.