In the world of men’s professional soccer, the then-28-year-old was closeted, having seen little to no evidence that LGBTQ people like him would be welcome in his sport if they came out.
The subject was not really taboo at the time – the Football against Homophobia campaign had been going on for a few years – but it had proven difficult to involve influential actors.
Suddenly, footballers were asked to wear rainbow laces in their shoes to demonstrate their allyship towards all other players who might be gay. The novelty of the exercise meant that many did it within the first year, and Rainbow Laces became a major topic of discussion.
Looking back, Atkin He admits that the visibility and renewed interest in the campaign made him nervous at the time.
However, four years later, he publicly shared his personal storybecoming the first man in British professional football in an on-field role to come out in 27 years.
The news, announced in an exclusive interview by Sky Sports – which signed up as a partner of Rainbow Laces in 2016 – made global headlines. Having evolved from the role of referee to that of assistant to that of man in the middle, Atkin was no longer fazed by the prospect of being described as the “gay referee”.
Actually, he seized the opportunity to proudly represent his community. The awareness generated by Rainbow Laces, run by UK charity Stonewallhas given additional context to his story and he also plays an ambassadorial role as a Stonewall Sport champion.
The Premier League – considered the most-watched sports league in the world – has significantly amped up the Rainbow Laces in recent seasons, with all 20 clubs having a designated home game over two rounds.
This weekend marks the start of this annual activation in English men’s elite football, but once again, there will be no gay or bi players on the field.
There was a moment of representation within the EFL, the three professional divisions below the elite — Teenage forward Jake Daniels publicly came out as gay in 2022having a significant impact.
The 18-year-old remains part of the development squad, below the first team, at his club Blackpool FC. It means Atkin, who acts as a fourth official at EFL matches, remains the only gay man regularly involved in the English men’s professional match day action today.
Recently returning from injury, Atkin is back in charge of matches in the fifth tier of English football and serves as the EFL’s fourth official.
This is the state of affairs. So what is the purpose of Rainbow Laces a decade later?
In men’s football, the emphasis has always been on demonstrating a spirit of alliance and initiating constructive conversations. It’s more necessary than ever, insists Atkin.
“When I came out in 2017, the campaign was definitely a support mechanism,” he told Outsports.
“It showed that men’s football wanted to embrace LGBTQ inclusion and it wasn’t just about me alone.
“It was an initial catalyst, but eventually it became an integral part of my career. Often when people talk to me, and even now to some extent, they ask me about Rainbow Laces because of my close association with this product.
“Without a dedicated, league-led activation campaign on the schedule, I think this part of inclusion wouldn’t get a lot of media coverage because the LGBTQ visibility just isn’t there otherwise. »
One of Atkin’s reasons for going public with his message was his desire to stand up for all forms of inclusion and participate in the fight against discrimination.
He looks after the Women’s Super League matches and referees the men’s matches and explained that he would feel uncomfortable talking about equality and diversity without mentioning – if at all – that he finds himself in the minority as a homosexual. .
Responding to several interview requests in the days and weeks following its release convinced him that there was an audience who wanted to hear about real-life experiences like his.
“The fact that my story was picked up in so many different countries and by so many media outlets, and for that to happen for a referee to appear – let alone a player – was something really enlightening.
“There’s often negative criticism in the press and on social media when someone speaks out publicly, with comments like ‘is this really news?’
“But when football is your life, you recognize and understand how limited that visibility is in men’s football when it comes to sexuality. Since then, I have been more than happy to represent.
Over the years, the perspective has broadened. Rainbow Laces is now promoted across all major sports in the UK at this time of year, with national governing bodies and local leagues and associations using their social media channels alongside other activations to amplify the message. Analysis shows that around 12 million adults in the UK attend the campaign each year.
The speech is a bit different from its early days, when the goal was to show support for any of the thousands of male professional soccer players who might be closeted and struggling with their sexuality.
It is now a voluntary initiative for anyone with a role in sport, with the laces being sold to raise money for charity. You can buy pairs in a range of different pride flag colors; and corner flags, captain’s armbands, goal nets, cricket stumps and other equipment are “rainbow”, so visibility is not solely up to the athletes.
How do you measure the success of a campaign like this? Some critics continue to argue that the absence of a gay Premier League player suggests it doesn’t have much impact. Others would counter by insisting that this was never the goal in the first place.
A recently published report by Stonewall helps demonstrate the intended direction of movement. Statistic shows 74% of surveyed UK sports fans who watched Rainbow Laces in 2022 felt LGBTQ people were part of their sporting community – an increase of 6% on the previous year . For fans who didn’t see the campaign last year, the figure was much lower: Only 58% consider LGBTQ people part of their sports community.
Atkin believes that having a national multi-sport campaign on LGBTQ inclusion has been a galvanizing development.
“It brings sports across the country together,” he says. “We are now seeing so many sports other than football supporting the campaign. This leads to more alliances because you gain greater impact and visibility.
“At the end of the day, men’s football is still seen as the lagging sport because we don’t have a gay Premier League player yet.
“But that’s not a fair way to look at it. Men’s rugby is considered very inclusive, but we currently have no active gay players in the sport in the UK either.
“It’s something we need to recognize. And by raising awareness of Rainbow Laces in more sports and other countries too, it can only help fuel more positive stories and greater allyship. Ultimately, it brings more people to the table to talk about this aspect of the sport. »
Last week, incidents of homophobic abuse during the Premier League match between Nottingham Forest and Brighton recalled the ugly side of the tribal culture of English football.
A Forest fan who regularly attends home games has described to Sky Sports the extent of the insults and discriminatory gestures some of his fellow supporters were directing at visiting Brighton players and supporters. When he and his friend challenged the attackers, they themselves were subjected to homophobic insults.
The fan claimed he was threatened and that stewards were unhelpful when asked to intervene. He added that no one else in the neighborhood challenged the homophobia.
The incidents are being investigated by police. Forest, the Premier League and Stonewall all issued statements in the days following the match, reaffirming that such behavior has no place in football and that those responsible should face appropriate consequences.
Atkin says the incidents are alarming, but he is at least encouraged that they are now being brought to light and action is being taken.
“Someone who is gay had the confidence to stand up and challenge this situation,” he said. “A few years ago, gay people wouldn’t have been able to identify in a crowd because they had to go back into that stadium.
“We are starting to empower people. Now, when I attend matches, match officials and stewards are informed about all forms of discrimination, including homophobia. It’s becoming a lot more consistent, but there’s still work to be done.
Forest will be one of the Premier League clubs activating the Rainbow Laces at their home game this weekend. Does Atkin think a closeted gay or bi player might feel slightly nervous about this visibility, much like how he felt about the campaign before its release?
“Some people may become anxious or nervous because they are still internally coming to terms with their own sexuality, or because the idea of coming out is scary,” he says.
“But I think deep down they would feel loved and that even though they might not yet feel able to participate in the campaign the way I do – for whatever reason – there are others who fight on their behalf.
“Unfortunately, Rainbow Laces won’t always change some people’s minds, but what it does well is reach the younger crowd, who are the next stars, referees or spectators to enter the game.
“I always thought it would be a young footballer who would be the first to come out and that’s what happened with Jake Daniels.”
Atkin says the narrative element is also important. He could have made his name known by posting on his own social media accounts, but chose to work with an inclusion-focused sports media platform to frame his message, reach a wider audience and inspire others. It’s the same “courage is contagious” strategy that is the basis of Outsports.
“These stories are all like little fires lit, that together grow, light the way, and encourage more LGBTQ people to play sports or be visible when they weren’t before.
“When the media is on board, it’s a very strong message that everyone in the sporting world is playing their part.”
Stonewall Rainbow Laces Campaign is currently receiving its annual activation in British sport from November 25 to December 10.