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Football v Transphobia Week of Action

28 March 2024


Football v Transphobia Week of Action

28 March 2024

To mark the sixth annual Football v Transphobia Week of Action campaign, Rainbow Owls member Sam Elliott-Olechnowicz writes a powerful encounter of his experiences as a gay Sheffield Wednesday supporter and transgender ally.

Imagine waking up every day and worrying about how to be yourself. Imagine the stress of having to hide your authentic and true self every second, even when doing the most mundane of daily activities.

This is the sad reality for many transgender people - a pressure that would feel even worse when attending your favourite club’s upcoming match.

Football has the power to unite people from diverse backgrounds, in celebration of athleticism and competition. Indeed, many strides have been made towards inclusivity and diversity in British football. Lucy Clark, founder of the award-winning and trans-inclusive grassroots team TRUK United, was recently appointed as manager of Sutton United Women, while BBC Sport’s Emma Smith and The Guardian’s Nicky Bandini have continued to thrive in their journalistic careers after publicly coming out as transgender.

Moreover, this week marks Football v Homophobia’s sixth annual Football v Transphobia Week of Action campaign, which culminates in International Transgender Day of Visibility on 31 March.

Still, transphobia continues to cast a long and cold shadow over the sport. Transgender individuals in football, whether playing or watching the game, often encounter discrimination, exclusion and harassment based on their gender identity. This is supported by last season’s data from Kick It Out, which concluded that in-person and social media abuse, based on gender reassignment at all levels of UK football, has tripled season-on-season.

Amid these challenges, the community at Sheffield Wednesday FC has sounded an anthem for change: Rainbow Owls. Founded in June 2023, this LGBTQ+ and allies supporters’ group has been a beacon of hope by challenging stereotypes, while creating a safe space for everybody through social events, outreach programmes and a vibrant online presence.

Rainbow Owls’ unwavering commitment to fostering visibility and support within the local football community has been inspiring and transformative to me on a personal level, as I was encouraged to attend my first ever home game against Blackburn Rovers in December. Furthermore, the group has given me the privilege of learning more about the transgender community, by gaining insight into the challenges they face within and beyond the footballing world.

Also in December, for our away game against Stoke City, I and four other Rainbow Owls members were invited by Stoke City Community Trust to advise their new LGBTQ+ and allies supporters’ group Proud Potters, themselves founded by a transgender football fan. We spent that afternoon exchanging our experiences of being involved in football as LGBTQ+ and ally supporters.

Earlier in October, two of our own transgender members attended our matchday social, with four other LGBTQ+ fans, for our home game against Rotherham United - with thanks to our group’s informal buddy system, which ensured that they were not seated alone in the stadium. They have since joined our internal WhatsApp group, which acts as a support network and safe place for Rainbow Owls members to discuss both football and our general lives without the fear of encountering social media abuse.

And while I have been fortunate to attend Trans Pride in Brighton over the past few years, as part of my working role at the NHS, Rainbow Owls’ stall at their LGBTQ+ charity partner SAYiT’s Transgender Day of Remembrance public event in November will have shown to many others the importance of visibility and support for marginalised communities.

Rainbow Owls has played a crucial role at the club in fostering understanding and dismantling the LGBTQ+ stereotypes that can result in fan resistance.

Through educational initiatives that were held earlier this season, in association with the club’s Community Programme for Hate Crime Awareness Week and Rainbow Laces, Rainbow Owls has endeavoured to bridge the gaps in knowledge for fans and create an empathetic atmosphere of acceptance.

The impact of this community-driven approach resonates on a personal level, reinforcing the belief that football can be a force for positive and sustainable change, in addition to becoming part of my own personal narrative as a gay football fan.

Personally, I always believe football should just be about football. For that to happen, fans must stop using homophobic and transphobic comments towards players when they make an error, towards away fans to wind them up, and towards referees when they make decisions that don't go our way. Such comments must be challenged and, in the end, disappear entirely from the sport.

In the face of this discrimination, Rainbow Owls and Sheffield Wednesday FC’s initiatives for this year’s Football v Transphobia campaign - ahead of the Swansea City game on Good Friday - will raise awareness and insight into the genuine progress being made at the club and its Community Programme to combat the spectre of transphobia, as well as provide direct representation for Sheffield’s transgender community.

Rainbow Owls’ fight embodies the triumphs and tribulations of striving for inclusivity within football. It urges us all to kick transphobia out of the beautiful game and to finally create a playing field where everybody is free to be themselves.

For more information on Rainbow Owls, please visit their website HERE.

You can join the group by submitting a membership form HERE.

Visit the Rainbow Owls X account HERE.


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