Kurt, when was BLAGSS founded?
It’s actually our 25th anniversary and we’re having a big event at The Grand in June to celebrate that. With Brighton having an LGBTQ+ population above the national average, it was important to have a place where like-minded people – who are interested in sport – could have a safe and welcoming place to play and also enjoy the socializing can aspect. It has grown to almost 450 members, all from Brighton and Hove, and we now host over 15 different sports. In recognition of the great work being done by the organization and its members, BLAGSS won the award for Outstanding Local LGBTQ+ Sports Organization at the Federation of Gay Games AGM earlier this month.
When did football start?
The football team has been around for about ten years now and when I joined seven years ago we had eight people, using old gym mats for goals and playing at a local gym. With that we now compete in the Gay Football Supporters’ Network [GFSN] and we train on an artificial grass pitch for an hour and a half every week. We have a core of around 30 players, but 14 for a matchday, and we recently started a Saturday morning try-out session for those who may not have played the game before but want to get involved.
You have a women’s team too, don’t you?
Our football used to be a mixed entity, but now it’s split in two because the women’s team started growing even faster than the men’s team. Their number is now over 50; They train separately on Tuesdays and have done really, really well.
Then tell us more about your GFSN campaign…
We play in Division Two and travel as far as Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool and Leicester along with a few games against teams in London so there’s a lot of travel involved. We’ve played two games this season, beating Glasgow at home and losing to Soho away. Last year was our first season in the league and we made it to the semifinals of the playoffs, which was a great achievement.
Given the travel involved, are you making it a social thing like football?
Some of our players go straight home after a game, but yes, there is a social component too. We will play the game in the afternoon and then spend an evening in the chosen city. Whilst we have great support from Sussex FA we are not subsidized in terms of grants so travel expenses to matches are borne by members.
How did your personal commitment come about?
The vast majority of our footballers would have played football on a Sunday or Saturday and would simply be disillusioned with it – whether due to targeted abuse or simply put off by the ‘macho’ football environment around them. BLAGSS is not like that; We all have similar backgrounds and similar attitudes. It’s a safer, more welcoming environment and that appealed to me. We all love football and are all united because we are LGBTQ+.
What about age groups?
We have players who are now at varsity, 18 or 19 years old, and we had a lad who played for us into the 70s – he was our little midfield dynamo. Our oldest current player is in his fifties now, so it’s a broad church.
But it’s not just about football, is it?
Society encompasses many sports and if there is one that we are not currently involved in, we are happy to try. This year, for example, there were taster courses for kayaking and beach tennis, and bowling was a new addition this year. Each sport we run has a volunteer coordinator who handles venue bookings and takes payments. Each sport will also host its own social events, while we will also host events for society as a whole. For example we recently hosted a bowling night in the Marina covering all 26 lanes and as mentioned the 25th Anniversary Gala Dinner will be held at The Grand next year.
You mentioned the uncomfortable environment you encountered earlier in your career, but are attitudes changing?
At grassroots level, we play against local teams in friendlies; We also attend an annual Football Against Homophobia match at Culver Road, in association with Sussex FA, and there has been a lot of positive engagement with the opposition, which has been really encouraging – and I hope that reflects on the whole country reflected. The FA, Sussex FA and of course Brighton & Hove Albion are doing a really good job but as a football fan traveling across the country to support Ipswich Town there is still work to be done. You still see things, hear things, but it’s a lot better than when I started playing and watching games.
Josh Cavallo recently became the only openly gay soccer player in the world. Do you think we will see a player in England soon?
I think there would be overwhelming support like there was for Josh in Australia. They hear stories that there are players willing to come here, but they are discouraged because it’s not worth ruining their “brand” – but I think it would only strengthen their brand. For statistical reasons alone there must be a number of gay players in the Premier League right now, but the stigma surrounding fans and the media keeps them from coming out. Until someone makes that big leap forward, we don’t really know what the reaction will be, but it will take a brave person to do it. In an ideal world, it’s not about coming out; It’s about being who you are, a professional footballer, regardless of sexual orientation, skin color or religion – that’s the holy grail for me.
“More enlightened, more aware”
Colin talks about time with the Society, a changing landscape and his years supporting the Seagulls…
Like Kurt, I had previously played Sunday league soccer around town and was somewhat disillusioned with the environment I found myself in. Some of the spoken words made me very uncomfortable and I even took a break from football for a while. Then I discovered the BLAGSS football team and immediately found it to be a much safer and more comfortable environment to play in.
When I joined we only had ten players and it has grown to the point where we are now in our second season in the GFSN league. It was a bit of a leap of faith because we don’t have a huge number, but it was absolutely brilliant – not just the gameplay side, but the social aspect of bringing people together, which is a big part of what we do.
We’ve actually had some great trips over the years; We’ve been to Munich, Helsinki and a couple of times to Paris. It really brings people together who have that common interest in football.
We also play at Sussex FA HQ as part of the Football v Homophobia month of action and it’s always great to play at such a beautiful pitch. When we walk through the tunnel onto the field we feel like real footballers – and that’s how it was in Whitehawk a few months ago when the three of us played the Rainbow Rovers game. I managed to attack David James which resulted in a goal so I’ll live off that for years to come!
As for the Albion, the atmosphere at the Amex has improved. I went to Withdean and Goldstone and the homophobic chants were always there. You still hear the occasional chanting these days, I even heard a word or two in the North Stand, but people are more educated these days, more aware.
I came out 16 years ago now and it’s a lot easier to do, again partly because of the training. The work the club is doing around things like the Rainbow Laces campaign is incredible and it’s always heartening to see signs at Amex or hear senior staff saying that abuse in any form will not be tolerated. This will definitely make you feel more comfortable.
I’m now excited to see if we can take the next quantum leap and see a player come out of here. I think it will happen, it’s only a matter of time, but it will take a brave person to be the first. I’m sure the environment that welcomes them will be really positive, although the keyboard warriors will keep showing their immaturity and idiocy on social media.
I was always proud to support the Albion – right up to the dark days at the Goldstone (I was in Hereford), then to the promotions at Withdean and seeing a young Bobby Zamora show off his special talent. He’s one of my absolute favorite players in Albion, although Lewis Dunk is the undisputed number one, a local hero who did good, who stayed with us and got us through those early Premier League seasons. He is the epitome of everything that is so good about this club.