Down the Pyramid: Stonewall FC

Matt O'Connor-Simpson
Players from Stonewall FC Women & Non-Binary
Players from Stonewall FC Women & Non-Binary / Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Football still has a long way to go until it becomes a fully welcoming and inclusive space for marginalised members of society such as the LGBTQI+ community. 

Positive steps have been taken in recent years, including the much-publicised Rainbow Laces campaign, yet from the top to the bottom of the pyramid further progress is required.

In the upper echelons of the men’s game there is still not an openly gay or bi player, despite 2.9% of the population identifying as LGB between 2018 and 2019. Homophobic language is still a mainstay of the terraces as well. 

Similarly concerning is the participation gap at grassroots level. Potentially worried about experiencing a hostile atmosphere, LGBTQI+ players are more likely to drop out of the game or stay away entirely. Research carried out by Stonewall UK, one of the leading LGBTQI+ charities in Europe, found that 43% of LGBT people think that public sporting spaces aren't a welcoming environment for them. 

Stonewall FC have been fighting the tide against uneven participation since their formation in February 1991. Since one of their founding members placed an ad in a gay publication, asking for like-minded people who wished to play football, Stonewall FC has risen to become one of the leading lights in LGBTQI+ sports. 

Andrew Slater, the club’s second team manager, neatly summarised the club’s mission statement during a recent interview with 90min.

Stonewall FC' second team manager, Andrew Slater
Stonewall FC' second team manager, Andrew Slater /

“It's about providing a safe space for players of all abilities to be their authentic self and to encourage everyone to have fun and really promote inclusivity in football,” he said.

“As a club, it’s about encouraging LGBTQI+ players to get involved, to have a good time playing football, and to enjoy the sport that they love. It’s about being able to participate in the game without having any worries or anxieties about being queer and what that might mean in a sporting context.”

As part of the Adidas football collective, Stonewall FC relocated to east London in 2019 with their home pitch, the London Marathon Community Track, found inside the Olympic Park. The move aimed to make the club more accessible to members of the LGBTQI+ community and allies who form a big part of the club's ethos. 

Stonewall in action at London Marathon Community track
Stonewall in action at London Marathon Community track /

Their men’s first team currently ply their trade in the Middlesex County Premier Division, step 11 of the non-league pyramid - just 15 promotions away from the glitz and glamor of the top flight - making Stonewall FC the highest competing, openly LGBTQI+ club in the English football tiers. 

Over the years they have had plenty of success. Stonewall FC have even graced the international stage, lifting the IGLFA World Cup on nine separate occasions and also winning a host of Eurogames and Gay Games titles. This makes them the most successful LGBTQI+ club in the world. 

The club is not all about winning, though. As well as offering a men’s second team and their newly created Women & Non-Binary team, they also have their Unity Team - a side that competes in the LGBTQI+ London Unity League. The club also offers a number of differing levels of training sessions for anyone interested regardless of their identity or ability, with the first session always free.

Heading up the Women & Non-Binary team is manager Betty Mayeya, who told 90min: “For me, myself personally, being a black, queer woman, I think representation is huge.

Betty Mayeya, Stonewall FC Women & Non-binary manager
Betty Mayeya, Stonewall FC Women & Non-binary manager /

“That was one of the reasons I wanted to come into coaching. I've been playing for 20-odd years, I've never had a black female coach and being one myself now opens up chances and opportunities for other people to come in. I know some people find it a bit more comfortable when they see other people that look like them.”

Betty also praised the way that Stonewall FC had embraced and integrated the women and non-binary players, something that other clubs are still lagging behind on.

“I think just judging by our society, the amount of LGBTQI+ people there are in society compared to in the actual football world, the numbers just don't make sense. I feel like we don’t just create a safe space, we are visible. We allow people to know that we are here, we do exist, and that there are inclusive spaces where people can play football safely,” she said.

Betty Mayeya takes a training session
Betty Mayeya takes a training session /

“The club opening up doors for us to have this Women & Non-Binary team is great. Before I started as manager I knew a lot of women and non-binary people who find it hard to get into football sometimes because of lack of space as it’s largely taken up by a lot of men's teams.”

Stonewall FC’s success in creating an environment in which LGBTQI+ people can thrive both on and off the pitch is one of the many examples of grassroots clubs working wonders. The community ethos around the place is palpable and it could not be further away from the often cruel, unfeeling world of the professional ranks, according to second-team striker Dan Goodwin. 

“I think a lot of the problems that we face are actually kind of ignored at an elite level. Campaigns like the rainbow laces and public club displays of support around Pride Month are great to see, but I mean a lot of the hate still comes through, especially through social media. Even yesterday, I saw a team putting up the LGBT+ flags on their Insta, and the messages that come through are just awful,” he said.

Stonewall FC second-team striker Dan Goodwin
Stonewall FC second-team striker Dan Goodwin /

Betty agreed, arguing that the botched attempts to create a European Super League shed more light upon the elite game’s problems.

“The way the people and the fans reacted to the Super League just shows how important it is to start at grassroots level,” she said.

“Football is for the people, at the end of the day, it's not about the money. It's about enjoyment. It's a release for a lot of people, it's escapism and just having that space here and the fact that Stonewall are able to create that is absolutely massive.”

While problems remain at the top level, the grassroots club’s success in carving out a safe space for its members shows that there are reasons to be hopeful about the development of LGBTQI+ football.

With similarly welcoming teams popping up all over London and beyond, the future looks bright.