Blackpool

Now the dust has settled, please don't make Jake Daniels 'The Gay Footballer'

Chris Deeley
Football has moved a long way on LGBTQ+ acceptance in recent years
Football has moved a long way on LGBTQ+ acceptance in recent years / Marco Kost/GettyImages
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It's been a week since Blackpool's Jake Daniels became the first men's professional footballer in the UK to come out in 32 years. It was cool as hell – not least the way he just dropped into the 'announcement' interview with Sky that he scored four goals the day after telling his mum and sister, great flex.

For an openly queer man working in football, it's been an interesting seven days. It feels like this could be a watershed moment for the sport, and for representation. It could signal a sea change in this country's footballing culture. But it feels, honestly, a little bit extra to go that far.

I know, I know, I'm late in writing this – but I'm bi, were you expecting me to be punctual? As it goes, I've spent half the time since The Announcement out in Turin for the Women's Champions League final, hanging out with multiple LGBTQ+ writers and fans, following a branch of football with more than its share of gay players. We don't have to put the weight of being Football's Gay Representative on a 17-year-old kid's shoulders, because we're already here. We've been here for a while.

I think it's important to ask what we expect from increased representation. It's a step, rather than being the full journey – the kind of thing that allows people to feel warm and fuzzy thinking about all the gay people they know, while not noticing that queer youth suicide and homelessness are still rising.

Representation only gets you so far. Jake Daniels won't 'fix' football's issues with homophobia, because...well, they aren't just 'football's issues'.

Football fans are often treated as a homogenous, unpleasant, and intolerant group. I've never really bought into that. There are more than a few people who are football fans who are unpleasant and intolerant, but that's not football fans. That's society. I've been to plenty of football matches as a fan and a writer, and most of the people in my life who have yelled slurs at me? That didn't happen at football matches. Putting the weight of the queer community on a teenager's shoulders doesn't fix that.

Jake Daniels coming out was an absolutely lovely moment, and the fact that he feels able to do it at the age of 17 – and will be able to go through the rest of his career, and life, not having to hide who he is – makes my heart grow three sizes like I'm the goddamn Grinch (side-note: the Grinch was queer-coded anyway, if you know you know).

Some of the reaction to him coming out made me a little uncomfortable. People falling over themselves to talk about how brave he is, how he's a shining light. The same people who have been...absent from the conversation before. It's as if he's being made the sole representative for people in men's football who aren't straight – and when there's an example so focused on, there's a sudden pressure on them to be perfect. When you're a trailblazer, or even just held up as one, there's a target on your back. The best thing we can do right now is...just let him be himself, and not obsess.

If Daniels doesn't fulfil his undoubted potential on the pitch, as 99% of young footballers don't, who'll be the first to write the column about whether him coming out hindered his development because of the pressure on him – and provide yet another reason for more players in the future to hold back from saying anything themselves? Because make no mistake, that column will be written.

I'm, I suppose, one of the 'lucky' ones. I never really had an internal struggle with my own sexuality. I thought I was straight, realised in my teens that I'm bisexual, and never really felt the need to hide it. I wouldn't say I had a coming out 'moment'; it was a part of my personality that I grew into, the same way I developed a habit for terrible jokes and wearing V-necks. It's just something you probably knew if you knew me.

It was easy for me to do that because...well, I'm not a professional footballer. I didn't grow up in an environment where I was going to have thousands of fans watching me, newspapers reporting on me and the like. I could do things at my own speed in a way that, very likely, Daniels would never have been allowed to. This isn't just about him setting an example, it's about him...well, it's about him. It's about a kid being as comfortable as possible under a massive football-shaped microscope.

I'm essentially a grumpy old(er) man at this point, which might be why I sit half a step away from being able to say that Daniels' coming out feels like a big moment for me personally. It's not. It shouldn't be! It's not about me, just like most things aren't. It's about the very incremental process of making sure that generations coming through feel like they aren't alone, the same way that shows like Heartstopper just keep prodding at the public consciousness.

One show like that is a one-off, gets treated as The Gay Show, gets publicity based on the sexual orientation of some characters rather than whether it's, y'know, good. And the next one gets treated more like a 'normal' TV show, without having to be the standard-bearer for all queer TV. You see where I'm going with this.

There's a real risk of tokenising here, defining a young man by his sexuality rather than any other aspect of his life that he cares about, that he works on. He's not asking to be an icon, he's just asking to be allowed to be himself.

In a lot of ways, the best way to build a 'football culture' more accepting of queer fans and athletes is...the same way you build any big social change. Slowly. This isn't something to be rushed, we shouldn't be squinting, looking around for the next gay men's footballer to come out. The bigger the searchlight, the more likely that most people on the fence about whether or not to come out will avoid it. They don't want to be the story. They just want to...live their most honest lives without it being a huge deal.

Power and love to Jake. He's taken a huge personal step and one that will materially help a lot of young people. Now let's let the kid live his life and make his mistakes like the rest of us.

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