Wembley to host historic match for world's most successful LGBT club
Over the top challenges, elbows, spitting, constant name calling and homophobic songs sung in their faces.
Over the last three decades it's been a tough and winding journey for Stonewall FC -- the world's most successful gay football club -- but on Friday as the players make their way up Wembley Way to play at English football's spiritual home the team will take its next step in campaigning to tackle all forms of discrimination.
In a game against Wilberforce Wanderers AFC, England's national stadium is hosting a special event to honor this pioneering LGBT club and to celebrate the Football Association's landmark partnership with the Stonewall charity.
"This new relationship presents an opportunity for football to help change hearts and minds beyond the stadia, as well as ensuring that everyone who makes football happen feels included," said Paul Elliott, Chair of The FA's Inclusion Advisory Board.
Stonewall FC is used to playing in the Middlesex County Division One -- 12 divisions below the English Football League -- but is ready to swap its usual pitch for an altogether different experience at Wembley Stadium, where the England international team plays its games.
"It's surreal, it's bizarre. It's recognition of the progress we've made," said Doug Edward, who after 10 years of captaining the first team will miss the game through injury.
"We don't get paid to play but we've been out since 1991 going to some rough parts of London to play football," he said.
The club hopes to use the platform of Friday's game to continue normalizing their presence in the sport.
"The progress we've made in challenging stereotypes and educating people in the fight against homophobia is huge and this is the pinnacle," Stonewall manager Eric Najib Armanazim told CNN Sport.
"Maybe in a few years, we won't have to say Stonewall FC, the gay team. But instead just Stonewall FC."
The club was set up in 1991 as a way of allowing openly gay men to play football in London and it now boasts three teams competing at various standards of grassroots football.
And quite successfully at that, reaching the final of every LGBT tournament that they've entered since 2000.
"I just can't believe we've got this far, that wasn't the plan at the beginning. It's gone way beyond what we wanted to do,' said Aslie Pitter MBE, one of the founding members.
Origins of the club
Back in the early 1990s the then Conservative British government had only recently passed Section 28, legislation which banned the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities and schools.
This was also a febrile time for the gay community given the AIDS crisis.
"Everything that was going on, it was all our fault," Pitter told CNN Sport.
Pitter felt uncomfortable "hiding" in straight teams but things changed after he saw a small advert inviting like-minded men to have a kickabout in the park.
At first, the sessions were informal but they quickly gathered momentum. Within a few months, they had a squad ready to compete in a local league.
"It started off being a group of people who wanted to be anonymous in a straight league due to fear of being hassled and abused," said Pitter. "Then we were in a league where we were very open and very out there."
He still remembers the "unbelievable" abuse that was directed at the team during those early years.
The abuse reached a tipping point when an opposition team kicked down their dressing room door and began singing a homophobic song in their faces.
"They didn't realize our goalkeeper, who was built like Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a fireman from Liverpool," laughs Pitter, who was awarded an MBE in 2011 for his work in combating homophobia.
"He just jumped out of his seat and charged at the door. They all ran away and locked themselves in their own dressing room."
Pitter sees this as a pivotal moment in the club's history, the moment Stonewall FC's players sent out the message that they wouldn't be bullied.
Fast forward to 2018 and Pitter is still a big part of the set-up at Stonewall FC. He currently plays for the third-team but has resisted the temptation to make a cameo appearance on Friday.
Instead, he's just "honored" that the club is preparing for a trip of a lifetime.
"I think of all those people who made those steps for us a lot easier. We are now open, we are playing in the Middlesex County League and now we're going to Wembley," he said.
Stonewall set up the Rainbow Laces campaign in 2013, initially sending rainbow colored laces to football clubs across the UK to promote inclusion of the LGBT community in sport.
With the support of the FA and other governing bodies, top sport teams have again taken part in the campaign, with rainbow laces, corner flags and captains' armbands on display.
There is a sense that the football world is finally tackling discrimination in the right way and that there are avenues to report homophobic incidents.
"There is loads of work being done behind the scenes to address the situation," said current first-team captain Jay Lemonius, who also works for the Stonewall charity.
"LGBT people are not the ones who are going to make these changes though, it's all down to allies. Whether that's wearing rainbow laces, challenging abuse or reporting abuse whenever they hear it."
A recent rise of homophobia
Even so, Stonewall FC's players have still experienced occasional homophobia this season.
This is perhaps unsurprising, considering 7,194 homophobic hate crimes were reported to police between April 2015 and March 2016 in England and Wales.
Along with club captain Doug Edward, Pitter believes recent political issues have given people the opportunity to discriminate again -- notably the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's presidency.
"I like using the athlete's foot scenario," Pitter said.
"When you get it, you treat it and it disappears but then it's just under the surface. You go back to relaxing and it just comes back."
There is also yet to be an openly gay player playing in the top-flight of the game, with France's World Cup forward Olivier Giroud recently saying it was "impossible" for someone to come out in the professional game.
"If a player comes out now, it will be an experiment to see what happens and I don't think anyone has been brave enough to take that leap of faith and I really don't blame them," said Pitter.
By Ben Church, CNN. The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.
The Gayly – November 29, 2018 @ 3:35 p.m. CST.