A Photographer’s Pride: Finding a football family after an incident of homophobia

Gordon Marino is a photographer based near Manchester. In Pride Month, he writes about his work in men’s amateur football in the local area and how an upsetting incident of homophobia sadly resulted in him leaving a club where he had previously volunteered for five years. He has since gone on to cover Village Manchester FC in 2021/22.

By Gordon Marino

Following the courageous coming out stories of Josh Cavallo and Jake Daniels in men’s professional football during the 2021/22 season, it seems appropriate to look at the situation in non-league football.

It’s also important to note that it’s not only players who suffer from homophobia, but fans and volunteers as well. If we really want football to be an inclusive game, we need to look at their involvement too. For that reason, my own story might be interesting and illustrative.

I’m over 60 now, and I’ve always been interested in football. For many years, I went to Old Trafford, and only stopped when the Glazers took over, attending FC United for a few years. And it was there that my love of non-league started.

As FC moved on, I stayed in non-league. Eventually, as well as watching, I volunteered as a club photographer. I’m only an amateur, but at the level I work, few clubs have a dedicated photographer and it’s rare for players to be able to download shots of themselves playing. I never charge, and I’m always willing to make my photos available to players and club alike for nothing.

And I’m gay. I never really talked about being gay at football, because it simply seemed irrelevant. Why should it be an issue? I never understood why, and I still don’t. Players and clubs had no issue with me providing free shots for them when they thought I was straight, so what’s the problem if they know I’m gay? In the case of many clubs and players, it simply wasn’t an issue. However, it’s sadly not the same with all players, as I was to discover.

I’ve covered several non-league clubs over the 12 years I’ve been photographing football. I wouldn’t claim to be anything exceptional as a photographer, but I enjoy it, and most players and all the clubs I’ve covered seem to like the opportunity to have photos of match action. I’ve covered matches, fundraising events, charity matches and presentation evenings. I’ve always worked as a volunteer and been treated with the utmost respect by all involved - until the start of last season.

I attended a pre-season match as normal with the club with whom I’d worked as a volunteer for five years. At that match, as players were warming up, one of the players made a homophobic gesture to me. It’s the same gesture that ‘These Football Times’ described, when targeted towards a former Premier League player, as ‘perhaps the most homophobic gesture ever to take place on a football pitch’.

At first, I laughed it off because I thought ‘did he really do that? Can’t have been’. However, next week, same player, same gesture - only this time, the whole of the team laughed out loud at it. So I stood there, having provided all of these players with free photos for many years, attended matches in all weathers, and was subjected to homophobic abuse which was laughed at by the whole team.

I was angry, saddened and shocked that people I’d worked tirelessly for could treat me like this. Why should I spend my time helping them out when this is the payback I get?

I went home and pondered my situation, rapidly realising that my association with these players would have to end. The big question was, would my involvement with grassroots football also have to finish? I was uncertain and so I tweeted out that I was having to re-assess my relationship with football in the light of the homophobia I’d just experienced.

I was not expecting the supportive response I received from the football world. This included other clubs I’d worked for, ex-players I’d covered, and a host of other photographers of non-league clubs from across the country, all reaching out. It even included people I’d never met or heard of who responded with positive comments. It truly was humbling, and was probably the main reason I continued photographing non-league football.

The club themselves, as an institution, impressed me. Managers of both of their teams were in touch and encouraging, and I received a long call from the club chair in which he was supportive and helpful.

I felt really sad at leaving that club. They’d been amazing when Covid hit and I was confined at home, asking if they could get me things I needed, always contacting me and checking on me. It was a club I’d felt a part of and loved covering. It was friendly, fun and full of basically really pleasant people.

But I simply couldn’t continue. I would always be wondering what was being whispered behind my back, what gestures were being made when they thought I wasn’t looking, and when would the inevitable final confrontation occur. It simply turned what had always been a pleasant day into a weekly event I dreaded. My pleasure and love of the game had gone. Quite simply, I was now scared of going to the ground.

I’ve never mentioned the club’s name any time I’ve talked about this, because there were many wonderful people there, and the club itself was always a pleasure to work with. They don’t deserve to be pilloried as a club for the actions of a few, especially since I understood they were taking action to address the issue last time I talked to any of them.

Similarly, the League were amazingly supportive. They were in touch literally within minutes of my tweet being sent. They encouraged me to make a formal complaint if I felt it was appropriate whilst acceding to the way I wanted to handle the situation. What was especially impressive was the way they responded so swiftly on Twitter, re-emphasising the League’s commitment to equality and their intention to take appropriate action against any individual or club who infringed the policy. I will always be grateful for that message; it may seem a small thing, but to me, at that time, it was incredibly welcome.

So I decided to continue with my football photography. I’ve covered several local teams when I was free from my main commitment. That’s now Village Manchester FC, the Manchester gay and inclusive football team. I have been made so welcome there that it’s been an absolute pleasure to work with such a great club and the wonderful set of players they have. In my first season with them, I’ve covered over 50 games and met some wonderful people - not only from Village, but also from other teams in the League and at friendlies. It’s shown me that I do have a place in non-league football, and that there’s a lot of good and supportive people across many, many teams.

One last comment. I know some will say I should have confronted this straight on at the time, that I should have approached the perpetrator and called out the homophobia - but it’s not that simple when the whole team are enjoying the joke, laughing along and staring at you.

One against a team is not really fair odds. Some might call those odds bullying, some might even call it a hate crime. Anyway, it’s onto next season with Village - and I, for one, am seriously looking forward to it.

Gordon Marino’s photography, including images of Village Manchester FC, can be seen at: