Former Lionesses star Lianne Sanderson and comedian Tom Allen - guests on Sky Sports' Soccer AM - share their experiences of being LGBT+ and discuss importance of Rainbow Laces campaign as Premier League, EFL and WSL show support
Saturday 5 December 2020 19:21, UK
Former England forward Lianne Sanderson believes the visibility of Rainbow Laces - as seen in the captain's armbands worn in support of the campaign - is contributing towards a more welcoming culture in football.
Sanderson, a guest on Sky Sports' Soccer AM on Saturday, came out publicly during a career that saw her win 50 international caps for the Lionesses and European and domestic honours with Arsenal, and play professionally in the US, Spain, Cyprus, and Italy.
Still only 32, she shared her story of feeling supported in women's football while speaking alongside fellow guest and comedian Tom Allen, who appeared on Sky Sports' 'I'm Game' series last year in support of Rainbow Laces.
Asked about the enthusiasm for the campaign shown by the Premier League, EFL, WSL and other leagues, Sanderson said: "I think it's brilliant to see the billboards around the grounds and the badges and everything, but it's much more than that.
"People are OK with wearing a badge now. You look back 10 years ago, and people that wore a badge would think, 'oh my god, they're going to think I'm gay'. I think that's the truth.
"Whereas now, people realise how important it is to raise awareness. It's much more than wearing a badge, but the fact the captains are wearing the rainbow armbands, it makes people feel comfortable."
As well as the armbands, Rainbow Laces activity in the Premier League this weekend included handshake boards, ball plinths, and rainbow-coloured seats at the London Stadium where 2,000 fans were in attendance to watch West Ham play Manchester United.
The EFL released a new video in support of the campaign carrying the anti-discrimination slogan 'Not Today Or Any Day', while rainbow goal nets were used at Reading's Madejski Stadium.
In the WSL, Aston Villa players displayed the flag of the club's LGBT+ and allies fans group Villa and Proud before their clash at home to Manchester United.
Despite visible LGBT+ representation continuing to grow in the women's game and the increase in LGBT+ supporters groups, professional players in the UK men's game who are gay or bi are yet to find the level of comfort necessary to come out publicly.
However, Sanderson is hopeful that male footballers who might want to do so in the future will feel empowered, particularly with more positive conversations being held in football around mental wellbeing, and also authenticity - an understanding of how 'being yourself' can boost your performance.
"You don't realise how impactful it is just by being you, how it can help people," said Sanderson, referencing the letters she has received down the years from others whom she has inspired.
"As a [closeted] player, it's a massive weight on your shoulders when you carry it around. I personally didn't have that but I know people who have.
"I also know people who have come out and are happier for it. Carrying that around with you can impact your performance. I don't think people realise that.
"I hope I live in a day and age when we do see a Premier League footballer come out but because he wants to, not because he's forced to."
Allen hadn't attended a football match for many years before host Mark McAdam invited him to West Ham vs Sheffield United in the Premier League last season for 'I'm Game'.
Having faced a different level of pressure from entertaining expectant crowds in stand-up comedy, he recognises the value of both authenticity and visibility.
"When I first started doing stand-up, I wasn't comfortable but when I confronted that and started talking openly, actually people took me at face value," he explained on Soccer AM.
"It's about pre-emptively creating that environment [for LGBT+ people] so you know that when you do come out, people are going to be supportive of you."
Allen says homophobic language and behaviour - such as he experienced during his school days - as well as other forms of discrimination are sadly still prevalent for many lesbian, gay, bi and trans people.
"We talk about progress in politics and equal marriage for example, and that's great, but it doesn't always flick a switch," he said.
"I think there are still these lingering senses of shame and awkwardness that a lot of people feel.
"Creating an environment where captains are wearing armbands and rainbow flags are seen everywhere, it's brilliant because it says that whoever you are, we're here for you.
"It's really powerful pre-emptive messaging, especially to young people. If you're young and you don't know and you feel scared - I know I did - that kind of messaging is very powerful."
Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. If you'd like to help inspire others in sport by sharing your own story of being LGBT+ or an ally, please contact us here.