Stonewall FC and Hackney Women FC were pioneers in the 1980s and early 90s as, respectively, the UK's first out gay and lesbian football clubs; their former players Aslie Pitter and Joanie Evans recall the hurdles they faced, and happier moments, in an era depicted in TV drama 'It's A Sin'
Friday 19 February 2021 14:24, UK
Thirty years ago this month, an advert was placed in London's Time Out magazine that read: "Are you gay? Would you like a kickabout in Regent's Park?"
Curiosity quickly took hold of Aslie Pitter, a box-to-box midfielder playing regularly on weekends for amateur clubs in south London. "I saw the ad, and thought, I have to see if there are more people like me that love to play football."
At the time, Britain was in the grip of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, as depicted in the hit Channel 4 drama 'It's A Sin', which concludes on Friday. It was less than six months after Justin Fashanu had come out publicly on the front page of The Sun and then been disowned by his own brother, John, in the pages of the black newspaper, The Voice.
Lines were commonly drawn in those days. Pitter had always kept his passion for football strictly separate from other parts of his life, such as the friendship groups he made through attending theatre school, working as an actor, and from nights out clubbing.
Suddenly, a chance was presented for his two worlds to converge. "I was comfortable playing with my 'straight' team on Saturdays - they knew nothing about me in that respect, and I was happy to keep it that way.
"But I knew of no other footballers who were gay. So to go along to that kickabout and see ordinary people from all walks of life, just playing five-a-side... it hadn't been my intention to stay on with them, but I really enjoyed it. I could see they were onto something."
The sessions would evolve into Stonewall FC, then Britain's first gay football club and now the world's most successful LGBT+-inclusive club. Pitter is a pivotal figure in both their history and the wider sport's fight against homophobia - he was made an MBE 10 years ago in recognition of his service.
He is speaking to Sky Sports to share some of his memories, sparked not only by the interest in British culture and society in the 80s and 90s generated by 'It's A Sin' but also with a nod to LGBT+ History Month and the Football v Homophobia campaign's annual month of action.
"The TV series has been great drama and a great reminder," he says. "I've instantly related to those characters - I was the same age at that time, hanging around with new people, going out on the gay scene."
Pitter's first visit to the famous nightclub Heaven, under the arches of Charing Cross railway station, was in 1981. He talks fondly of the liberating feeling of finding an open-minded community of people in and around the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, where he was safe to express himself for the first time.
A child of the Windrush generation, he had had a religious upbringing; Balham was still home, however, the place where he played his football with close friends who all thought he was straight. As he grew more confident in himself, he was "bursting" to be up front with them but always held back. "If they talked about women, I'd just nod and go along with it. But when I was with my theatre friends, it was the real me."
The first recorded death in the UK from an AIDS-related illness was in December 1981. "Around then, we began hearing that a lot of gay men were dying in America. We didn't take it too seriously at first because it was 'over there' - but we were watching. Slowly, the penny started dropping." Pitter would travel across the country for work and as a black, gay man from London, he became increasingly conscious of escalating racism and homophobia. "Looking back, I'm horrified by the way people were treated and the attitudes of those times. There was an assumption that every gay person was a carrier."
Later, Pitter learned that one of his former partners, who he hadn't seen for several months, had passed away due to complications caused by the virus. Another close friend also disappeared from the scene. "It really hit me. I was never the same person.
"We still didn't know a great deal about this illness - we were just hearing rumours and misinformation. You start becoming afraid of your own community." Any thoughts of coming out to his team-mates faded away as the fear set in.
Meanwhile, across the capital, Joanie Evans found herself falling in love with football herself towards the end of the 80s. Also from a church upbringing, she had moved to London from Birmingham aged 21. Coming out four years later had marked "a new era" in her life - the Black Cap pub in Camden became a cherished meeting point, and she found a supportive community of women footballers who had formed a club in Hackney.
As with Pitter, there had been a necessary separation between sport and identity up until that point. "I was playing netball on Saturday mornings, all of us black women in the team who had been friends for several years," she says. "I felt close to them but the conversations they'd have about AIDS and being gay would make me feel ashamed. I didn't come out to them until much later, after I moved away to another part of London. I knew some people wouldn't talk to me again ever, because I was a lesbian."
She devoted her energies instead to Hackney Women FC, who soon made their identity a strength and a hallmark as Britain's first out lesbian football team. This was written into their constitution and put them on the map. "People began to know who we were. Previously we'd struggle to put 11 players out but now we had a structure.
"Once we came out, that presented a different issue for the Greater London Women's Football League. They challenged our policy - but really they didn't have a leg to stand on."
Evans later became coach of Hackney, and is now hugely influential in LGBT+ inclusion in sport through being co-president of the Federation of Gay Games, a role she has held since 2014. The quadrennial event still bears the original name from its first staging in 1982 but has developed into the world's most welcoming amateur multi-sports competition, attracting over 10,000 athletes. It is truly open for all - there is no qualifying standard - but the defining spirit of the Games lies in liberation. For many entrants who travel from countries with little or no LGBT+ rights, the arena that the Games provides is the first place where they can exist and feel free, in sport or society.
Empowerment is a goal that has been in Evans' sights since she became aware of how Hackney were breaking down barriers, just by being out. "The league only had three divisions back then, so we had to travel a lot and would find ourselves playing in areas where we wouldn't necessarily go as people, that weren't even multicultural. They weren't used to seeing a black person, let alone a bunch of lesbians coming to their club.
"It wasn't all terrible - some teams were lovely. But others were standoffish, or we'd get reactions like being very careful about using a bucket and sponge. There was a distancing."
In 1991, Evans appeared in a segment about homophobia in sport on the Channel 4 programme Out, as well as a short documentary film titled 'Running Gay'.
The latter addressed concerns held by the football authorities over gay people playing matches. Kevin Sheldrake had been one of 12 Britons who had competed the year before in the third Gay Games, held in Vancouver, and was co-ordinator of a group called the UK Lesbian and Gay Sports Association. In the film, he describes how an injury could cause a sense of panic. "If someone cut their knee and there was blood everywhere, then you know if they were gay... [the feeling was] my god, there was going to be AIDS everywhere and everybody was going to catch it."
In 'It's A Sin', the character of Roscoe endures both homophobia and racism, subtle and overt. He falls into an unusual relationship with a repressed, hypocritical Conservative MP (played by Stephen Fry), whose microaggressions and insults eventually push his lover into a shocking but hilarious act. There are echoes here of the tumultuous and ultimately tragic Fashanu story - the footballer occasionally fed claims of affairs with Tory MPs to the tabloid press in exchange for payment.
The visibility of Fashanu, who would have turned 60 this month, brought mixed feelings for Pitter in 1990. "I felt great that the story had come out, but a little embarrassed about how it came out," he recalls. "It did open the door on a common misconception about gay people though - we're not just white. For my Afro-Caribbean community, there was a certain disdain about gay people."
In their early months of existence, Stonewall asked Evans and Hackney Women for advice over whether they should make their status as a gay club known when they joined a league affiliated to the London FA. However, the decision was soon taken out of their hands when the Daily Mirror ran an article headlined 'Queens of the South' that also referred to "the risk of AIDS" and how it was unknown as to whether anyone in the team was HIV positive.
Pitter recalls playing in a Sunday league game for Stonewall in the club's early years alongside two black team-mates. "There was this over-the-top aggression from the black players in their side towards us as black players, even to the point of going to our dressing-room before the game, kicking the door open, and singing this Buju Banton song 'Boom Bye Bye'." The lyrics of the controversial Jamaican dancehall song, released in 1992, glorify the murder of gay men; it was only in 2019 that Banton permanently removed the song from his back catalogue. "That moment has lived with me," says Pitter. "I nearly walked away from Stonewall that day."
For Evans and Pitter, football could be hard to love at times. Attending matches as fans was rare. At Hackney, Evans was friends with a couple of fellow Leeds supporters and they would sometimes sneak in when the Whites visited Highbury and White Hart Lane, making sure they concealed that they were not actually there to cheer on Arsenal or Spurs. Pitter recalls attending England's 2-2 draw with Holland in April 1993, and seeing a group of National Front members outside Wembley. "They were selling their newspapers, and shouting, 'keep it white, get the N-word out'. Everyone just carried on as normal, walking on towards the ground. One of my friends put his arm around me and just said, 'are you alright?' He knew I was fretting. I couldn't wait for it to be over. It was just too much stress going to matches."
They would, however, both find comfort and community in Columbia University's athletics stadium the following summer, at the opening ceremony of the fourth Gay Games in New York City.
The men's and women's football competitions at the Games doubled as the 'Gay World Cup'; Stonewall and Hackney made their debuts. For Pitter and his team-mates, the party atmosphere had begun on a flight packed with Ireland fans heading to watch their heroes face Italy at USA '94. Evans and Pitter didn't know what to expect from their own sports event but were stunned when a crowd of over 14,000 turned out in Manhattan to welcome the 11,000 participating athletes.
"That first gathering was just the most amazing time. For us to be celebrated like that... we had a blast," recalls Evans. The atmosphere had a similar effect on Pitter and his team-mates. "They called 'the UK' for us to go in, and I remember just standing there in awe - the music, the fanfare, the crowds cheering. There seemed to be hundreds of British sportspeople."
Stonewall brought home silver medals after finishing as runners-up. "I thought that my life wouldn't be the same after that. I didn't want to go back to my other club in London and not feel able to share with them that I'd had this incredible experience."
He had managed to keep his appearances for Stonewall a secret. That ended shortly before the Games. "One guy knew I was flying to New York that summer, although I hadn't said why. But it was in the paper that a football team from London was going to the 'Gay World Cup' - it became more of a story because England hadn't qualified for the real World Cup. He read it and quizzed me in front of everyone else. I said I was going, he asked me if that meant I was gay, and I said I was. The room went quiet.
"I came back for the following season, played one game for the first team, and then got dropped with no explanation. If that happened, you had to play for the team below - but I was told to freefall all the way down to the fourth team.
"It was an away game, so we travelled on a coach. The game kicked off and our captain was constantly homophobically abusing the opposite captain, all the way through the first half. At half-time, I asked him if this abuse was going to continue. He turned to me aggressively and said 'why? Is that your f-ing boyfriend?', and the abuse turned on me.
"I felt so isolated. No one defended me. I just wanted to disappear. I completed the match but straight after, I told our manager that would be my last game. I walked out, took three buses and the Tube to get home, and never played for them again. Stonewall got all my attention after that."
His decision paid off. Not only would Stonewall win the IGLFA World Cup in Berlin the following year and go on to become the dominant force in LGBT+-inclusive tournaments across the globe, they began a steady rise through London non-league football. They currently sit at Level 11 of the English pyramid, just outside the National League System, and remain committed to increasing LGBT+ participation in the sport, from across the community.
Pitter is humble about his contribution, and generously cites Evans as being someone more deserving of accolades. "Joanie is one of my heroes - she should have got an MBE long before me." Following the success of the 2018 Gay Games in Paris, her focus is now on the 2022 edition which is due to be held in Hong Kong, breaking ground in Asia for the first time. She is determined to help others access the kind of life opportunities through inclusive sport that she discovered through her involvement with Hackney Women FC. The FGG's Scholarship Programme is opening those doors. "I want to let people around the world know that the Gay Games are out there."
The era of 'It's A Sin' may be considered part of British history but anti-LGBT+ discrimination and the stigmas associated with HIV/AIDS persist today, while laws against homosexuality remain on the statute books in over 70 countries. The series has been an emotional watch and Evans welcomes the context it has provided. "We may feel that we've made huge strides but this makes you take a little step back to say, 'hold on, where are we, what are we doing, and what can we do to make us not be in that place again?'"
Importantly, it's been an entertaining watch too. Pitter has shed tears and laughed out loud. "We don't get to talk about the fun side so much. There was a hell of a lot of fun, especially at the beginning. There was freedom - coming out, going into gay bars, not having a care in the world... but it got overshadowed by the epidemic. And then with Stonewall FC, the need to keep winning began to take over as we got more serious.
"I wouldn't change it for anything, though. I had such a good time. It's just that eventually, you start growing up."
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