Returning with a 2021 theme of #UnitedForInclusion, National Inclusion Week is celebrating everyday inclusion and encouraging people to create cultures that are truly welcoming for all.
England Netball, British Judo and the Leicester Tigers Foundation are just a few of the sports bodies and organisations that are marking NIW, which is now in its ninth year. In 2020, over 16m people connected with the initiative through social media.
As part of our support for National Inclusion Week, Sky Sports shares the story of two brothers who are members of Charlton Invicta FC, the LGBTQ+-inclusive club that is affiliated to the Sky Bet League One outfit through its Community Trust…
An assurance of allyship
Chris Kent writes...
I've always been mad about football. It's been in my blood from a young age.
Growing up in south-east London, my brother and I weren't blessed with much but playing football was cost-free. Every day, we'd kick a ball about with our friends for hours on end - I'd commentate as if we were both in a real game - and it felt like nothing else in the world mattered.
I'm straight, and my brother Thomas is gay. I remember him coming out to me when we were teenagers - I was the first person in our family that he told. Ironically, it was at a Charlton game when he nervously opened up to me.
Thomas had split from his girlfriend at the time, so I asked him why. He was stuttering away as he tried to find the words to explain, but eventually he looked at me and said: "I'm gay, Chris - alright? Is it a massive deal?" He looked down at the ground, like he was ashamed about it.
I told Thomas I would never be ashamed of him and that I loved him no matter what. From then on, the special bond we have as brothers has grown even stronger and I've supported him through everything that he's been through.
Thomas Kent writes...
When I was 14, I started playing football with a local club in Bexley. I was pretty reserved to begin with and would always put on a front as a tough-tackling, 'manly' defender. I thought it would be really hard to come out as gay to my team-mates.
However, over the years, we all developed a close bond, and it was through a conversation with my manager at the time that allowed me to be my authentic self. Some of the other lads had suspected I might be gay, and he'd overheard them talking about it. He told me that sexuality was no issue within our group and that any player who was struggling or unsure would be fully supported.
Having that reassurance was so important. I felt confident enough to inform him that I am in fact gay and later, when I was happy for the other players to know too, their reaction was really good. I was cool with it, and within the group, we'd sometimes share the odd joke about it, but always in a friendly way.
We got to the age where a few of the lads left to study at university and a recruitment drive meant we got a load of new players in. Suddenly, I felt the pressure of having to come out all over again to new team-mates and I was worried about the possibility of not being able to be myself. My anxiety was at an all-time high.
I decided I would try to forge friendships with each of them first before mentioning anything about my sexuality. Ultimately though, having played and trained with them for a while, it became evident that the new lads weren't as open and accepting as our previous group had been. I'd hear comments and sometimes even slurs that made me feel I had no place in football. Eventually, I decided to just stop playing.
I moved up to north London and was there for a few years but after a relationship break-up, I ended up coming back home to live. I'd been thinking about getting into regular football again for a while - and then I read that Charlton's Community Trust had set up an LGBTQ+ friendly team.
There was a big launch at The Valley and lots of media coverage. There was an understanding that a lot of people in the area who are gay, bi, or trans had found football to be a tough environment and in many cases, had given up on the game completely. I had to see this new venture for myself, so I signed up to train and play with Invicta.
Perception and reality
Chris: My brother and I have both faced challenges. A few years ago, I also fell out of love with football - for me, it was due to mental health issues and depression. I felt worthless and thought that there wasn't much point in life.
Around this time, however, Thomas moved back home and helped me to get back on my feet. This time, it was his turn to put his arm around me.
He told me he'd found this new football team that was LGBTQ+ friendly and part of Charlton. He felt he could be himself there without worrying about others being judgmental, that it was welcoming for everybody, and that they had invited him in with open arms. At the time, Invicta were just playing against other inclusive clubs in a London league and GFSN national competitions.
At first, I couldn't understand why a separate team and league was needed. I was always under the impression that if you wanted to play football, you just found a club and joined them, because being LGBTQ+ was irrelevant. But I was interested in how Invicta worked so I went along to see what it was all about.
Very quickly, my eyes were opened to the vision of the club and I learned about the different experiences of the people involved. Not everyone was LGBTQ+ - some were allies, supporting their friends or family members, like me with Thomas. They asked me to join in.
I was so nervous because I hadn't kicked a ball in years, but I felt at ease, as everyone was there for each other, not just for football. It was about the right to express yourself as much as anything, with nobody judging or telling you who you should be.
Getting to play alongside my brother again was also brilliant. As far as sport is concerned, I've seen a different side to him now that he's able to be true to himself without the fear of prejudice or discrimination.
A beacon of inclusion
Thomas: Being part of Invicta is special to me. I can now be part of a football club that accepts me for the weird and wonderful person I am - it feels amazing. It's also educating me on all aspects of the LGBTQ+ community as the playing group here is so diverse.
The fact Invicta are affiliated with Charlton Athletic is something that needs to be praised more. It's showcasing that one, we can play football and two, it allows others to understand that being gay, bi or trans in football is OK. Having Charlton on board is a massive step in the right direction.
It's also so influential to have allies like Chris as a part of our club. They're a major difference in the wider perception of the LGBTQ+ community. Standing side by side with us, they're educating themselves and in turn their family, friends, even their kids, into being more understanding and accepting. It's so important for the drive for inclusion, not only in football but in general day-to-day life. Without allies, our fight would be incredibly difficult.
Unfortunately, injury has recently stopped me from playing so I've taken an assistant manager role with our London Unity League team instead, which I'm really enjoying. The club inspired me to get involved when I came home and now they've given me the opportunity to remain in football despite my injury. I can't thank them enough.
The generation game
Chris: I've never loved football as much as I do now - and I'm honoured to have also become Invicta captain for our London Unity League team, with Thomas as one of our coaches. I wear the rainbow armband with honour, as an ally. I know I'll give everything for my brother and that he'll bring the best out in me.
My son attends our games now as well, and I'm beginning to educate him about the community and the challenges it faces. He'll grow up knowing he can be himself and will never judge anyone for who they are either. He loves the team and they've been very supportive of him too.
Off the field, Invicta has helped me become a better person and grow within myself. I've learned to feel joy again and I understand now how important inclusion is in today's world. I really believe it's more than just a football club - it's a family.
National Inclusion Week, created by Inclusive Employers and supported by Sky, runs from September 27 to October 3.
Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. Your story of being LGBT+ or an ally could help to make sport everyone's game. To discuss further, please contact us here.