Newcastle United fan's rainbow flag shows support for football's LGBT community
James Douglas talks to Sky Sports about reactions of fellow supporters and why he stepped up as an ally
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 21/08/17 4:25pm
"The reason I thought it would be useful was to start the conversation - and it's absolutely done that."
A month ago, Newcastle United supporter James 'Doug' Douglas had an idea - to have a rainbow flag emblazoned with the club's crest on display at St James' Park on matchdays.
With fans' group Gallowgate Flags having helped to inject added fervour into the atmosphere at the Magpies' home ground last season with a series of dynamic flag creations, Doug was inspired to throw his own suggestion into the hat - and it's been the talk of the Tyne ever since, generating long comments threads on social media.
The £350 production costs involved in making the flag were quickly crowd-funded, and a commission order placed with a local firm. After delivery last week, Doug unveiled the 9ft by 5ft flag at Northern Pride in Newcastle on Saturday, taking it on the parade through the city streets to the sound of cheers and applause.
Aside from the donations that paid for the flag, Doug has received countless numbers of supportive messages online, with Newcastle United also demonstrating their backing on Twitter. There have been plenty of negative reactions too, but speaking to Sky Sports this week, he is encouraged by the ongoing debate he has kicked off.
"There have been instances where someone has said 'why do we need a flag?' Someone has given an opinion, there's been a bit of an argument and by the end of it, there's more of an understanding," he says.
"That's from people saying 'have a look at this report', or 'have you seen these photographs? Have you seen what other clubs are doing?'
"One of the very early comments I had was 'we'll be a laughing stock. Everyone's going to laugh at us for supporting gay people'. But straight away, a quick Google search shows Spurs with the Proud Lilywhites, Arsenal with the Gay Gooners, Huddersfield have Proud Terriers, Canal St Blues at Man City...
"It's just about educating people, showing them those groups and saying 'well, why would you be laughed at?' It's not like we're the first ones to do it."
Right from the start of the project, Doug always expected some sort of backlash - "I was a bit scared, to be honest" - but his reasons for wanting the flag in the first place motivated him to see it through.
"I've followed Orlando City since they entered MLS, and there's a lot of rainbow flags there showing support for the LGBT community," he explains. "I admire St Pauli too - they're renowned for their acceptance for people who are classed as 'different', I suppose.
"The way I look at it, when we had Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba up here, the fans had a Senegal flag that they were waving to show their support and solidarity with the two players on the pitch. They were from a completely different culture, different cities, different worlds almost... but we were happy to show support for those guys and say 'you are welcome here'.
"That is essentially what this flag is doing. For me, it's not to just support the Newcastle fans who might be LGBT. It's to represent that the whole stadium is happy and accepting and that we're a nice group of people up here and we don't care what your background is, just like how we showed support for the Senegalese players. That was the idea behind it."
Having come up with the concept at the end of June, Doug decided to canvass opinion from Gallowgate Flags.
"I messaged them initially and they said they were now encouraging fans to do their own flags, but they were more than happy to help and promote it. Alex from the group told me 'you might get a bit of stick, as you can imagine. But we've got your back'."
After obtaining a quote, Doug quickly set up the crowdfunding page, writing in praise of his fellow fans' passion and how he hoped the flag would "show the world that the Geordies are a diverse bunch who embrace people from all walks of life".
There was a swift response. "Pride In Football (the alliance of club LGBT fans' groups) were very supportive, and the club retweeted my first picture when I set up the crowdfunding page. That was great to see, because someone had said I might get done for copyright of the flag! So the RT was a weight off my shoulders." The donations came flooding in. "I raised the money in two days, and there's £200 left over - the plan is to give that to Stonewall."
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The backlash Doug feared he would get has arisen to some extent, peppered through the Twitter replies and comments, but the overall tone of those conversations has given him cause for optimism.
"I knew there'd always be people of a certain mindset who weren't going to support it, either way," he says.
"There are also many people who say they don't feel it's needed, and they don't necessarily feel that they should see it at Newcastle. But that's not coming from a place of hatred - it's just a misunderstanding.
The hope would be that the rainbow flag is there for every game... something that becomes part of the background and not just done on a special weekend.
James 'Doug' Douglas
"If anything, I hope the flag would help those people more. I think they're probably so borderline, they're like 'this has been my opinion forever'... but within a few weeks of it being there, they'll not even think about it anymore and it won't be an issue.
"There are some really nasty comments on there too, some absolute bile. But those people are getting jumped on by other Newcastle fans straight away - and most of the chat is very level-headed and respectful. People are going to be quicker to jump out with a negative comment than a positive one. One fan did a poll to gauge reactions and it suggests there's much more support for the flag than it might appear from the comments.
"On Monday, the person on the Twitter account at @NUFC responded to a really negative fan comment. Nothing after that, which I thought was sensible. It's good to see that they're taking it seriously."
Sadly, many football fans have experienced this. This flag has been funded by fans and demonstrates that St. James' Park welcomes everyone.— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) July 24, 2017
Doug has learned that the club is in talks to potentially set up a group for Magpies fans who are LGBT. "Anything that's going to have representation there is good," he says. "It's unity, in the end.
"I think the Rainbow Laces campaign [Stonewall's campaign for LGBT inclusion in sport] is a fantastic initiative. I wear them myself at five-a-side and, yeah, I got a few questions off some of the lads - you can probably imagine, with Geordie builders and such like. But we talked about it and they're more than happy with it.
"I'm not gay myself - I'm an ally, I suppose you would say. That can throw some people a bit. They assume it's me and all my 'fabulously gay friends' that are rising up with our rainbow flag and attacking the Gallowgate End! It's really not that. I just believe we should all be together - it's solidarity, it's diversity, and anything that's done to promote that would be beneficial."
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As the social media debate over the flag continues, the #WeAreUnited hashtag - used by the club itself on Monday - is helping to galvanise support.
"It's probably the first time I've considered 'United', as part of a football club, meaning 'everybody united'," says Doug. "You go back in Newcastle's history and it was two clubs that joined together, to become United.
"I stuck it on the bottom of my crowd-funding page, and the hashtag takes it on. Other fans have been in touch using the same hashtag. It's really blown up on Twitter.
"It's going to get more like-minded people involved and I think it's helped get the message out to people who wouldn't have seen it otherwise."
Newcastle open their Premier League campaign at home to Tottenham on August 13, live on Sky Sports, and Doug says the new rainbow flag is set to make its home debut for the Super Sunday clash.
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"I'm not a season ticket holder, but I'd love to be there on that Sunday. If I am, I'll be waving it. If not, someone else will. I don't need to do it personally but I'd like to if I got the chance.
"The hope would be that the rainbow flag is there for every game, just like they have at Spurs and at Arsenal. It's something that becomes part of the background and not just done on a special weekend."
The continuing lack of LGBT visibility in professional men's football - with very few out lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people involved in the game at any level - is inspiring many fans to change the picture and assist their own clubs on inclusivity.
Justin Fashanu briefly played for Newcastle in 1991, a year after becoming the first openly gay player in British football, and since then, no active professional male footballer has come out in the UK. Thomas Hitzlsperger waited until his retirement before speaking about his sexuality to the media and Robbie Rogers stepped away from English football before telling his story as a gay man struggling in the sport, subsequently returning to the US to play for LA Galaxy.
Attitudes towards gay men in football's macho culture were complicated by the taboo of sexuality for many years. Last November, former Newcastle player David Eatock bravely spoke to The Guardian about the sexual abuse he suffered while on the club's books in the mid-1990s, revealing that he felt unable to tell anyone about what had happened through shame exacerbated by the homophobic culture of the game. "I was embarrassed," he told the newspaper. "I'm not homophobic by any stretch of the imagination but I was worried that people were going to think I was gay and that I must have encouraged it."
Removing that stigma forever remains the focus of the Rainbow Laces campaign, and backed up by the good work of various football authorities, clubs, and organisations such as Kick It Out, Football v Homophobia and Just A Ball Game?, the change in social attitudes is increasingly evident at all levels.
However, greater education and understanding of homophobia is needed throughout football, with the environment still daunting for many LGBT people. ICM research for Stonewall released last September showed 72% of football fans had witnessed homophobic language or behaviour at live sporting events in the last five years. Acceptance needs to be shown in the stands, explains Doug.
"I've had a lot of people saying 'there might not be any gay footballers'. That could be true, it may not. Also, a lot of people seem to suggest that if there was an out gay footballer, then they as fans would be alright to have a rainbow flag at the ground because then they would be supporting that player specifically.
"But there are also kids who are coming through now who might be 11, 12 years old and in an Academy somewhere and thinking that they're going to leave football because they're LGBT and they're not comfortable in the environment. The long game might be to not need the flag because it's not an issue anymore, but until that point, it's useful that it's there."
Doug believes that acceptance throughout football is within reach in the coming years, and the growing influence and interest in the women's game is a significant factor.
"Women's football is getting a larger demographic now and I think that's helping, the fact that it's so open," he adds. "Some of the best players in the world are English and gay. That can only be a positive thing, and maybe that's having a trickle effect on the men's game as well.
"The reaction to the flag, if anything, shows that there is still a long way to go. But I'm a positive guy, and I'd like to think that, in my lifetime at least, it will eventually be only a very small minority of people who would oppose it."
To learn more about Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign, which is supported by Sky Sports as part of TeamPride, click here.