Watford ensuring LGBT inclusion work goes beyond Rainbow Laces

A year on from their fans' memorable tifo, Watford and their LGBT fans group Proud Hornets are focused on inclusion - with a new animated film creating a buzz

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With Sir Elton John a key figure in Watford's history, and the Proud Hornets making a big Rainbow Laces contribution last year, SSN's Geraint Hughes went to learn more about the club's LGBT inclusion work

When Watford and Manchester City walked out at Vicarage Road for their Premier League match last December, they were greeted by a resplendent Rookery End rainbow.

Supporters from the Proud Hornets - the home club's LGBT fans group - and The 1881 Movement worked together to create the eye-catching mosaic to mark the annual Rainbow Laces activation. Seen around the world, including in countries where even basic LGBT rights are yet to be won, it instantly became one of the most memorable moments in the seven-year history of the inclusion campaign.

Players and officials walk onto the pitch prior to the Premier League match between Watford FC and Manchester City at Vicarage Road on December 4, 2018 in Watford, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
Image: The rainbow tifo has become an iconic Rainbow Laces image

A year on, Watford may be struggling on the field - Saturday's rain-soaked 3-0 home defeat by Burnley left them five points from safety, a third of the way through the season - but they are continuing to make strides off it with their community work.

Last Friday, the media room at Vicarage Road became a mini cinema for the European premiere of a ground-breaking animation from the US. A new episode from the series 'LaGolda', the film is a perfectly-pitched introduction to LGBT inclusion which uses football as an educational tool. The title character is the captain of a soccer team made up of young orphans - they travel the world playing friendly matches while also learning about social issues.

Each episode's central theme - the series has so far covered gender inequality, discrimination around disabilities, racial prejudice and other topics - is gently presented as a challenge for one or more characters to overcome, with LaGolda and her friends helping to ensure equality and fair play wins the day.

In the new 'Game Changer' episode, the touring team heads to a school in New Jersey and meets a young girl called Ryan, who is teased and bullied by the other kids for being a 'tomboy' and for having recently come out as gay. A game is arranged and the visitors take Ryan under their wing. Given the support to express herself, she shines in the match and the perceptions of her from pupils and parents begin to change.

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Watch the trailer for 'Game Changer', which is helping to tackle anti-LGBT bullying. Video via LaGolda TV

Watford legend Jay DeMerit, the former USA international centre-back whose goal against Leeds in the 2006 Championship play-off final in Cardiff helped take the Hornets into the top flight, is among those backing 'LaGolda' to make conversations about inclusion easier, and in turn make a difference to the lives of LGBT youth.

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"This movie will give you a fresh perspective," says the 39-year-old. "There's lessons for parents, there's lessons for kids who know they're out, there's lessons for kids who are thinking that maybe they might be gay."

The animation project is the creation of Los Angeles-based George Valencia, who serves as executive producer with his wife Judy Reyes and her fellow actors Roselyn Sanchez and Eric Winter - familiar faces from a string of TV series and movies who also lend their voices to the 'LaGolda' characters. There is also a non-profit social arm called 'Sound of Gol' which encourages soccer as a vehicle for education and development.

'I feel more accepted'

With Sir Elton John playing such a pivotal role in Watford's history, it has always been considered a more gay-friendly club than most. Proud Hornets was founded nearly three years ago as a way to give the club's LGBT fans an additional sense of solidarity, community and visibility.

WATFORD, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 16: (L) Sir Elton John, Elijah Joseph Daniel Furnish-John, Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John and David Furnish (R) arrive at the stadium prior to the Premier League match between Watford and Manchester City at Vicarage Road on September 16, 2017 in Watford, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Image: Sir Elton John is now Honorary Life President of Watford and often attends games with his family when in the UK

"I'd definitely say I feel a lot safer, and maybe more accepted since we launched," says co-founder Callum Jewell. "Before that, I felt I had to put a little bit of an act on. Now I feel much more comfortable to be my genuine self."

However, instances of discriminatory language and behaviour in and around stadiums are far from uncommon and continue to keep fans away from attending. Stonewall research shows four in 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people do not think public sporting events are welcoming environments if you are LGBT.

Screengrab of the rainbow tifo at Watford vs Manchester City, Premier League, Vicarage Road 1:00
Proud Hornets co-founder Callum Jewell explains the story behind last December's Rainbow Laces mosaic at Vicarage Road (video via Premier League)

"It makes you feel hollow... empty and disappointed," says Jewell, when asked about the effect of hearing homophobia. He adds that such occurrences at Watford games - albeit rare - also constitute a serious lack of respect for Sir Elton and his years of commitment to the Hornets.

Next up, a relegation six-pointer at Southampton on Saturday evening. The weather forecast suggests another damp afternoon in store. Yet nowadays, even when football is at its most miserable and uninviting, it is becoming more common to find a rainbow connection that hints at better days ahead.

The annual activation of Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign - which is supported by Sky Sports - is under way now and runs into the first week of December.

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