Charlton's LGBT fans group ready to cheer on team at Wembley and raise awareness back at The Valley
The day after the play-off final at Wembley, Charlton will host its fourth annual Charlton v Homophobia tournament. The Addicks' LGBT fans group couldn't be more proud of their club
Last Updated: 24/05/19 3:49pm
Get head shaved, march in a Pride parade, watch Charlton at Wembley, play at The Valley... it's going to be a busy Bank Holiday weekend for Addicks fan Gary Ginnaw.
The Sky Bet League One play-off final against Sunderland is the main event on Sunday. Ginnaw will be one of nearly 38,000 Charlton supporters hoping to see their team promoted back to the Championship after a three-year absence.
The following Monday evening, he'll manage Charlton Invicta FC - the club's affiliated LGBT+-inclusive team - in the fourth Charlton v Homophobia 11-a-side tournament, held annually on home turf as part of a wider commitment to diversity.
The head-shaving start to his hectic itinerary is a charity fund-raiser for The Circulation Foundation, following the loss of his aunt Linda to vascular disease last October. On the Saturday, he'll march alongside his Villa-supporting boyfriend Sam - also an Invicta team-mate - at Birmingham Pride.
Ginnaw was at the old Wembley 21 years ago to watch the First Division play-off final, when Charlton famously beat Sunderland on penalties after a thrilling 4-4 draw. He was aged 15 at the time. "A lot of us are going to be wearing the same shirts we wore back then. I'll be digging out my old scarf from that day too." There's already been a nail-biting shootout this month, to get past Doncaster in the semi-final, resulting in a Valley pitch invasion by delirious supporters.
"Some people have said it was overzealous, but you've got to celebrate when you can. This season's been a real journey, and Lee Bowyer and Johnnie Jackson have made us all proud again."
Football has changed immeasurably for Ginnaw since that Monday in May 1998, when Sasa Ilic's save from Michael Gray's spot-kick took Charlton back to the top flight. "At the time, I was spending a lot of energy trying to portray something I wasn't - what you'd call 'a typical fan'. If I could watch a video of what I was like then, I'd look like I was trying really hard to be straight acting, and not to be outed. But actually, the more you try to hide something, the more obvious it is."
As well as being a season-ticket holder for 20 years and Invicta's player-boss, Ginnaw is also the vice-chair of the Proud Valiants, Charlton's LGBT+ fans group. Along with the group's chair Rob Harris and women's officer Bhavisha Patel, the trio are co-organising Monday's tournament in conjunction with the club, and the Valiants will also provide one of the six participating teams - this year, theirs will be managed by their patron, Addicks legend Paul Mortimer.
Launched four years ago and now with a membership of over 50, Proud Valiants is one of 40 such groups in the rapidly growing Pride in Football family. "I'd originally contacted the club well over a decade ago about the possibility of setting up a group for people who were LGBT," says Harris. "However we never got further than a couple of pleasant phone conversations. At that moment, clubs were uncertain on how to tackle the subject of LGBT+ inclusion and I wasn't so confident in myself to promote the need for such a group."
But in January 2015, that changed. A month-old Twitter account purporting to belong to a group called 'Charlton Rainbows' claimed its members had been attacked after being lured to a hoax meeting with another group of LGBT fans from Brighton, and that the police were investigating. The claims made national newspaper headlines - only for the story itself to be debunked as a hoax a day later, when it transpired no incident report had been filed with the authorities. The Twitter account swiftly disappeared. "Homophobia takes form in many ways," commented Arsenal's LGBT+ group, the Gay Gooners.
"No one knows for sure what the intentions were," says Harris, reflecting on the short-lived 'Charlton Rainbows' account. "But as a result, I'd re-contacted the club and soon, the Proud Valiants were formed."
Like Ginnaw, Harris has unforgettable memories of Wembley '98. "The season leading up to that game was a milestone for me, as it re-cemented a love for football that I'd lost during my teens. I'd put the game behind me when I'd started to realise I was gay and could sense how homophobic the environment was. Abusive language was more common then and it made me feel uncomfortable. I made the decision to take myself out of that situation and put football behind me."
Harris had battled with depression in the mid-1990s. "At that time, you could either be gay, go to clubs and follow fashion, or you went and watched football. I was trying to come to terms with who I was, and I felt so much hatred towards myself. Sadly it got to the point that it became really serious, with me trying to commit suicide.
"To this day I wonder if I hadn't turned my back on football, would things have been better? As it was, in 1996, my now husband suggested I should go and watch Charlton play, as I'd been slowly watching more football at that time. In 1997, I had my first season ticket and I've had one ever since, apart from one year when I was abroad. The Valley has always been a family-orientated stadium where I've felt welcomed and accepted."
'An equal opportunity'
The success of the Charlton v Homophobia tournament is evidence of that. "The idea came from the club in a brainstorming session, at one of our earliest meetings," says Harris. "The Supporters Liaison Officer had already said we should ask for as much as we wanted!
"The fact that a league club like Charlton gives us the ground to play in, with all its history... their commitment has been 100 per cent right from the start. I remember at the first tournament we had in 2016, there were a couple of young kids who were sitting near the front. They were 10 or 11. They came because it was free to get into, and they were just asking so many questions in a very intelligent way for their age around the event.
"They've actually come back every year since, and brought their families with them, so that's something I'm very proud of. The fact is that it's not just about us, it's about the football. It's about the sport. It's not just about being a member of the LGBT community. When you get people from different sections of society gaining a new understanding, taking things on board, that's so important."
This year's line-up of competing sides includes Charlton Athletic Deaf FC. Ginnaw thinks they might be the favourites, even though the returning University of Greenwich team have won the previous three editions. "We train with the Deaf team now and again, and there are some really talented players there. They'll bring their 'A game' for sure.
"It's great they're going to be included in the tournament. When we have these events, it's really about bringing all parts of the Charlton family together, to tackle all forms of discrimination and prejudice. It helps us raise the tournament to the next level."
Charlton have long been at the forefront of football's fight against racism. Their Red, White and Black Day - a celebration of diversity organised by the club's Race and Equality Partnership (CARE) - takes place every March and has been running for over 25 years, when the club's community programme was first established. In 2003, it evolved into the Charlton Athletic Community Trust (or CACT), which employs over 100 permanent staff and is involved in a wide range of campaigns and initiatives, such as tackling knife crime, or providing opportunities for people with Down's syndrome to access football through its Upbeats team.
"The Trust have always been there for us," says Ginnaw. "They're there to impact the community, and support local schemes and youth groups. The work they've done recently to tackle knife crime, in particular, has been so important - Jason Morgan, the chief-executive, speaks so passionately about that.
"As for us in the LGBT community, we just want to have an equal opportunity. Nowadays, everybody knows someone who's LGBT, or a friend of a friend who is - and there are people in the Trust who understand that, and who buy into it. We were at the Proud Valiants launch four years ago, and I'd never have believed we'd have come this far. You just have to trust people."
'A great environment'
Patel, the third member of the Valiants board, agrees wholeheartedly. "I've been going to Charlton for about 10 years now. I grew up in Staines, in a household full of Liverpool fans, but I went along to The Valley one night with a work colleague and got hooked.
"Some years later, I read about the launch of the LGBT+ group on Facebook. I'd had no issue with my sexuality - I never really struggled with it in a way other people I know have - but any member of the LGBT community knows that feeling of constantly having to come out. So it felt really forward thinking to have a group of fans who were wanting to raise awareness. As a BAME person as well, I know how powerful football can be as a tool for change."
After exchanging messages with Harris and then meeting in person at a Football v Homophobia campaign event, she agreed to get more involved. "I've had the same seat at the stadium for quite a few years. My friends who sit near me all knew I was gay, I had no problem telling them. But it's a slightly different feeling when that becomes more visible for other people.
"l hadn't ever felt comfortable bringing my partner to football until I was part of Proud Valiants. I'd actually tried to deter her from coming, because I didn't want to have to explain who she was.
"It was more everyone else's feelings that made me nervous, even something as simple as introducing her. I always think it's disrespectful to your partner to introduce them to others as 'a friend'.
"But then I thought: 'You know what? There's no problem here. I can just do it'. And now it's totally different. She comes to a couple of games a season, and it's just a great environment to be in. So being a part of Proud Valiants has allowed me to expand and integrate parts of my life together. I don't think she's ever going to become a serious fan, but I really love having her there."
Patel recognises that her experience, even as a football supporter who happens to be a lesbian, is not exactly common. "It can be rather frightening for fans who don't fit the traditional mould, and how that 'otherness' can make you feel.
"But as a brown, gay, female football fan, there are going to be thousands like me. Why shouldn't they get to enjoy the game in the same way?
"The fact that Charlton and the Trust have so many close links to local community groups and schools, and run programmes like the Upbeats and Invicta, makes a huge difference. It's not paying lip service, it's very real and genuine. Actions speak louder than words."
The Addicks' Wembley victory in May 1998 came just three weeks after the suicide of Justin Fashanu. "When you see this season so many high-profile cases of players being racially abused, and then that no male player who is gay and bisexual has come out publicly here since Fashanu... sometimes I don't think we've moved on very much at all since those days.
"But then LGBT fans are much more visible now. And FIFA, UEFA, and the FA have all got inclusion policies in place - it's small steps in the right direction."
There's one Valiants story in particular that stands out in her memory. "A couple of years ago, a Charlton fan in his 60s came to Pride in London and marched along with us as part of the wider Pride in Football group.
"We nominated him to be 'fan of the month' at a game. He sits in the North Stand, and wasn't out to anyone, and had been coming to The Valley for 50 to 60 years. He came down onto the pitch and told his story to the whole stadium.
"There's so much to be said for being yourself. Even for me personally, you never realise how weighted down you are until you allow yourself to get rid of that, and not have to think about hiding anymore... it's liberating. Watching that man marching at Pride was so empowering." He's now a parade regular.
Along with her fellow Valiants, and the wider Charlton family, there could be another moment for Patel to take pride in on Sunday - although with Sunderland the favourites to win, Ginnaw is somewhat cautious and phlegmatic, saying "whatever happens, happens". Regardless of the result at Wembley, they'll all be at The Valley for the tournament on Bank Holiday Monday night, and Harris hopes the Charlton v Homophobia tournament model can inspire other clubs too.
"A club new to this might be nervous, as they'll want to get it right and not offend anyone. But to fans of those clubs who are LGBT, I think that the more work you do with visibility, the harder it will be for your club not to get involved."
The fourth annual Charlton v Homophobia tournament is being held at The Valley on Monday from 6pm. Entry is free.