LONDON: Ryan Atkin, Britain’s first openly gay professional referee, hopes his decision to come out will help tackle homophobia in football.
Atkin broke new ground for the gay, bisexual and transgender communities on Thursday (Friday in Manila) when he spoke openly about his sexuality and the way sport reacts when confronted with the issue.
The 32-year-old will have fourth official duties in the English Football League and the fifth tier National League this season, while also refereeing matches at several levels below that.
Atkin, who began refereeing in 1999, is backing Stonewall’s ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign, which is supported by the English Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League.
The campaign aims to raise awareness in football of anti-LGBT language and behaviour that makes gay, bi and trans people feel unwelcome and unsafe.
“Being gay doesn’t matter in the context of refereeing a football match,” he told Sky Sports on Thursday.
“But if I’m speaking about equality and diversity, then I’m going to mention that I’m gay because it’s relevant.
“Homophobia is still a problem, but things are improving all the time.
“You can change the game and culture when you change your mind.”
Atkin hopes making his own sexuality known publicly will show others can follow his path in football.
“Clearly, this is a step into the unknown—in our UK pro game, it’s widely known that there are currently no openly gay footballers, nor have there been any openly gay referees until now,” he said.
“People who are happy in their own skin at work will perform better as a result; the same is true of professional sport.
“I hope that my action, however small, will help give others in a similar situation the confidence to be themselves.”
Neale Barry, head of senior referee development at the English FA, saluted Atkin’s decision to come out.
“The FA offers its full backing to Ryan. Our role is to support all referees, aid their development, maximise their potential and, above all, help ensure their experiences are positive,” he said.
“Ryan’s declaration marks an important moment in the game and reinforces the fact that refereeing really is open to everyone.”