Tell us about yourself:
I come from Plymouth, and I’m a professional football referee in the UK. I officiate on the championship and football league as a 4th official and I referee on the conference north and south.
I’ve been a referee for 18 years now and it all started when I was 15 years old.
All my friends played football and I was completely awful at it. But I wanted to stay involved so I became a referee. From that it grew into a career and here I am today.
When did you realise you were gay?
I’m not exactly sure of the moment I knew I was gay but when I was younger I had inclines that I was different. I decided to put it to the back of my mind and I started dating girls at school. If ever I had gay thoughts I would always push them to the back of my mind.
One day, I ended up meeting a girl who was out with her friend and she was flirting with me, so I was flirting back. But in my mind, I actually found her male friend quite attractive and it was very awkward. The three of us ended up getting quite drunk in a taxi and for whatever reason I got her home and ended up with him. At that point I was sure that I was attracted to men.
I then moved to London, and it gave me the opportunity to discover my sexuality even more.
When I was walking down Compton street there were other gay people holding hands and it was strange to see men who weren’t afraid of what people might think.
At that point I felt like I had two identities, two Ryans. In London, I was going to gay bars and having a good time and then in Plymouth I was heterosexual Ryan and I would choose what I’d disclose to people what I was doing in London. When people asked me if I went to bars I’d answer ‘yes’ and change the topic.
Why did you decide to come out in the public eye as a referee?
I decided to come out publicly because I wasn’t happy with myself. I wasn’t happy with how things were going in my private life so that affected me on the football pitch. I was always moody, arrogant, miserable. When I refereed, I mishandled situations, instead of managing them calmly and in a serene way. I was speaking to players more aggressively on the field, and so on. As a result, I was rightfully demoted because I wasn’t performing well.
That’s when I decided I needed to change and turn things around. I made changes in my personal life and two years ago when I got promoted back to the level, I decided I wouldn’t let my personal life affect my career. I then decided to come out.
I approached someone from Sky, a gay reporter, and we met for a beer and chatted around the story and why I wanted to come out publicly. We started to work in April, and then I had a meeting with the Football Association (FA), Premier League, and Stonewall UK.
We had the meetings and it was decided that I would publicly come out on August, 10th 2017 and the rest is history.
Did you expect your story to make so many headlines on the news?
No, I didn’t expect it to get that much attention, it was really all over the news. It felt a little overwhelming, because I really hadn’t anticipated it. But it felt great.
I was surprised that everyone reacted in a very positive and understanding way.
Were you ever afraid of the players or the spectators’ reactions?
I have to admit I had reservations on whether I was going to be taken seriously on the football pitch and whether my interaction with the players would be different and I would be avoided. When you play sports, it’s physical and we constantly make contact with people. The amount of people who touch your arm, or slap you on the bum, however accepting or not accepting that is… you wouldn’t do it on the street, but in a game of football for whatever reason it seems acceptable. I was thinking to myself that maybe because of my public coming out, I would be treated any differently.
To my surprise, it has not changed one bit.
I was also afraid that because of this news, the crowd would have something to get at me. Shout or even throw things from their seats. But I haven’t had any of that, or not that I’ve heard.
The only time I did hear something is when someone said: ‘Oh you can tell he’s one of them because of his haircut’ and I just looked at the guy and laughed and got on with the game.
That’s the only negative bit I’ve had in coming out. I think that’s great testament to what the perception is of football. You will always get people who shout comments that are inappropriate, racist, homophobic, and unfortunately good people will hear that.
One of the things I keep telling people, especially couples who have children, I say to the father or the mom: “Do you know what your husband or wife is shooting in front of your child when they’re at football?” and they go: “Well, what do you mean?” and I answer, “Well, the ‘C’ word, the ‘F’ word, potential homophobic, racist comments.” “No, they would never say that!”, they’d always answer back to me.
They would be absolutely distraught seeing the behaviour of their partner at a football game. Because I think a lot of people haven’t seen it. I honestly believe if you opened up some of the things which happens in football when children are present a lot of people would be shocked to see what takes place on the terraces. And that, again, is a minority, but because they shout the loudest, they’re heard more. We had to stand up to these people and make them realize that it’s not acceptable to say certain things and even less considering there are children around.
Have you ever had football players/ athletes come out to you?
Yes, I’ve had some people contact me and said that they’re really proud of what I’ve done and it’s allowed them to accept themselves more.
I always say it’s entirely up to them if they want to come out or not especially if they feel like its necessary for their well-being. I always direct them to Stonewall UK or people that have the services that can really support them in a way they may require.
Why aren’t football players coming out?
I think the main reason is that football careers are usually rather short and footballers then have to think about progression afterwards and so many go to places like the Middle East, Japan or China - countries that aren’t too accepting of LGBT.
The second reason they aren’t coming out is because there’s a lot of pressure and it’s overwhelming to be the first. Footballers are private individuals because they are seen as idols so for them to be gay and to be the first would be absolutely humongous. The idea of having to physically sit down and come out on a news channel or in a paper would be frightening to anyone.
Lastly, I believe that there is an element of homophobia in the game and what I would call ‘old school governance and management’. The people who are in power, at the top, are usually older men and footballers may not know what their views are and how they would react if they found out a player was gay. You never know if you’re going to be discriminated against because it’s always going to be denied.
Personally, I see the next person publicly come out in football to be somebody who’s playing for an elite academy. A younger person, somebody between 18-21 years old, who’s ready to break in the Premier League.
Do you feel like sponsors are supporting the LGBT community?
Yes, of course. It’s good to see that so many sporting brands and non sporting brands are getting behind LGBT athletes and I hope that demonstrates to people in football that if you do decide to come out as gay, the sponsorship will still be there however they identify or whoever they are.
Do you think being out has made you a better referee?
I’m absolutely certain that coming out has made me a better referee. I’m really comfortable, I can have a laugh at myself, I can be who I want to be, I don’t have to think about what I have to say to individuals and how I have to act or not. So i certainly feel that being out and proud has made me a better athlete and a better referee.
What advice would you give to LGBT athletes who are scared to be themselves and who think they’re alone?
First, I’d probably say : how do you know you’re the only one? Maybe other people are in the same position as you on the team.
Second, I can only go by my experience but I cannot tell you how much support I’ve had from my colleagues, from the governing bodies, from everybody! Do a bit of research, have a look. The amount of young athletes who are coming out in college football, hockey, basketball, say the same story. I think we promote negativity far too much and that for every negative story there are 99 positive ones.
As for me, I’ve always said to athletes, or people who are in a professional sport: make contact with me. It’s an unwritten rule, you never out someone. And I told some people in professional sport before I came out publicly. I think talking to somebody else who’s in a similar position or who has been and has come out, really helps. And I’ll never say you should do this or you should do that, you should come out or not. I will try to give options and give advice around my own experience.
I believe positive stories, especially in sports, need more media time and press because that’s what is going to shape other people to come out.
So my key message would be: if you’re thinking about coming out, contact a sports person, contact me! Everybody’s on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. and you’re never going to be outed by an out person because that’s the ultimate rule. We need to support each other in making this a safer and more accepting environment for all.