Things could have panned out very different for Exeter City Media Officer, Craig Bratt.
Despite hearing homophobic chants on the terraces as a child that might have swayed him otherwise, he still opted to pursue a career within football and wouldn’t change a thing about the path that led him to St James Park.
Alongside his role at the Club, he has fostered a sense of inclusion and belonging at Exeter, by backing Rainbow Laces, among other campaigns and initiatives which tackle issues such as homophobia head-on.
“As probably one of the few ‘out’ people in the EFL, I felt a duty to help others that aren’t as fortunate as me, so I do as much as I can to normalise that there are gay people that work in football,” he begins.
“I was just so keen to help other people knowing that when I was growing up, I didn’t have the opportunities that they do know. For me, visibility is key.”
The growing understanding within football was one he described as a learning process for players and supporters alike.
In previous years, Exeter have sat down with members of the Grecians squad to expand and build on their knowledge of the LGBTQ+ community and educate players on how to go about reporting abuse.
“I did a Zoom call with our captain and one of our other players and in those, we just had a chat and spoke about the campaign,” he explains.
“It’s quite eye-opening that towards the end of my chat, he said he had no idea what it’s like for a gay football fan because apart from me, he doesn’t know anybody that’s gay. He ended up asking me questions and it turned into a story about how players didn’t know about it, but they wanted to learn more.
“We had some really perceptive comments from fans saying how powerful it was. I wanted to emphasise the fact that the players were socially aware.”
And his turning point was a one-on-one conversation with one of the current crop who initiated some simple small talk about his personal life.
He continues: “Something happened just before the start of the season in the first few days of August when we had a training session at the stadium. One of our players sat out and I was just chatting to him in the stands. He said, ‘you’re buying a house with your boyfriend, aren’t you?’
“Looking back five years, never ever did I think I’d have a football player ask me about a boyfriend, because five years ago, I didn’t think football would be for me.”
Exeter City have their own LGBTQ+ supporters’ group, the Proud Grecians, which was founded by Alan Quick – a close friend and ally of the late Justin Fashanu.
“It was on 8 December 1992 that my late friend Justin Fashanu, the only ever professional footballer to ‘come out’ as gay, played in a game at St James,” Alan says. “The country’s first million-pound black player was playing for Torquay United against Exeter City in an EFL Trophy match when he made his appearance at Exeter’s ground. Sadly, during his lifetime Justin suffered both racism and homophobia.”
He adds: “Exeter City has a great record on opposing homophobia and all types of discrimination, and it is a credit to the club. City’s One Game One Community Group aims to address all types of discrimination in football including race, disability, gender, age, religion and sexual orientation.
“Fans, sports leaders and athletes are all playing their part in order to help kick discrimination out of sport. We have a long history of supporting rights for all, including taking a stand against homophobia for more than 11 years.”
Members of the LGBTQ+ and allies supporters’ group have distributed Rainbow Laces to some of Exeter City's community teams and club staff, and rainbow armbands, along with corner flags and promotion in the matchday programme.
“We have to develop a culture where, from a young age, everyone understands homophobia is wrong,” he says.
“Getting to this point will help change the culture of football, and perhaps even encourage players to come out who can then become role models to the LBGTQ+ community. Rainbow Laces is a chance to celebrate the community and make everyone in, or connected to it, feel comfortable and welcomed by football.
“We have to lace up and speak up. Laces are a symbol of inclusion in sport and do a good job in raising awareness. We have to change the conversations and talk about why we are wearing them to make sure everyone knows that sport is for all, and that everyone should be made to feel welcome. By doing this, having those conversations, this leads and drives change.”
This year, Exeter City have plans to do more around the campaign, after the past year ‘stoked the fire’ of the issue-at-hand and whilst Craig is at Exeter, he will make it his mission to keep flying the flag.
“Every time someone says Rainbow Laces isn’t needed, they are wrong,” Craig notes. “It is needed for as long as there is a problem with homophobia in football, just as long as anti-discrimination campaigns are needed as long as there’s racism in football.”
This feature originally appeared in the winter 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.