Football referee Ryan Atkin becomes first professional official to come out as gay in the UK

Football referee Ryan Atkin has become the sport's first professional official to come out publicly as gay in the UK. Atkin, 32, says that he has decided to speak publicly about his sexuality for the first time to help break down barriers for gay people in the world of football. The official, who is refereeing games in the North and South divisions of the National League this season, told Sky Sports no one should feel they had have to keep their sexuality a secret in order to succeed in Britain's biggest sport. "Referees get a lot of stick for a number of reasons, but their sexual orientation can't be one of them," he said. "I myself have never been a victim of homophobic abuse; however, I'm aware others have been. "Therefore, in the future, the biggest challenge that I might face as an openly gay referee would potentially be dealing with homophobia - that could come from players, spectators and yes, possibly some of my own refereeing colleagues." Revealing that some of his colleagues were already aware of his sexuality, he said: "I've found officials within football to be very open-minded; it's something the game can be proud of. "Also, it should come as no surprise that people who are happy in their own skin at work will perform better as a result; the same is true of professional sport." Neale Barry, Head of Senior Referee Development at The Football Association, said Atkin had the "full backing" of the FA. "Our role is to support all referees, aid their development, maximise their potential and, above all, help ensure their experiences are positive," Barry said. "Ryan's declaration marks an important moment in the game and reinforces the fact that refereeing really is open to everyone; he's stated that people who are happy in their own skin perform better - and I couldn't agree more." Atkin, who began refereeing in 1999, cited the example set by rugby union referee Nigel Owens, who in 2007 became the first professional rugby referee to come out publicly, as one of the reasons he hopes his own announcement will serve as an inspiration to others. "Role models are important to show that being gay and being interested in football are by no means mutually exclusive," he says. Atkin adds: "Homophobia is still a problem, but things are improving all the time. You can change the game and culture when you change your mind." Much has been made of the fact that there are currently no openly gay Premier League footballers, and the sport has a poor track record when it comes to acceptance of gay players. The late Justin Fashanu found himself shunned by fans, the media and various clubs after coming out in 1990, while former West Ham midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger spent a year in retirement before coming out publicly in 2014. Atkin is hopeful that a top-flight footballer will one day take the plunge and come out publicly, however. "Footballers who are gay but aren't open don't want it to define them. They'll feel they are there to play good football; that's what they're good at," he explains. He continues: "If in an interview they're asked a question that touches upon their personal life, either they don't mention it or they have to think very carefully about the answers they're giving. I know I have done the same in conversations on many occasions. "Hopefully, eventually, they can talk openly." More stories: Rapper Lil Peep comes out as bisexual Five gay television sex scenes that annoyed the homophobes – WATCH