This article was first published in June 2019
Together, Di Cunningham and Joe White volunteer as part of Pride in Football, an umbrella network of British LGBTQ football fan clubs, to make the beautiful game a more accepting one.
As well as being a visible presence felt in stadiums across the UK, challenging homophobia when they hear it, the group also helps to lobby footballing bodies like FIFA and the FA to do more to tackle bigotry both on the pitch and in the stands.
Out of Pride in Football, 3 Lions Pride was born, bringing English football supporters from across the country under one rainbow-branded (and FA-backed) England flag.
Their biggest mission yet came when members decided to take their loud and proud activism 2000 miles across the globe to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
"We thought it was unfair that organisations like FIFA and UEFA can put fixtures in places that are unwelcoming - or positively toxic - for people who are LGBT,” says Di, adding: “Anyone who supports a football team should be able to watch that football team wherever they play”.
Once in Russia, 3 Lions Pride wasted no time making their presence felt on the ground: In the face of widespread anti-gay persecution, and legislation banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, the group noisily ensured their rainbow-coloured England flag was visible at five England matches throughout the tournament – and often beamed to the millions more watching around the globe.
It wasn’t without risk: the group were sent death threats before they had even touched down on Russian soil and were subjected to occasional homophobic slurs from passers-by in and around stadiums. As one game was about to start, they one match found their banner had been torn down and confiscated by match stewards.
“He said those famous words, ‘Those colours are not allowed in the stadium’, says Di, who along with other members immediately scrambled put in calls to the FA in order to have it put back up. By the time kick-off began, the stewards had relented.
In each city they visited, 3 Lions Pride met with local LGBTQ groups on the ground, hearing about their work and fostering relationships with queer people living under a very different set of circumstances.
“One [guy] in Moscow was telling us about their friend in Chechnya; that they’ve just stopped hearing from him”, says Joe. “You realise how lucky we are in the UK, but also how much more we should be doing on an international scale.”
The human impact of 3 Lions Pride’s effects can’t be underestimated: One moment that will stick with both Joe and Di is the tense moment their banner prompted a Russian man to make his way across to stadium towards them.
“We didn’t know what to think - he was a pretty big, burly guy,” recalls Di. “He said ‘Is this LGBT?!’ Once he realised it was safe and that we weren’t spies, he said he was gay. For him, knowing that fans can be themselves...” She pauses. “We were all moved to tears really - he was”.
Both Di and Joe hope that 3 Lions Pride and Pride in Football can not only continue to grow, but inspire other fans from around the world to come together to share their love of the game. And with the 2022 FIFA World Cup set to take place in Qatar, where homosexuality is punishable with up to seven years in prison (and death for Muslims, under Sharia law), their work is far from over.
“It’s transformative” Di says of the LGBTQ community’s most powerful weapon – visibility. “We’ve been part of that. And hopefully we’ll keep doing that in Qatar…”