Ryan Atkin, a 32-year-old referee, made history this week as the first openly gay professional in English soccer.
On Tuesday, Atkin oversaw his first game, a National League matchup between Eastbourne Borough and Welling United. The arena only held 4,150 fans, and Eastbourne is five tiers below teams like Manchester United, but his presence was still a milestone.
— Guernsey FC (@GuernseyFC) August 15, 2017
“Ryan’s declaration marks an important moment in the game and reinforces the fact that refereeing really is open to everyone,” said Neale Barry, head of senior referee development for the English Football Association (FA).
The FA has expressed concerned about the lack of out role models in football, a billion-dollar industry in the UK, and has partnered with Stonewall UK to combat homophobia with initiatives like the Rainbow Laces campaign.
— Ryan Atkin (@ryantatkin) August 14, 2017
“It is slightly behind other sports,” Atkin told ITV, “but [men’s soccer] is getting there and organizations are making big strides.”
In the U.S., women’s soccer stars include Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach. And, in 2013, Robbie Rogers became the first out male player on the professional level when he signed on with the L.A. Galaxy.
Atkins says the FA could create a safer atmosphere for gay pros by treating homophobic remarks the same way it does racist ones. “People should be removed from grounds and they should receive bans because it’s exactly the same,” he said. “Why it’s not dealt with the same we don’t know yet, but we will get there eventually.”
In the meantime, he believes the sport is heading in the right direction.
“Role models are important to show that being gay and being interested in football are by no means mutually exclusive,” he told Sky Sports. “Homophobia is still a problem but things are improving all the time. You can change the game and culture by changing your mind. Referees get a lot of stick for a number of reasons, but their sexual orientation cannot be one of them.”
Atkins says he’s been humbled by all the messages of support he’s received from fans and players so far.
“As we evolve as a society and more people create an environment where they can be themselves,” he said, “[Soccer] will change.”