Lee Johnson is co-chair of the Proud Lilywhites. Here is his story, in his own words
“I personally had my whole involvement in football flipped on its head by that chant at a match.
When I was a teenager, learning to accept my sexuality (gay), I was a regular visitor to the old White Hart Lane to watch Spurs. I’d go to matches with friends, travelling the 1.5-hour journey down to London. We would soak up the atmosphere, join in with the singing and chants, and on rare occasions celebrate in the stadium after good result (life as a Spurs fan!). Football was a big part of my life. I even worked at my local football ground in the clubhouse for 6 years.
It was one match, at Spurs – we were at home against Chelsea, when everything changed for me.
During the match, the section of the crowd I was in started singing the ‘Chelsea Rent Boys’ chant. I hadn’t heard this before at a match and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In that moment I felt completely isolated and shocked that such a term was being openly used, in the context of sport too. I did not think it was possible to feel so excluded in my home stadium. I have been called a Rent Boy before, at school by a bully as a derogatory term about my sexuality, and to hear this used in our stadium really knocked me for 6. At school, the pupil that used the term was suspended. But, in a football stadium it was being cheered and sung as if it was a celebration.
I felt sick and asked my friend why they were singing such a vile chant. He then explained the context and how it had become a common thing that happened against Chelsea –ie fans would sing this chant, and then physically or verbally assault a ‘Chelsea rent boy’ after the match. Even as a Spurs fan, I felt physically sick. What if I got mistaken for a Chelsea fan, and got attacked after the match? If people knew I was gay, would they verbally assault me too? I wasn’t wearing a Spurs shirt so how would they know? I told my friend I was leaving the match, and he tried to play it down as ‘banter’. I felt, in that moment that I couldn’t explain to my friend why I was so particularly affected by this, as I was not out to him at the time. I went home within the first 10mins of a game for the first time in my life. I had to tell my friend I was feeling too sick to be at a match, but it was because I, as a gay man, felt unsafe. It ended up being the last time I would ever step foot in the old White Hart Lane stadium. I stopped attending matches for fear of being gay, or outed and not accepted by fellow fans, or my club. I felt like football didn’t support me as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. If football could allow chants like this, then how on earth can they say they’re inclusive and support diversity and the LGBTQ+ community?
I ended up leaving my job too, as I couldn’t bear to be around the sport anymore. My whole view on football was completely tarnished; the sport I loved more than anything else didn’t accept me for who I was. I missed the Finale at WHL—an event that was supposed to be a celebration of all Spurs fans coming together to remember the good days in the stadium—but I couldn’t remember them—all I remembered was feeling isolated, excluded, and unsafe.
It wasn’t until I came across a picture in 2018 when I noticed a rainbow banner with a Spurs logo on that I realised Spurs had their own LGBTQ+ fan group – the Proud Lilywhites. After researching them and getting in touch, I met them before a match. Spurs were playing at Wembley by this point. It was through meeting them that I felt there was a safe space in Spurs for me, and a way for me to get back to going to matches again. And sure, enough I did! I’m now a Season ticket holder and Co-chair of the Proud Lilywhites, it is important to me that other fans don’t feel excluded from going to matches the same way I did. The only reason I felt excluded and not welcome was because of that chant – and still to this day whenever I hear it, it drudges up so many horrible memories. It also makes me upset that I didn’t get a chance to be at that final match for Spurs in their old ground. Every time I hear someone mention it, it still causes me pain that I didn’t go. But again, I felt so unsafe and excluded because of that chant.
The fact that this chant is still ‘allowed’ in the sport astonishes me, and the fact it is not described as homophobic is an insult to us all. It completely invalidates my experiences in football to say that it is not homophobic, but just ‘banter’. I wouldn’t have been as affected by it had I been straight. I wouldn’t have missed 6 years of football because of that chant if I were straight. I wouldn’t have felt unsafe at matches because of that chant if I were straight. It is homophobic, and it is humiliating to hear it.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Although I’m just another fan, and this just an experience to you, to me this was my whole life changing for the worse. And I know I’m not the only one.”