The only remarkable aspect of my story is how unremarkable it should be but apparently isn’t, writes Bhavisha Patel, the women’s officer for Charlton’s LGBT fans group Proud Valiants.
I’m Asian, female, gay, and I love football!
Football is synonymous with British culture, and, as a British-born second-generation Indian, football has been a constant in my life, as it is for many Brits.
From kicking a ball about in the garden as a kid to having the Champions League final showing at my wedding, it’s just always been a part of my world.
My upbringing never felt wildly different from that of my schoolmates, aside from the occasional Indian festival or celebration. I spent much of my time with my extended family and grandparents.
My childhood consisted of summer holidays spent with my cousins, playing cricket, tennis, and football in the garden, having sprint races down the driveway and cycling until it was time for dinner.
When my interest in watching sport began, I would devour whatever I could lay my eyes on; from tuning into horse racing, to waking up at 7am on a Sunday morning to watch kabaddi (an Indian sport with an element of ‘tag’, shown on a terrestrial TV channel at the time), and everything in between.
I was surrounded by older cousins who supported Liverpool, and it didn’t take long for me to feel the buzz of being part of the gang – watching Match of the Day together and sitting down for FA Cup finals, celebrating and commiserating together, creating those bonds that last lifetimes, beyond just being family.
‘Emotion running through your veins’
At senior school, I found I had an affinity for playing sport, and I was selected to represent my school in various sports. It was only later in life that I was able to attribute some of my life skills to lessons learned through playing team – as well as individual – sports.
As the years passed by, live football became more accessible without having to physically be in the stadium; although no TV can compare to being at Anfield, sitting in the Kop end as ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ reverberates around the stadium.
I will never forget the first time I experienced the unique synergy of feeling completely in sync with every other Liverpool fan in the stadium, the hairs standing up on the back of your neck, all the emotion running through your veins, the sound filling you up from the inside, every nerve in your body ready for action. There is simply nothing else like it.
In my final year at university, I worked with the Scottish Football Association, and my dissertation focused on referees and match performance. I always hoped I could take my passion for football and turn it into my profession; however, as a young brown-skinned woman, I struggled to see where I’d fit in the men’s game.
There was very little focus on the women’s game, and I was unable to visualise my role within the football world, so I turned my attention to alternative careers.
I first went to Charlton Athletic, who were in the Championship at the time, in my early 20s with a work colleague who had been a season ticket holder for 50 years.
1:41 Highlights of Charlton's 1-0 home win over Brentford in the Sky Bet Championship on Saturday
It was an evening game and we went together straight after work. Walking into the stadium, floodlights on, seeing the players warm up re-ignited that thrill of watching live football.
Though my support of Liverpool FC never wavered, my trips to Anfield had become fewer and further between, and my time at university was spent watching professional games with an analytical eye rather than for pleasure.
Charlton’s community feel
I spent more and more time at The Valley, living the lows of relegation and highs of promotion, and falling in love with a new club. Being a far smaller club than Liverpool but still having a rich history, there was much more of a community feel to Charlton, and I looked forward to weekends catching up at home games with fellow fans we sat near, fans who became my football family.
Football has a unique way of being able to reflect the attitudes in society; my experience is a game visibly dominated by middle-aged white men, more so in the lower leagues, with a distinct lack of diversity within the supporters I saw attending matches with lesser-known teams.
I couldn’t help but wonder why. There are times when I have felt acutely aware of my otherness in the football sphere, which additionally includes being a member of the LGBT community.
About four years ago, I came across a group called Proud Valiants on social media, a Charlton-affiliated LGBT group that worked to tackle homophobia in football. I cannot hide my skin colour, but I have the option to hide my sexuality, which I did for a long time, and so it did not take long for me to become involved in Proud Valiants, eventually becoming Women’s Officer.
Charlton has been a club committed to its community, being, for example, at the forefront of the fight against racism in the game.
When a club is willing to share with, and provide resources for, a whole host of other branches of the club, such as the women’s team, Charlton Invicta (LGBT-inclusive football team), Upbeats (young people with Down Syndrome), and more, it is hard not to want to be part of their cause.
‘Fighting for football without fear’
When you keep aspects of yourself hidden, the impact becomes normalised until you are able to liberate yourself from it, and only then is the true burden relieved – that moment when you can truly be yourself.
I remember trying to dissuade my now-wife from coming to watch football with me because being that visible felt frightening, not so much with my football family, but other fans in the stadium.
I felt sad that I couldn’t share the joy I got from football with the person I most cared about, and I can understand why some people would stay away from watching live football, no matter how much they love it.
Football has grown into a global phenomenon with such a wide audience; and it has the potential to affect real change as a game inclusive for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, beliefs, or disability – that is the future of the game I am fighting for.
Football has the power to lift us above our differences and unite us. Someone once said to me, in that moment when your team scores a winning goal, you will celebrate shoulder-to-shoulder with the person next to you, regardless of how different your backgrounds are. This has stuck with me because it is true.
Despite the current unstable outlook for many in the world, in recent times I have felt so much more positive about the way football is moving forward – the interest generated by the recent Women’s World Cup, the Charlton’s women’s team being managed by a member of the BAME community, female referees being in charge of prominent men’s matches, and so much more.