The UK has its first openly gay professional soccer referee.
Ryan Atkin, 32, will take on fourth official duties in the English Football League and National League in the 2017-18 season. He says he decided to come out publicly to tackle homophobia in soccer.
“Being gay doesn’t matter in the context of refereeing a football match,” he told Sky Sports. “But if I’m speaking about equality and diversity, then I’m going to mention that I’m gay because it’s relevant.”
Atkin says campaigns for LGBT inclusion in sports over the last few years have changed the atmosphere for LGBT people for the better.
“The Rainbow Laces campaign has been hugely important,” he said. “There is a growing number of club LGBT fan groups, and major sports brands such as Adidas and Nike are helping to deliver the same message to wider audiences across the globe.”
“Homophobia is still a problem, but things are improving all the time.”
Atkin also believes that being out will make him a better referee.
“People who are happy in their own skin at work will perform better as a result; the same is true of professional sport,” he said. “The best referees are the ones that bring their whole self to the match, officiating with their personality and ultimately improving their ability to get the decisions right.”
But he admits he doesn’t know what will happen next.
“Clearly, this is a step into the unknown – in our UK pro game, it’s widely known that there are currently no openly gay footballers, nor have there been any openly gay referees until now.”
Atkin says he wants to see more players and referees helping to promote inclusion, and that he hopes his decision to come out will help others.
“All of us in football have a duty to create an environment where everyone can feel comfortable,” he said. “It’s okay to be different and when we all truly believe that, we’ll start to move on.”