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TRAILBLAZING

Article By Kathryn Johnston - Photography by BELFAST BLAZE

 

Belfast Blaze

Belfast Blaze which was founded three years ago is Northern Irelands first and only inclusive LGBTQ community football club.

This week 31 year old Stuart Rafferty of Belfast Blaze said:

We are the first Belfast based football group to be founded with the main goal of creating a safe and welcoming environment to the LGBTQ community and their allies in Northern Ireland.

Later in the interview Mr Rafferty talks of how he the manager and coach work together with the clubs newly appointed Welfare Officer to safeguard the clubs players against the homophobic abuse traditionally associated with the beautiful game.

At the end of June the team will play in the Northern Ireland Confederation Cup for the first time.

Trailblazing

A Northern Ireland football team is blazing a trail by promoting inclusivity and LGBT awareness. Belfast Blaze is leading the way in providing an inclusive LGBTQ+ community football club. In an interview this week, spokesperson Stuart Rafferty said: We are the first Belfast based football group to be founded with the main goal of creating a safe and welcoming environment to the LGBTQ+ community and their allies in Northern Ireland. And in years to come, my vision of the club is that it will grow into a normally functioning team but always with the mission of safeguarding and promoting inclusivity and LGBTQ+ awareness. That will always remain our ethos.

Football is huge all over Ireland, and of course in Northern Ireland too. I have played football for senior clubs for years and obviously being part of the LGBTQ+ community I have heard a lot of people saying how much they used to love a kickabout years ago. So that was our original aim when we set up the club on Facebook three years ago, just to have a kickabout and a bit of craic playing football. There wasnt a very strong response to our Facebook page, but on our first night twenty people showed up to a five-a-side pitch. We monitored the attendance for a couple of months and then realised, weve got something here. Now here we are three years later - were funded by multiple groups, and we are working with the Irish Football Association (IFA). They are firmly on board with us. Stuart added that the IFA have given the Belfast Blaze club outstanding help in terms of advice on funding, coaching, and playing facilities at the Newforge Sports Complex in Belfast. Weve really come a long way over the last three years.

The IFA have been a great support. As a public body, they cant give us direct funding, but they are very supportive and tell us of funding opportunities for which we might meet the criteria and then advise us on making an application. Stuart stresses that the club, while looking forward to the fixtures, are also conscious of their responsibilities to safeguard the players and prepare them for any abuse they may face. We must be conscious of the fact that there is traditionally a fair amount of homophobia in football. We must plan for the possibility of homophobic abuse directed against our players and do our best to safeguard them. That may be inevitable.

Stuart went on to speak of his own experience. I play straight football if you want to call it that in a senior team, North Down, on a Saturday. Ive played in the same club for the last ten years. Everybody knows that Im openly gay. Im very friendly with the guys in that league, but there will always be one individual who will say something. Now to me, its water off a ducks back but there are guys down here who have only been playing football for the last six months to a year. Any hostile remarks during these games could shake their confidence maybe even set somebody back from being involved with us and ending up by losing the great contacts they have made. But we are going to do our best to safeguard them. This wont be new to most people who are involved with us, it will be something they have faced at school and at work, in their day to day lives. But it is totally different when it comes out of the blue on the field. Remarks can sometimes be made in the heat of the moment. Whats said on the pitch is not always thought out - you know, youre not thinking straight, youre making snap decisions. But from my own personal experience in situations on the football pitch, where people have occasionally said something to me, they will later apologise. The odd time I have said something to a player in the heat of the moment myself - and Ive regretted it. Not homophobic remarks, of course, but maybe other things. We do get online abuse from time to time, but we only respond to it to correct factual errors in a spirit of education and awareness.

One of the very good things we have discovered is that for every keyboard warrior making homophobic comments, there are many, many people not associated with our club who also intervene to support us. The IFA are currently formulating their next five-year strategic plan and we are considering how LGBGT+ awareness could be integrated into grass roots football.

We now have the example of Jake Daniels coming out as an openly gay footballer. He may not prove to be the golden goose, but he is a very very positive role model, and we welcome his announcement. Daniels (17) recently became the UKs first male professional footballer to come out as gay since Justin Fashanu in 1990. Although Fashanu said that he was generally well accepted by his fellow players, he also said that they would sometimes joke about his sexual orientation. He also believed that he became a target of abuse from rival supporters because of it. Jake Daniels made his announcement just seven months after Australian Josh Cavallo, 22, became the only current top-flight male professional footballer in the world to come out as gay.

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Belfast Blaze for the first time will be playing this summer in the Northern Ireland Confederation Cup (NICC) league, alongside community teams from all over Belfast. We are in Group D, and our first four fixtures will be with teams from the Limestone, Nigerian, Sudanese and Nepalese communities in Belfast. Stuart Rafferty believes that these matches will be a valuable learning opportunity for the club.

While it could be a challenging situation, ultimately, it will be a very positive experience. It will give the team a great idea of what real life football is like, away from our safeguards and our protections. The fact that we have played together and trained together for the past three years may even give us a bit of an edge. Weve played in tournaments before, but this is the first time weve entered the Confederation Cup. They have put a lot of effort into it to bring communities together. So these are all diverse communities, Sudan, Nigeria, Nepal, the list goes on. And were obviously there because were an LGBTQ+ team. And before this, we were playing the Dublin Devils, they are the other established LGBTQ+ team.

When asked about the name, Stuart laughs. We threw that around for quite some time. We had all sorts of corny ideas but then we settled on the idea of alliteration and came up with Belfast Blaze. Theres Birmingham Blaze as well, but I dont think were infringing any copyright! He added: Once we settled on our name, we got our first kits. Obviously we draw people from both sides of the community, so we tried our best to stay away from the traditional stereotypes of Northern Ireland football kit. No red, white and blue and while we stayed well away from green and white, we somehow managed to end up with an orange kit! Until last year the Belfast Blaze badge featured the Titanic building. But at the clubs AGM last year, a lot of members expressed the view that it might not be the best symbol to represent us as a club and some of the members designed a new badge. It features two hands shaking, which represents communities engaging, the name of the club, Belfast Blaze. Then we incorporated the LGBTQ+ colours throughout the actual badge itself. We wanted to be as inclusive as possible, whether that be gay, lesbian or trans. And not only does the badge encompass the trans colours, but it also even includes our straight ally colours. We have a real spectrum of members, including straight members, so we have a real mix of sexualities, women coming in as well as trans members. Now, as we move into our third year, Belfast Blaze has a very strong identity. Covid disrupted us a lot - and I feared that might mean the end for us said Stuart.

But we came back after the pandemic with even stronger numbers. I think that was a positive, people wanted to get fit again, they wanted to try new things and perhaps they also wanted to engage with each other physically again after the years of isolation. People have had time to think about what weve had to endure these last two years. That has been a very positive spin for our club. People want to come together more and there seems to be a more open attitude to discussing sexuality. Were involved in a lot of issues outside football. Weve just recently brought a welfare officer onto our committee. People may come to us who might struggle with their sexuality, so our welfare officer has all the referral services in place. If someone comes to us for support, we can signpost them on to appropriate services. Its not just about coming down on a Monday night and training together, or playing competitive football in leagues, its just as much about recognising each other as individual humans and offering a support resource as well.

Belfast Blaze, Stuart points out, isnt just for people who are gay, either. My dad, for example, comes down to our Monday night sessions and he is probably one of the biggest supporters of the club. He has bought us badges and flags and contributed towards our kits. Im 31 now and I came out when I was 18. My dad originally found it a bit challenging. Now that we have this club, it has really helped. So Belfast Blaze is not just about helping people who may be struggling with their sexuality. Its a major benefit to people who perhaps have questions about how to act around gay people, how to address them, what terms to use and so on. Its basically educational. Some people may come across as homophobic, but often they are not intentionally homophobic, its the lack of education around it. We have thirty active playing members but if you look at the people who engage with us on social media, we have upwards of 700. I know people use various platforms, but Instagram would probably be our most used platform and there are seven hundred followers there. We have a fair amount of active playing members, but we also have a lot of members, like my dad, involved with the club. And we have a lot of straight members as well who are very active. We are sponsored now by Del Pieros for our training tops (a Northern Ireland chain of coffee, ice cream and sandwich shops) which has been immensely helpful. And in addition to that, we are discussing our funding needs with a large and diverse company in the UK - it is good to know that doors are opening. Another move we want to make is to apply for membership of the Gay Footballers Support Network.

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Our club is so much broader and bigger than we thought it would ever be three years ago we were just looking to give people the space to kick a ball around and just get together themselves and with other people in the community. I think were lucky now. Im not hugely into political agendas, but Im glad to see that Northern Ireland may be potentially stepping away from the traditional orange and green agendas. Its great to see more progressive agendas in Stormont. We need MLAs who will support equality and diversity across the board. And three openly LGBTQ+ MLAs were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time. Gender representation has increased as well.

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While Northern Ireland may still be a few light years behind the rest of the UK, were starting to come along. Its not just Stormont, its other organisations. I mentioned the IFA earlier, and there are many big bodies like them across Northern Ireland, they are all becoming more progressive and more open to diverse groups. And that is really what we need, what we want, and, above all, what we deserve.

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