Celebrating Pride Month: Returning to football with BLAGSS
As Pride month draws to a close, we sat down with Justine, Women’s Football Co-ordinator at BLAGSS – an LGBTQ+ sports society based in Brighton, to discuss the importance of football in creating a safe and inclusive space for underrepresented groups and how we need football now more than ever as we recover from the effects of Covid-19.
Tell us about BLAGSS and the football offering you provide
BLAGSS is an LGBTQ+ sports society that has been running since the nineties. We offer a wide variety of sports and activities, including Football, for a range of age groups.
We do have Men’s and Women’s Football although we are keen not to categorise this so rigidly, and people are free to attend the sessions they feel most comfortable coming to. We run weekly women’s football sessions on a recreational, small-sided basis. Players are free to turn up and play - everyone is welcome of any age or ability. Over the last four or five years, we’ve grown from having 7 or 8 people regularly attending every week to 25 people with over 60 registered members. What’s been really nice is some of the more experienced players will try and help those who are just getting into the game.
How long have you been part of BLAGSS and what does the club mean to you?
I’ve been part of the club for the last four or five years, starting out as a player and recently taking on the role of Women’s Football Coordinator. It’s been a really interesting journey and I’ve got to meet some weird and wonderful people along the way. Having only played football a few times when I was younger, BLAGSS provided me with a safe space where I could meet people without it being daunting and I soon realised it’s okay to try out a new sport and not be good at it on the first week!
Now that I run it, it’s about continuing that environment and building an incredible community in the local area of people who support each other on and off the pitch.
It’s not just about turning up and kicking a ball around, it’s about building relationships outside of football so our community across the city is more connected.
What benefits has football had for your members?
A huge part of the sessions we run is the social side of things. We have a lot of people who come down who say they have only just moved to the area and don’t know anyone. Sport is a great way to get to know people; people that you wouldn’t probably even think to chat to in the street because we are all different ages and all different backgrounds. We’ve built a really great community and I feel really lucky.
How has Covid-19 impacted your club and as a recipient of a Return to Football Fund grant, how has this funding helped you restart activity?
It was difficult during the lockdown. We started by running a few virtual sessions but we didn’t connect as much. When we tried to restart in August, it felt very clinical and the sessions were a bit weird for a while as we weren’t able to mix with other teams or socialise due to the covid protocols.
As the lockdown restrictions eased, it was like a breath of fresh air and using the funding we received from the Football Foundation, we were able to move to a larger facility. The facility we were using was too small which left us no room to grow, particularly with the added social distancing regulations. Being able to hire a larger site meant everyone who had been missing football could come back at the same time. We ran three ‘Back to BLAGSS’ sessions and had coaches from Sussex FA come down. Loads of new people turned up to try the football out. It was a great way to rebuild ourselves so it’s been really positive for us coming back.
"It’s not just about turning up and kicking a ball around, it’s about building relationships outside of football so our community across the city is more connected."
During lockdown, many people felt isolated. Did you have many new members come down who had heard about the sessions that you offer and the community you had built?
We’ve had a huge cohort of new players joining since restarting activity after lockdown restrictions eased, all with a similar story – players who had to move down to Brighton due to work or family reasons during the lockdown and hadn’t had a chance to meet anyone. We were pushing out messages on our social media account to get the word out that we had sessions on and ended up with loads of new people who fitted in with the group straight away. It’s great to know the environment we are creating hasn’t been compromised, it’s actually been improved now.
How did you come across the Return to Football Fund and how did your grant enable you to return to football and get the group back together?
We have a great relationship with Sussex FA who informed us of the grants available and we then spread the word to other clubs. We tried to get creative with the ways in which we would spend the money, looking at what we had and what we needed to get back to taking part in sport safely.
We bought a lot of new training bibs to ensure people didn’t need to share and they could wash the bibs themselves at home. This was a big concern for a lot of players worrying about what was safe to wear at training so this gave them extra peace of mind. Having extra balls and cones, as well as hiring extra pitch space, were also essential in being able to spread out to ensure social distancing. This has been wonderful as when new people came along, this meant we always had room for them.
A small part of the pot was set aside so members could go through or renew their coaching badges. Using these additional coaches to split up sessions safely has been a godsend. For This Girl Can Week, we ran a tournament event with some of our members who are also qualified referees and met up with two other local groups. This was the first time things have felt a bit more normal which was really lovely.
For the LGBTQ+ community, what role do facilities play in creating a safe and inclusive environment?
Facilities are really important. Even things like having an accessible car park is helpful because some players don’t feel comfortable getting a bus or public transport. Our members come from different backgrounds and have struggled in different ways during the lockdown. Knowing the venue is physically safe and that the people running the venue are aware of the type of group that you are running is super important in being strategic and taking into consideration who is put on the pitches next to you. It is vital that underrepresented and minority groups have space on new facilities.
Being Pride month, how important is it that football continues to raise awareness and visibility of the societal issues we face?
It is really important. Sometimes people think football exists in a bubble where normal rules don’t apply. Football needs to continue to mark these campaign events because it has got such a wide audience. Everyone knows what football is and it can be used as a really good way of sending positive messages out. It also sets a really good example because having those messages at the top will eventually filter down. It’s all about educating people. The more people that are educated, the more we can make a change to ensure society is more inclusive in the future.