Proud Lilywhites: Proud of Tottenham, proud of progress

Sarah Winterburn

“I heard a story the other day from another LGBT+ fan group about a guy who was standing behind them at a game was constantly calling someone a f***** or a fairy, or something awful, and he actually got up and said “do you know that you’re actually talking about me?”.

Chris Paouros is the co-chair of Proud Lilywhites and one of its founding members.

“The guy was actually really apologetic and there were people around who congratulated the person for being brave. It’s something he felt able to do because of the existence of an LGBT+ group at his club.”

It’s a startling anecdote but, hearteningly, the kind which is starting to emerge more regularly from football grounds in England. People who previously had to leave part of their identity on the other side of the turnstile now feel entitled to their place in the crowd and are also becoming increasingly willing to defend it. The story also suggests that even those who previously contributed to that unease are now ready to be guided and corrected.

“I’ve sat through a lot of nonsense, football-wise.” And Chris has. Born to Greek Cypriot parents, she owes her Tottenham lineage to her mother’s brothers. A first visit to White Hart Lane in April 1980, to see a 3-0 win over Everton, allowed her to gaze down on Ardiles, Hoddle and Perryman but, like any Spurs supporter of four decades, the good has come with the bad.

There’s also a clear before and after to Chris’s football-watching life. University in Birmingham had a profound effect. Describing it as a political awakening, it was both the moment she chose to come out and the incubation for her activism. Returning to London and football, via a promise to herself that adult employment would deliver a season ticket, she rediscovered a game which lagged behind her view of the world.

“There was a disconnect between how I felt about the world politically and how it felt at football. It’s that toxic masculinity. It was a very male space and not somewhere where you necessarily felt comfortable as a vocal woman.”

Nevertheless, between the mid-1990s and White Hart Lane’s closure in 2017, Chris – for many years alongside her wife, Monica – became part of the East Stand furniture. Outgoing and friendly, it’s little surprise that, like many other season ticket holders, she developed a warm familiarity with the regulars sitting around her.

She remembers it as a happy period, during which her and Monica were effectively a novelty to male supporters “who had probably never come across a lesbian before”.

“We were never particularly ‘out’, but we weren’t particularly in either. There were no huge displays of public affection, but we were there together every game.”

For Chris, the roots of her involvement with Proud Lilywhites do not lie in an instructive, negative experience, but rather a desire to be a face within the drive towards equality. It’s also a part of her life which can be traced across north London. In 2013, an Arsenal-supporting friend, a member of the club’s Gay Gooners group, prompted her to wonder why Tottenham had no equivalent.

“I thought: why aren’t we doing that?” She took to Twitter and would eventually be directed towards the Gay Football Supporters’ Network (GFSN), a group which campaigns for the rights of LGBT+ supporters and runs the world’s only LGBT+ football league.

In the meantime, football’s anti-homophobia gears were starting to turn – or grind. Paddy Power’s attempt to involve itself in the Rainbow Laces initiative fell foul of myriad endorsement agreements and, ultimately, a poorly conceived marketing campaign. It was “no” from Spurs, who had already made contact with Stonewall, the LGBT+ rights charity, who in turn directed the club towards GFSN.

“For February 2014, which was LGBT+ history month and the Football v Homophobia month of action, Tottenham wanted to launch an LGBT+ fan group if there was appetite for it. So they got in touch with GFSN, who offered their help. It was at the same time that I was in contact with them and asked to be kept informed.”

Between September and January and across the channels collectively owned by the two organisations, the club reached out to LGBT+ supporters – leading, eventually, to a meeting with Tottenham at White Hart Lane, with the ten supporters who had responded to the invitation and Jonathan Waite, Head of Supporter Services.

The key was the collective attitude. That first meeting brought together a group who were all similarly minded, all motivated by the opportunity to campaign and each convinced by football’s capacity to effect change. The club’s attitude was also integral to the harnessing of that early momentum.

“They just said ‘over to you: you’re our LGBT+ fans, you’re the experts, and we’re happy to facilitate something.”

The organisation’s launch took place in February. Ahead of the Europa League tie with FC Dnipro, Tottenham ran a competition under the Proud Lilywhites umbrella to win match tickets and a pitch-side photograph with Ledley King. The entrants, required to sign up as part of their submission, would form the basis of the membership. In advance of that launch, the newly formed committee worked with the club to design the logo and create the rainbow flag (which would eventually find a home in the north-west corner of White Hart Lane).

Over the following summer, the club were good to their word, allowing the founder members the autonomy to design their own formal structure and, most importantly, determine their direction. Nearly four years later, those tenets remain in place and the group retains its focus on socialising and ‘meet-ups’, on playing an active campaigning role and on increasing education.

Of the three, it’s the first which carries the greatest day-to-day importance. There are many within the broader LGBT+ community who have required sanctuary-in-numbers to return to games across the country and to feel safe within the situations which occur before and after them. Football crowds carry many pejorative associations, some deserved and some not, and LGBT+ groups provide invaluable support. Male members in particular fear the threat of discovery and, understandably, benefit from the help in overcoming their reservations.

“You come out in your mid to late teens or early twenties and think “I’m not going to go to football because there’s this terrible macho culture, they’re going to spot me and beat the sh*t out of me”. Once you do go to the football you realise that that’s not the case, but it takes something like Proud Lilywhites to get you there and with the added comfort of having other LGBT+ fans around you.”

Family is never far from our conversation. Neither is a sense of home. Like many Tottenham supporters, White Hart Lane became far more than just concrete and steel for Chris. Unlike most supporters though, that attachment was formed by more than just familiarity. Tragically, Monica died suddenly in October 2014. The civil partnership between the two had actually been the first of its kind to be formed inside the stadium itself and, with bittersweet symmetry, the two had watched Spurs beat Southampton together just two days before she passed away. When she was buried, many of the regulars from behind the east stand poles attended her funeral.

The grief is still there, certainly, but so too are the memories. The time the two drove the wrong way up the M6 after a 2005 away win in Wigan and ended up spending the night in a hotel overlooking Lake Windermere, for instance, or the away trips to Seville, Madrid and Basel. Monica’s spirit still lingers in Chris, too, animating much of what she’s been able to achieve since.

“I’m going to continue doing something which was important to both of us. I’m going to make this thing work and change the world, for her as well as for me. That’s what drives me.”

And it has worked. And it continues to do so. The creation of Pride in Football – the alliance of LGBT+ supporters group – was born out of the formation of Proud Lilywhites and other groups like it.

“Fan-led groups are the way forward, and clubs up and down the country have followed the examples of us, Canal Street Blues, Gay Gooners and Proud Canaries – it’s amazing that in just three years there are more than 30 groups providing support to LGBT+ fans.”

While Proud Lilywhites exists primarily for the sake of those who seek its sanctuary, it has an effect which is felt beyond its membership. The season before last they worked with the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation to aid the teaching of inclusion modules to teenagers and have also helped to raise awareness among match-day stewards. Both experiences were profoundly positive, the former particularly so.

“Some of those kids had never come across someone who was LGBT+ and then, suddenly, they looked at us and it dawned on them that we were all LGBT+ but we didn’t look as they expected. They were brilliant.”

Co-operation lies at the heart of the organisation’s ability to function. As an official supporters’ group, they meet with Jonathan throughout the year – and also once with the club – and propose their prospective touchpoints and activation strategies. It’s also that relationship which allows Proud Lilywhites to work with the club on broader issues, some of which fall under the gaze of the fanbase as a whole.

In August 2017, the club completed the transfer of Serge Aurier from Paris Saint-Germain. Aurier was both a first-class full-back and someone with a chequered past; an addition posing a theoretical conflict.

“When the rumours started,” explains Chris, “the narrative became that we – Proud Lilywhites – were against the signing. That wasn’t true. All we said was that we weren’t going to comment on speculation.

“We contacted the club to say that if the signing did go ahead, then we were obviously going to have to comment on it. We were really clear from the beginning that we wanted to be constructive and didn’t want to criminalise a player for something he’d done or said in the past without any discourse.”

Chris’s telling of that period reflects very well on Spurs. Clubs are all powerful in the modern age and many of them appear to value their agendas above the consequences. In this case, though, Tottenham showed both an awareness of and an appreciation for their social responsibilities: Proud Lilywhites were briefed on the public announcement and made a contribution in the drafting of a statement which accompanied the confirmation of the transfer. “I’ve met Serge Aurier twice now,” adds Chris, “and he’s been lovely.”

It’s an incident which also seems to best represent the organisation’s spirit. While there is evidently a deep focus on change and a resolute commitment to protecting and emboldening its members, those characteristics present themselves with a gentle determination. There’s nothing accusatory within any of these stories.

Rather, the recurring theme is benevolence – towards those who have needed support to feel like equals on a Saturday afternoon, but also to the many who, without organisations such as the Proud Lilywhites and its many equivalents around the country, might never have understood the depth or cause of that vulnerability.

Seb Stafford-Bloor (follow him on Twitter)