“I was completely on my own, without any friends or family around me and before Rainbow Blades was set up,” Laley, the founder of the Blades-based LGBTQ+ group, told The Star.
“So I sat in silence, feeling very uncomfortable and not wanting to challenge. I didn’t even report it to the club which, looking back, was wrong of me. It’s something I’d always advocate. If you hear any discrimination, put in a report.
“Because through the strong working relationship we have with the club, I can see the effort that goes in to deal with these reports. So it is happening.”
Just not quickly enough. United’s game against Luton Town at Bramall Lane last weekend was the Blades’ designated ‘Rainbow Blades’ day, with messaging around the LGBTQ+ cause around Bramall Lane, in the matchday programme and on social media.
Billy Sharp, the United skipper, wore a rainbow captain’s armband. Bramall Lane had rainbow goal netting and a brilliant film, featuring Laley speaking to United’s academy, women and first-team squad, went on the big screen before the game and at half time.
While it played out, informing Blades supporters of the part they can play as ‘allies’ of the LGBTQ+ community, a United supporter made a homophobic comment. His friends laughed, it was reported, but the struggle continues.
“A lot of the time it isn’t direct homophobia targeted at our members,” Laley said. “It’s an angry fan not happy with our performance, or a specific player, and they’ve used homophobia as a way of getting across their anger or upset.
“It obviously isn’t right and when our members hear that, even though it’s not targeted at them, it’s not pleasant. Some people think it’s funny and don’t realise they’re hurting people around them. Their fellow Blades.
“Others know exactly what they’re doing, and will do it precisely to hurt people. But it’s not all about slapping penalties on people.
“There has to be a punishment to fit the crime, but that isn’t the ultimate answer in dealing with this issue. I think a lot of it is education, and the film is the best example of awareness and education.
“The support we’ve received since Saturday far outweighs the negativity. We’ve had over 60 fans sign up since the game and 70 per cent of those as allies, which is amazing because the whole point of the video was allyship.
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“There’s no way to sugar-coat it. LGBTQ+ people are a minority group and we’re persecuted. We’re discriminated against.
“Which is why it’s extremely important to have allies, who aren’t necessarily part of the LGBTQ+ community in terms of their sexual orientation, but want to stand with us because they want us to be included. Just like they are included.
“Without any of that discrimination that our members have heard at Bramall Lane. A lot of times it can be brushed off as a throwaway comment, or a bit of banter. But it’s not.”
Rainbow Blades was founded as United’s official LGBTQ+ supporters’ group and Laley has worked closely with the club since, being invited to Shirecliffe to address Blades players and staff about the importance of allyship.
Previous research by the Football v Homophobia campaign found almost two-thirds of LGBTQ+ supporters have experienced or witnessed abuse at matches over sexuality or gender identity, while only this month did the Crown Prosecution Service define the ‘Chelsea rent boy’ song as a legally-punishable hate crime, rather than “harmless banter”.
“There's no way we can make the steps we're making towards inclusion, as Blades and as a community, on our own,” he added.
“It has to be everyone coming along on that journey and standing in solidarity with us. Being a voice for us.
“When you have a collective of voices, you’re going to make a more powerful and positive impact.
“The academy lads were really receptive and the women’s and senior teams were fantastic, too.
“They were all interested in what was said and understood why Rainbow Blades, and their role in it.
“They’re the ones that fans look up to, young or old or LGBTQ+ or not. You look up to these players as heroes, so they do understand that they have that responsibility to stand alongside a group like Rainbow Blades.
“We wanted to get the message across that each and every Blade can be an ally. And I think we did that pretty well.”
Laley hopes that Josh Cavallo’s decision to come out last year will hopefully empower other gay footballers to "live as their authentic selves and not feel like they have to keep it hidden”.
“Homophobia still happens week in, week out at football matches and we’re hearing about it a lot more than we used to,” Sheffield-based Laley added.
“I think it’s a combination of more people being empowered to report it.
“The club are so passionate about it too, which helps. For them it’s not just a box-ticking exercise. They genuinely, genuinely care about inclusion and diversity. And it’s a pleasure to work with them on this.”
Laley will certainly not sit in silence any more.
** To become a member of Rainbow Blades, visit http://shorturl.at/jyIZ2. Follow Rainbow Blades on Facebook (BladesRainbow), Twitter (@Rainbow_Blades) and Instagram (@RainbowBlades) for more information.