Joe Hales is Breaking Barriers

Breaking Barriers with Joe Hales

Steph Clark
A journey to finding acceptance in football

Football is a big part of Joe Hales’ life.

From growing up playing football in the park with friends, watching his beloved Brentford FC with family to now, as an adult, playing Sunday League Football, the sport has always held a special place in his heart.

However, as Joe grew up, he started to struggle with reconciling his lifelong love of the game with another developing and important part of his identity – his sexuality.

Unable to relate personally to outdated stereotypes and prejudices that as man and a member of the LGBTQ+ community that he couldn’t or shouldn’t like football, along with a lack of representation in the game, Joe began to question where he fit in, both on and off the pitch.

With society and social media saying one thing and his heart saying another, Joe struggled to find his place and, feeling as though living openly as his authentic self and acceptance in the game would always be on opposing teams, he was held back by the fear and uncertainty over how people would react if they knew who he really was.

In 2020, at a point of personal crisis, Joe realised that to be genuinely happy, he needed to stop hiding who he was in order to fit in or to simply please others. Over the next couple of years, Joe took the courageous step to came out to his family and friends before gradually coming out to his teammates.

Much to his relief, Joe’s experience has been largely positive. His family and friends provided a much-needed support network, and his teammates treated him no differently. To them he was, and still is, Joe, a member of the team, a mate from football.

But it wasn’t just the reactions of his teammates that concerned him. There is a wider football community, both online and off the pitch where often the loudest voices are the ones who don’t offer acceptance and support. The ones who don’t understand why representation matters and the ones who don’t want to listen to why.

To stand up against these voices is what takes courage. 

In its simplest form, football is a game grounded in facing opposition, but together as a team, not as individuals. 

As a sport, it provides unrivalled opportunities to meet new people, travel to different communities and embrace new cultures. From county borders, across the country and around the world, football as a unique power to bring people together and lead social change and we all have a part to play in ensuring acceptance becomes the loudest voice.

Campaigns such as Rainbow Laces & Football v Homophobia play a vital role in promoting LGBTQ+ inclusion and acceptance in the sport and, whilst Joe believes these are crucial for maintaining awareness and keeping the conversation going, he see’s education as the key driving force behind affecting real change and influencing attitudes long-term.

Asked what he would say to others who are struggling with coming out, Joe said: "Everybody is on their own journey and must follow their own path but don’t let who you are stop you from doing what you love. Football and sexuality are different things, and one should have no bearing on the other."

Despite his own experience, Joe acknowledges discrimination still exists in the game and whilst the experiences of others may differ, he hopes that one day no one will feel they have to hide their identity to participate in the beautiful game.

At Berks & Bucks FA we believe in the power of football to connect people and change lives and hope that through sharing the inspirational stories of people like Joe, whilst promoting different perspectives on the game we all love, that we can help challenge outdated mindsets, break down barriers to participation and ensure football is a game for all.

For most of us growing up, our heroes in the game where the icons of our favourite teams. The ones with the reliable left foot, the match winners, the England stars. The ones we could see, the ones we wanted to be.

For many young boys and girls who may be struggling with their identities or questioning whether football holds a place for them or not, Joe’s story, and the story of others like him are why representation matters. 

Not all heroes wear an England shirt. Some wear Caversham Utd kits.

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