In the first of a week-long series of interviews and reports in the build-up to one of the most eagerly-anticipated international encounters in the history of British women’s football, The Mixed Zone’s Katie Whyatt talks to veteran Welsh midfielder Jess Fishlock
Wales midfielder Jess Fishlock is engaging company as she potters about her gleaming home in Seattle after training. A coffee machine whirs in the background and a sound system chirps ‘front door: open’ as the building hums into life. Her season with Seattle Reign is ramping towards its conclusion and they have just qualified for the National Women’s Soccer League play-offs. First, though, she and her Welsh team-mates stand on the brink of their first appearance in the World Cup finals.
There is a widespread feeling that this is a once-in-a-generation Wales side, who are commanding unprecedented levels of national attention. The press office at the Football Association of Wales say that “everyone in the country” wants to interview their manager, Jayne Ludlow. Tickets for the decisive qualifier against England sold out in under 24 hours.
“I think they’re gonna come at us, big time,” Fishlock says in anticipation of England’s approach to the game. “I think that they’re still really annoyed at the 0-0 draw [at Southampton in April]. I think they’re annoyed at their performance, and I think they’re going to come out and kind of show us that they’re England and we’re Wales, and that’s where it lies. It’s going to be very difficult, more difficult than the game before. If we thought the last game was hard, you could probably times this by about five. We’re under no illusions, but we also believe in what we’re doing and we believe in what we’ve done. We believe that we can do what we need to do.”
At 31, Fishlock is one of Wales’ most decorated footballers of all time. In 2017, she became the first Welsh player of either gender to reach 100 caps. She was named Welsh female Footballer of the Year for four successive years until 2014. She has won leagues and cups all over the world: in Holland, Australia, Scotland and the United States. She has a 2015 Champions League winner’s medal from a loan spell with FFC Frankfurt.
On the pitch, she presses and harries like a terrier as she plunders possession, but becomes a visionary with the ball at her feet. Off the field, she is also one of the world’s most visible gay athletes. This year, she received an MBE for “services to football and the LGBT community”. A sleeve tattoo races down her left arm, and an inking of an old pocket watch curls over her left bicep. A quote from the Harry Potter books snakes over its surface: you are protected, in short, by your ability to love.
“I knew at a relatively young age that I was gay,” Fishlock explains. “For me personally, I was comfortable in myself. I was comfortable being gay. It wasn’t something that I wished that I wasn’t or that I wanted to change. Because it was so much of my life, it wasn’t a big deal to me at all. I just needed to be OK with that and be OK with what that meant for me, and I was. It was just such a big part of who I was that I couldn’t really hide it.
“I think the only concern I had at the time was what it meant for my family. Would it hurt my little sisters if people in school knew? Were people going to start abusing my mum and dad around the community? Stuff like that is the thing that hurts you the most. If they throw it at me, and I don’t really care and they know it’s not hurting me, then they’ll go after a way to hurt you. That’s often your family and friends. That was always the one thing for me – and the only thing for me – that was a concern about me being gay.
“I tried to protect my family for a few years, and then it got to a point where I was, like, ‘Look: this is just who I am. I’m going to come out and be public, and if that comes back on you guys, I’m so sorry’. The last thing you want is for you being you to end up causing your family pain or abuse. But at the end of the day, you can’t just hide who you are for that – you just have to deal with it when it happens.”
She describes the women’s game as “probably the best sport for its visibility and its role models and its support of the LGBT community”. Back in June, Fishlock’s Seattle Reign team-mate Megan Rapinoe and her girlfriend, Seattle Storm basketball player Sue Bird, became the first same-sex couple to appear on the cover of ESPN’s Body Issue.
Perhaps inevitably, the conversation turns to openly gay footballers in the men’s game – or the lack of. Britain’s only openly-gay male footballer, Liam Davis, who plays for Torquay United in the National League, insists he has “not had one problem in football since I came out”. But statistics published in 2016 by LGBT equality charity Stonewall revealed 72 per cent of football fans had heard homophobic abuse while watching men’s football, and more than half believed the FA, the Premier League and the EFL “are not doing enough to tackle anti-gay abuse”. Earlier this year, Stonewall condemned The Sun for speculating about a Premier League footballer’s sexuality. Why, in Fishlock’s eyes, is the men’s game at such a different stage in its attitude to homosexuality?
“I just think because no one’s done it,” Fishlock says. “There’s zero visibility in the men’s game. And I understand it. I’m not being funny, but I don’t know how much society would accept a gay player coming out in the EPL right now. I mean, I would love that society would act in the way that it should. But if that guy misses an open goal, are you telling me that’s not going to be the first abuse that gets hurled at him? That is what’s going to happen.”
That has happened to her? “Yeah,” she says. “It’s everyone’s first go-to. Everyone’s. But I’m fine. I don’t care about that. It just makes me laugh, really, because it’s so stupid and it’s so pathetic. ‘You missed this chance because you’re gay’. Well, no.
“But that’s just people’s go-to, and it’s unfair to push someone to be in that limelight in that moment. They have to do it themselves, and they have to be ready to do it and make that change. Coming out publicly as an athlete – as a male athlete – is a huge thing. It’s huge. There have been a couple out here [in the United States] and the response has been sensational.
“I believe that if there are gay athletes out there, male athletes, they’ll know that at some point they can make a huge, positive change. But they have their reasons why they don’t, and I don’t feel like we should be the ones that question that, vilify that or push them to come out for the wrong reasons. Because in order to break the homophobic situation, when male athletes come out, they have to come out knowing that they will get abuse, and that when they do get abuse that they’re going to be OK with that.
“That has to be someone who is super secure, and is so OK with where they are in life and with their family support system. That’s what we’re asking them to do. As much as everybody wants to see it, I would rather it take a little bit more time and someone do it for the right reasons – for themselves. Because the last thing you’d want is for somebody to come out, and then realise that they weren’t ready and they weren’t OK. That will have a huge effect on them as a person. I believe it will be done very soon – but what we can’t do as a society is push for it to happen to try and make society better. I think it’s important that the message is: it’ll be OK when it happens. There are so many people who have come out, who are gay athletes, who can help and support them.”
Fishlock has great respect for Jayne Ludlow, who became Wales manager just two years after she retired from a playing career during which she won her first international cap aged 17, captained her country and became Arsenal Ladies’ all-time leading goalscorer. “She understands what it’s like being a woman’s professional football player,” says Fishlock. “When she was as successful as she was, she had it a lot harder than we did. The last couple of years, more [of our squad] have become professional, more of them have become pro players in the WSL. That helps the training and conditioning. She knows what it takes and she knows how to get through to us from a player’s perspective. She respects what we do – it’s not like a dictatorship.
“Jayne is quirky. She does some stuff and I’m, like, ‘Jayne, I don’t understand what’s going on here’. She has a great personality; she’s very fun and she wants us to make sure that we are enjoying what we’re doing. It works so well because there is that kind of spectrum, where she understands when it’s time to relax. But she also understands when it’s time to hold us to a higher expectation and a higher standard. She understands that because she used to play. She gets it.”
Amid the good-luck wishes ahead of Wales’ final qualifier, Fishlock will receive messages from all over the world. She receives streams of letters from fans struggling with their own sexuality. Some are on the brink of suicide or self-harm. But then they see Fishlock, successful and supported, radiating strength, happiness and self-assurance. And they decide to stay.
“It’s so important that people understand that it’s OK,” she says. “Even if, in that moment, it seems like your world’s crashed down, time is the best kind of healer. I truly believe that. I know it’s a cliché, but people start to understand stuff a little bit more. And I truly believe that a big part of homophobia is really a lack of understanding and education, rather than hatred.”
She smiles. “I’m glad that me just being me has helped people realise they’re great. They’re fantastic. They’re absolutely fine and perfect just the way they are, and it’s important they realise that.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Whyatt. Katie’s latest articles