Slee working hard to make Leeds United a club open to all
“There are gay players in this country, and I completely understand why they’re keeping that quiet,” said Katie Slee, Academy Education and Player Care Manager at Leeds United. “Because they’ll be scared. They’ll be worried.”
Speaking to members of LGBT+ supporters group Marching Out Together, Slee described how the story of Justin Fashanu, the first openly gay professional male footballer who committed suicide in 1998, has set a terrifying precedent for any footballer thinking of publicly saying ‘this is who I am.’
Now in her 14th season at Thorp Arch, Slee is more determined than ever to promote inclusivity at Leeds United, where last month LGBT+ awareness courses were rolled out to hundreds of people involved at the club – staff, academy players of all ages, their parents and host families.
Delivered by LGBT+ campaign groups Stonewall and Football v Homophobia, Slee feels the training targeted specific issues that are often missed by more general anti-discrimination intiatives and hopes that shaping attitudes of future changing-room leaders can help to create lasting change.
Staff sessions were attended by 170 employees from all across the club – from kitchen and matchday staff, to security and senior managers, including club chief executive Angus Kinnear.
Slee said: “We’ve never done anything like that at the club before – I don’t think any kind of training has been delivered in the space of a week to such a diverse group of people.”
“If you want a culture of inclusivity within a big organisation,” she explained, “those people at the top need to care. We have staff that are prepared to speak out and action the things that they say, rather than just paying lip service to it.”
She also acknowledged the influence of Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa; to prepare players to play under him, the academy has developed a holistic approach which focuses not only on the need to create good players, but also well-rounded individuals too.
To this end, younger academy players got creative to reflect on their session with Football v Homophobia. Following an online art lesson with the “Burley Banksy” Andy McVeigh, the boys designed electric boxes on the theme of LGBT+ inclusion.
The artist will choose a winning design, from a shortlist selected by Leeds United midfielder Mateusz Klich, which he’ll paint on a box near the training ground, creating a visual reminder of an important message – that everybody is welcome.
To complement future training, which Slee hopes will become an annual fixture, the club have been working on something very special – a podcast starring Leeds United Women captain Bridie Hannon, Jermaine Beckford, Marching Out Together chair Stephen Wignal, and ex-Leeds United midfielder Robbie Rogers who, shortly after leaving the Whites, became the first openly gay footballer in Britain since Fashanu.
In this unique discussion, the group dive into LGBT+ issues in the footballing world and explore how education and visibility can change an environment in which, since Rogers came out in 2013, no players have felt comfortable making their homosexuality public.
“We’ve made some steps,” Slee said. “I’d love it to happen here – somebody feels welcome and secure enough to say ‘this is my boyfriend’.”
“I want that to happen.”
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