We had a chat with Fern Whelan, who is the Professional Footballers’ Association’s first Women’s Football Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Executive, to mark the start of the Rainbow Laces campaign.
Before embarking on playing career with Everton, Fern, a Liverpudlian, was heavily involved in grassroots football.
Congratulations on becoming the PFA’s First Women’s Football DEI Executive, what will this involve?
My role at the PFA is a dual role working across the Equalities team and for the Women’s Football department. I will be involved in delivery EDI workshops to clubs across the country, and will be responsible for looking after the needs of the female professional players, ensuring they are aware of the benefits of the PFA, and how we can support them throughout both their playing and post-playing careers. I am looking forward to elevating women’s football to the next level, ensuring that all players have equal access and opportunities to play, and that women’s football makes significant strides in diversity.
What can the professional game, both male and female, do to help diversity and inclusion in the grassroots game?
The male and female professional game comes together regularly to support campaigns such as Rainbow Laces, helping younger people become aware of the support available and the fact they have allies from both sides of the game. The PFA support organisations such as Kick It Out to help ensure that inclusion is a priority of grassroots football. For me, this is massive as this is where the game begins and where I started out. Both sides have a responsibility to ensure that there is greater visibility in not just the playing department, but also in areas such as coaching and refereeing.
Is the Professional Game supporting the Rainbow Laces campaign, if so, how?
The PFA especially is supporting the campaign and has done for eight years now. The organisation works closely with our partners Stonewall to ensure greater recognition of the LGBTQ+ community. It is also great to see that all clubs across the professional game are supportive, which helps greater understanding and a more welcoming environment for all.
Why do you think the Rainbow Laces Campaign is important and what impact do you think the campaign has had in recent years?
I think the Rainbow Laces campaign has definitely become bigger and better as the years have gone on. With more support and more exposure, it has meant that inclusivity has become top of people’s priority list. This is great for everyone involved in football - especially the fans – and it has really sent the message that football is for all and that any discrimination of any kind is not wanted in football.
Is the grassroots game (and football more broadly) accepting of people from the LGBTQ+ community?
I think that football is reflective of society. I have found that young people are a lot more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, and hope that this continues to help football as a whole be more accepting over the coming years. I still think that education and campaigns such as Rainbow Laces are vital for the wider audience.
What support do you/have you received from Liverpool FA/FA and other partners regarding LGBTQ+? What more needs to be done?
During my career as a former professional footballer and former Lioness, I have had plenty of support around the area from both the FA and the PFA. I attended various workshops that were offered to me and was continually educated. As an organisation, the PFA are great at this - not only for the players, but also ensuring that staff are educated, particularly around LGBTQ+ inclusive language and the ways in which we can all best support the community. It is vital that all areas of football recognise this as a priority across their organisations as well.
How can others support the LGBTQ+ football community?
Allies are so important and you do not have to be LGBTQ+ to want to help or show support. Everyone is working towards the same common goal - accepting that everyone has differences and they should be embraced.
If we were to speak again in 12 months, what change would you like to have seen take place?
I would like to see the work around this area not just solely focused on campaigns such as Rainbow Laces, but that there is an increased importance placed on the work in this area. It would be great to see the messages promoted throughout the year and see more organisations wanting to play their part.
What advice would you give to anybody else considering coming out?
I would advise people to ignore any pressure to do so, and to come out on their own terms when they are comfortable. Make use of the support around you and do not be afraid to talk to someone you trust. We are at a place now where you are not alone and many people will be going through the same thing. At the PFA, we work very hard as an organisation to ensure that we create a network of athletes that can speak freely amongst each other and that they will not be on their own. This is so important, and finding your network can really help you when you need that support and someone to talk to.
You can find more information on how to support the Rainbow Laces campaign through the FA's Activation Pack.
Keep an eye out on our website and social media channels throughout the Rainbow Laces campaign for more stories.