Darryl Telles describes the joy and jeopardy of being a black, gay football fan in the 1980s
There are three things that really get me interested in life: football, sex and politics. They’re what I know, what I love and what define me. I’ve been a Spurs fan for as long as I can imagine, and I’ve known that I prefer men sexually for probably the same period of time. I couldn’t imagine life without my beloved Spurs, just as I couldn’t envisage denying that I loved men. And loving men in the late 1980s inevitably meant that if you wanted to be out, you had to be political.
Thatcher was still reigning in Downing Street and the notorious ‘Section 28’ law defined what she and her populist government thought of the LGBT community. Local government, where I worked, was prevented by that law from providing council services tailored to us. We were meant to feel we were outsiders and should stay invisible, stigmatised because of our sexuality. In the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, I was working with schools to address these issues and came across the effects of this law. On one such occasion, I was on a local commercial station in London, Spectrum Radio, discussing the issue and the reporter prevented me from even using the term ‘gay men’ as he thought, wrongly as it happens, that Section 28 made it illegal for me to do so. Less than a generation ago, it seems that we were on a different planet from where we are now, but these were the times when there were few openly out gay actors, only one out gay MP and no sports stars, let alone football players, who were comfortable about being out. It was a time of fear and much loathing.
It is still a matter of conjecture when I actually became a Spurs fan. It was, like my discovery that I was gay, some time during my years at a North London primary school. At school it was a choice between Arsenal and Spurs, the two local teams closest to Finchley, and I chose the latter.
My brother has a different tale to tell. Terry claims that on his specially-converted bike, which included a seat for me, we were stopped by two skinheads, one a Chelsea fan and the other a Spurs supporter, who asked us both what team we supported. I blurted out ‘Spurs’, whilst my brother said ‘Chelsea’. It was the late 1960s and in those times, if you were young Asian kids, you usually tried to agree with what older white skinheads said.
Whenever it was, I was a confirmed Spurs fan by the time we beat Aston Villa to claim the League Cup in 1971. I can definitely remember listening to that on the radio.
My first visit to the home of Spurs, White Hart Lane, didn’t materialise until the 1978-79 season, which was our return to the top flight after only one season in Division Two. On the 14 November 1978 we played Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, who were then the reigning champions. We lost 3-1 and all I can remember of that match is the crowd in the Paxton Road end where I was standing leading a chant of ‘Brian Clough is a homosexual’. They had inferred this from his close friendship with Peter Taylor, his assistant coach. This is an irony, given Clough’s less than supportive reaction when one of his own players was outed. The player, Jutin Fashanu, later committed suicide.
Given what I was feeling at that time about coming to terms with my own sexuality, I wasmore than a bit scared by this chant. In the years preceding this, I had been taken by Terry to Stamford Bridge and had witnessed the racism displayed earnestly by some of the Chelsea fans. I really felt once again that I didn’t fit in, and that I might as well give up my love for football if I wanted to stay out of the closet, or stay safe as a person of colour.
I spent my £5 weekly pocket money on a seat in the West Stand in the Lane the following season. In fact, a fiver was enough for the seat, the return bus fare and a match day programme. I couldn’t afford to go to away matches and didn’t have any friends to travel with, so on the Saturdays when we were playing away from the Lane, I spent the fiver on going to some dive in Soho instead, to explore my sexuality.
By the time the University of Warwick in Coventry beckoned in 1982, I was well and truly hooked on both Soho and the Spurs. With the latter I had even been fortunate enough to get a ticket for the FA Cup Final replay that year, when we beat Queens Park Rangers with a single goal from a Glenn Hoddle penalty. As for the Soho side of things, I had now found places closer to home in Finchley, where I could find men to befriend. I would regularly go to the Black Cap in Camden Town, the oldest gay pub north of the river. It would, in future, be the scene of our celebrations after the 1991 FA Cup final and then again in 1999, when we won the League Cup.
I returned from university a grown man, comfortable with my sexuality and out to family, friends and work colleagues.
If ever there was a turning point in my life, it came two years later in 1989, when I replied to a box advertisement in Gay Times. for volunteers to help establish a Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN). Fascinated by the concept, if a bit wary of what I was letting myself in for, I replied, and within a week I got an invitation to the next meeting and a copy of their newsletter. It was genuine. There was a dating service for sportswear fetishists, but in the main the newsletter contained articles about football, clubs, the issues facing gay fans and opportunities to meet fellow supporters of the team you followed. There was even a League table, which showed that the two most widely supported clubs were Woolwich Arsenal (although the Gunners think they are the Pride of North London, they were originally from south of the river) and there, in second place, the mighty Spurs.
I went along to my first meeting in the Salmon and Compasses pub in Chapel Street market in the Angel, Islington. Not perturbed by a couple of elderly men sitting at the bar in very tight shorts, the vast majority were just as they said – true football fans who like me were comfortable about their sexuality but not comfortable about the homophobia displayed at matches.
Within a year, as the nation got hooked on the Italia ’90 World Cup, the group had rapidly grown to a national network of 350 members, with meetings also being convened in Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol. I took over our media profile by editing and dispatching the monthly newsletter. I also began to organise separate socials just for Spurs fans on Friday nights before our home games, at the King William IV pub in Hampstead. We even joined up with the Gay Gooners from Arsenal to have joint socials before the derby matches and most memorably, before the 1991 FA Cup semi-final.
Single-handedly Paul Gascoigne, probably the best player in the world during the 1990-91 season, took Spurs to their eighth FA Cup Final win, by beating the Woolwich, in that first semi-final between the two clubs, at Wembley Stadium. They had to settle for winning the League as we taunted them with ‘Where’s your Double gone?’ Surely this was the beginning of an era of Spurs dominance.
I became a season ticket holder. It was £79 for the whole season and through GFSN, I now had a group of gay friends to hang around with and the prospect of another European tour to boot. With the Spurs group now attracting upwards of a dozen gay men, four of us decided to get season tickets for the 1991-92 season.
During the pre-season period, GFSN were chosen to appear in the Channel 4 programmestrand for the LGBT community. ‘Out’ was the simple name of the series and our slot was on an issue entitled ‘Personal Best’, which featured GFSN members at one of our socials. The programme appeared on the 10th July 1991. It would be the first time I would appear on television revealing my sexuality. There was no turning back now.
There was protection and validation being in a group, and watching matches together would hopefully mean we could be ourselves. There would be much laughter, some sadness and above all, just an overwhelming sense of relief that we could be open about who we were and what we got up to.
This is an edited version of the introduction to Darryl Telles’s new book We’re Queer and We Should Be Here, buy it here on Amazon.
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Darryl Telles is 52 and has been a season ticket holder at White Hart Lane for nearly 30 years. He’s of Goan descent, born in Kenya and now lives in Hove.
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