As an avid Spurs fan and Co-Founder/Co-Chair of Tottenham Hotspur’s official LGBTQ+ supporters’ group (Proud Lilywhites), Chris Paouros is passionate about ensuring football is a safe and welcoming environment for all. In holding further positions in the football industry, such as a Trustee for Kick it Out, Board Member at the Football Supporters Association and Inclusion Advisory Board Member for the FA, Chris’ knowledge and understanding of equality, diversity and inclusion - coupled with a long-held interest in cultural studies - empowers her to positively impact change and encourage the football industry to play its part in influencing society to embrace the overall idea that football enables us to, ‘Work, play, celebrate and commiserate together.’
I have always been a campaigner, although I haven’t always labelled myself as that. It was only when I took the time to think about the work I have been involved in that ultimately, I realised that’s what I am. I remember when I was 13 years old; it was a particularly cold winter and I was a pupil at a large comprehensive school in North London. Girls weren’t allowed to wear trousers, even though it was really cold and so I started a campaign with some of my friends. I’m pleased to say that we won; girls were allowed to wear trousers from that winter and they continue to do so to this day! Also, at university, I co-chaired the women’s group, which was an active organisation. I guess that sense of campaigning is in my blood; there has always been an element of organising, campaigning and standing up for the things I believe in with the work I have been a part of.
I also have a degree in Cultural Studies, so I have an understanding and interest in issues around race, gender, sexual orientation etc., but through the lens of what our cultural beliefs are and how we navigate the world in regard to these factors. However, when I finished university, I ended up in a job outside of this area; an area that I didn’t expect to find myself in either. From there, I became really busy, although I kept my involvement with football.
I went to university in Birmingham and came back to London after studying. When I got home, I realised I didn’t know any lesbians in London so I was at a bit of a loose end socially. However, my flatmate was a friend from university and her girlfriend played for a lesbian football team. I’d heard of the football team before and I was interested in participating, although at that point, I had only played football occasionally and I had also suffered a back injury when I was younger. But I love football; I watch a lot of matches and I am engaged with the sport so I thought, ‘I quite fancy being the manager of this team.’ That’s who I am; I am an organiser and a cheerleader. I’m good at encouraging and motivating people and I understand football too.
The experience I gained from managing the team has helped me throughout my career and I find that I can quite quickly grasp an understanding of who people are in a team and what they want to get out of it. It was a Sunday league football team made up of such a mix of abilities but people loved it. For a start, they loved the team for being a lesbian football team; in fact, we think it was the first ‘out’ lesbian football team in Europe. But overall, there was such camaraderie and everybody had the chance to play, regardless of ability. It worked really well.
I told myself when I was a child, that when I got myself a job, I would get myself a season ticket at Tottenham Hotspur and so in 1996, I went to the ticket office to get one. The woman in the ticket office said to me, “Where would you like to sit?” I said, “Oh I don’t mind but I don’t really want to be behind the goal.” I didn’t even go and have a look at the seats but I was given a seat in the East Stand, which I loved and I sat there for 20 years at White Hart Lane. But… you know the big pillar that’s there?
Well, I was about 4 rows behind that so for 20 years I didn’t see the 18-yard line!
I was watching a lot of football and if I fast forward to 2012, I saw this ‘thing’ on Twitter. It annoys me to say this but it was the driving force behind the Proud Lilywhites so I’m going to be honest… I saw this ‘thing’ pop up on Twitter called the Gay Gooners and I thought, ‘What’s that and why haven’t we got one?’ I started putting a few enquiries out there on Twitter to get some answers, which was like shouting into the abyss, but eventually, somebody responded to one of my tweets and told me who I should speak to about an LGBTQ+ supporters’ group.
At the time, the very first Rainbow Laces campaign (2013) was attached to Paddy Power. Their campaign was essentially dumping a box of rainbow laces at every football ground and insinuating that if players weren’t wearing them, the club must be homophobic. Attached to that was their creative campaign, which if you know the tone of their other campaigns, was a, ‘Get behind (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) your gay football players.’ From Spurs’ perspective it was a, ‘No thank you, we are not interested in your creative’ but more generally, it made the club think about how they engaged with their LGBTQ+ fans because it was something they hadn’t really done. Spurs put something out through their channels and there was also an organisation called GFSN, which stood for Gay Football Supporters’ Network, although it turned out that it wasn’t really a supporters’ network, they actually ran a football league. However, they were trying to establish themselves as a group who helped other groups to launch, including helping us. It all culminated into 8 of us sitting in a room at White Hart Lane, on a wet Tuesday, as opposed to playing Barnsley away on a wet Wednesday...
One of the real instrumental people within the room – and in any story of the Proud Lilywhites you have to mention him – was Jonathan Waite. Jonathan was the Supporter Liaison Officer and sadly passed away in 2018. He was so instrumental in the Proud Lilywhites forming and so invested in getting the group started. He even contacted Dr Emma Poulton (Sociologist and Spurs fan) of his own accord and asked her to suggest some reading that would help him with knowledge and understanding of LGBTQ+. But on the evening it all started, he said to us, “Right, this is yours so you need to decide what you want to do with it.”
We came up with three key points that we still use to this day. The first, is that we want the group to be social because that’s important for bringing LGBTQ+ fans together, whether that’s creating a safe space to watch football matches or being the catalyst in bringing fans back to the stadium because they know we exist to support them. The second, is campaigning so that events such as Rainbow Laces, Football versus Homophobia’s month of action, Trans Day of Visibility etc. are appropriately acknowledged and celebrated. This is the area that is really important to me and that’s for two reasons really. Firstly, generally we need to make football better in this area and secondly, a lot of people talk about football as being a mirror of society but I think we have the ability to make it a leader. Football is a sport where we learn to work, play, celebrate and commiserate together; football clubs are embedded into their communities because they can make such a positive impact in people’s lives. In the same way, I believe we can use football to positively affect a wider cultural change.
The third and final key point we established in the first Proud Lilywhites meeting, was education because you don’t campaign unless you think and feel that things can change for the better. For us, it’s not about throwing banning orders at fans who are involved with some form of homophobic action, behaviour or language, it’s about educating fans in the area of LGBTQ+; education can be used as part of a sanction to drive positive change.
We knew there was already a lot of great work being done and so we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel but instead, we wanted to talk to groups and clubs that already existed; how we could collaborate with them. We met with Lou Englefield from the Football versus Homophobia campaign, Troy Townsend from Kick it Out, Anwar Uddin from the FSA - who also runs the Fans for Diversity campaign (a joint campaign between Kick it Out and the FSA) - and I also met with Women in Football via a panel event. We started in that way, looking at all of the work that was already happening. It became clear to me – and this is one of the reasons why I have deliberately chosen not to work in football even though I love it – is that by not being on the payroll, I can maintain my independence in an area that’s so important to me. It means I can hold organisations to account, even internally, as well as bringing people together that may be reluctant to work together. There isn’t as much collaboration as I would hope to exist in this area, although it has got much better—just look at the unity in football for the social media boycott. I love bringing people together though, finding ways for organisations and people to bring about positive change.
At the end of 2014, when all of this work was kicking off, I went through a tough personal period, which came at me unexpectedly. The work I was involved with was anchoring me though and almost a driving force behind me thinking about what I was doing with my life. I loved the job I was in at the time but I was working from 7 in the morning to 7 at night and I didn’t want to do that anymore. 2015 was a bit of a blur as I steered myself through an immensely tough period but then at the start of 2016, I gave up my job and started to work for myself, with the goal of trying to work just 3 days a week. Having that focus and flexibility has enabled me to be involved in the football projects properly; I have created time and space so I can be dedicated to my volunteer roles. I don’t work in football but I do work in football! I am attached to organisations to have a say but independent enough to be able to bring groups together and attend events with an open-mind.
I want to mention a new group that has just kicked-off and I am a Co-Founder of, which is a collective of LGBTQ+ professionals in football. It will bring everyone who is LGBTQ+ and working in the football industry, together to network, whether they are a journalist, they work in a club, work in a governing body, are a player…
Welcome to the Proud Lilywhites | The official LGBTQ+ Association of Tottenham Hotspur (wordpress.com)
Spurs Proud Lilywhites Range | Official Spurs Shop (tottenhamhotspur.com)
That was a very lengthy answer to how I became involved in football!
From the Proud Lilywhites perspective, I am the Co-Founder and Co-Chair, which means I assist in driving the strategy that we create each year as a committee. We have a calendar of touchpoints throughout the year in which we plan for and we look at fixtures that we can use to promote such awareness days or campaigns. We want to be innovative but within the parameters of our three key factors I mentioned earlier and actually, lockdown has been really interesting as we’ve had to be innovative. We’ve been holding matchday Zoom meetings with our members and we think we are going to continue with these going forward because not everyone has access to attend the matches. We’ve also hosted a Q&A with Ossie Ardiles and Gary Mabbutt and for our 7th birthday we made a video of birthday wishes with all of the past and present players who have worn the number 7. Visibility matters to us and promoting our allies and role models as supporters of LGBTQ+ is important.
We also had a Q&A with Pierre-Emile HØjbjerg and Eric Dier, which was brilliant; I keep going on about it to everyone! A 4-minute clip has been uploaded to Sky Sports and the Spurs’ media channels but we have the full 40-minute recording and are trying to work out what we can do with it.
Dier and Hojbjerg's virtual Q&A with Proud Lilywhites members (tottenhamhotspur.com)
So we have this strategy, along with terms of reference with the club, which we have because we are an official supporters’ club. As part of these terms, we have an annual meeting with Donna Cullen, who is an Executive Director. We sit down with Donna and we set out the vision for the year, along with reflecting on the previous year; what went well and what didn’t. If in that meeting, we receive a broad agreement that our plans are accepted, that enables us to approach areas of the club and start activating those plans. Overall, my job is to be a part of setting our strategy, to have the meetings with the club; to make sure that our members are having their say and that our membership WhatsApp group is functioning. I also run the Proud Lilywhites’ Twitter account and often make official comments as one of the spokespeople for the group.
We also carry out some work with the club directly. For example, we have just been involved with a training session with staff members who are involved with the club’s equality working group. There were around 25 staff members and it was great; it worked really well. We ran the training in conjunction with Anwar and Fans for Diversity because that gives us the opportunity to look at LGBTQ+ issues in the context of all of the protected characteristics. I often say, “Homophobia doesn’t travel alone; it’s often with its mate’s racism, ableism, misogyny etc.” Working with Fans for Diversity enables us to encompass all of the issues faced by each and every protected characteristic.
In terms of my roles at Kick it Out (Trustee) and the FSA (National Council & Board Member), they are more traditional governance roles. As a Trustee of a charity or as a Director of a not-for-profit organisation, you have a governance role which is a fiduciary duty really. Although, you obviously have to care about the mission to be able to do the role properly and being inside the organisation means you can affect change too. From my perspective in regard to my role at Kick it Out, it’s important to me for LGBTQ+ matters to be on the agenda but I also do a lot of anti-racism campaigning and I believe I am an active ally and not a performative one. Those issues really matter to me and I think Kick it Out has an important place in English football. If I can help to drive change in such an organisation, I will do that. I attend quarterly board meetings and I chair the Finance and Risk Committee at the moment too. I am also on their People and Culture Committee and I can also be an official spokesperson for them, especially if it’s on matters regarding LGBTQ+ or women’s football. I want Kick it Out to be the very best it can be.
My role with the FSA started from a Fans for Diversity perspective. When the FSF and Supporters Direct merged to become the FSA, they had a look at all of their governance procedures and they realised they wanted, within their own governance structures, to be reflective of the diversity of football fans. Part of the governance process was agreeing that they needed 3 representatives on the FSA National Council and 1 from Fans for Diversity. I was one of the selected representatives. Recently, we kicked off a campaign called Terrace Talk, which is all about mental health and football fans. We had a fantastic panel and Anwar and I co-hosted it; we work so well together we joked we should be hosting the One Show. So with that said, as a board member, I am happy to be active in their campaigning work.
Lastly, the FA role (Inclusion and Advisory Board Member) is about having a group of people who have a real interest in inclusion, come together to help the FA to build their strategy on equality, diversity and inclusion. It’s a check and challenge role really…
I don’t know because I don’t know what role it would be. I wouldn’t want to be pigeon-holed into one area or one job because I am a generalist; I don’t just do one thing! I am not a communications professional, or a HR professional, or a finance professional, although I have worked in all those areas in some capacity for over 20 years. I think sometimes we have to look up and look out, rather than let people focus on one job and make them believe that one area is their only area. But if you have more than one focus, that usually means you have a senior role and in football, that often means you have a particular commercial background, which I don’t have.
I have 25+ years of work experience but I suppose my passion is to be a collaborator, so being a co-chair, board member or trustee is what works for me. I can still ‘do me’ but the overriding factor is that I am passionate and I feel responsible for the roles that I have. The most important thing for me is to look at football as a whole; the opportunity it has to drive change. If I worked for a football club, my loyalty and responsibility would be to that club and I want to look at the industry in a bigger way and wear many hats while I do that.
I really like Women in Football and I am an active member with them; I am an advocate for the group. One of my favourite things I was involved in during lockdown was an interview I did with Laura Woods, which was great. I think Women in Football do such great work. I was tempted to apply for a board role there but I think I would’ve had to give something up if I was offered the position and I am not quite ready to give up any of my other roles just yet!
I am an active advocate for the women’s game in this country too and I have an interest and real understanding of grassroots football as well.
Women in Football - In conversation: Chris Paouros talks to Laura Woods
It may be a lofty ambition but I want to see a game that is free from any discrimination and a game that can be a beacon for other parts of society; to say if we can do it in football, we can do it everywhere else.
I want there to be a time where we don’t need to have an LGBTQ+ group too. That’s what we’ve said from day one with the Proud Lilywhites, that we want a time to come where we are not needed; we can put ourselves out of business.
The feeling I had when I walked out to my first game at White Hart Lane in 1980, where there were all these people around me - I had never seen so many people in one space - there was such an atmosphere of anticipation and hope; a collective crackle in the air. I still get that feeling every time I walk into a football ground. There is something special about that feeling we experience as football fans. You can speak to the same person every other week for 5 years and still not have a clue what their name is but there is something special about that. I saw something fantastic on Twitter, a Spurs fan had posted a picture of a message on their Apple Watch which said he wasn’t doing any physical activity but his heart rate was at 120bpm. He posted, ‘This is what watching Spurs does to you.’ All of those feelings should be experienced by everyone; nobody should be denied that opportunity.
So that’s what I want to see, a game that is free of discrimination and a game that is available, accessible and inclusive to everyone.
I always say that Rainbow Laces is for life and not just for Christmas (December is the designated month for this campaign). It’s good to have times to highlight work and promote equality but it’s important to ensure that clubs, governing bodies and the wider football ecosystem are doing great work all year round; LGBTQ+ is being embedded into everything they do. To have moments to showcase work is helpful but I know there is a lot of great work happening in football all the time and I am pleased to say that Spurs are one of the clubs doing such great work; they have diversity and inclusion at the heart of everything they do. For example, the training with Tottenham Hotspur that I referred to earlier happened because they want to embed EDI into everything they do; it wasn’t held to tick a box or because it looks like a nice comms piece they can use. Awareness days and campaigns are enablers and springboards, rather than a reason to be active, and if those enablers and springboards are there, let’s use them.
It’s exactly that, volunteer. I knew Kick it Out a long time before I was a Trustee; I would attend their events and offer to help out. Charitable organisations will always want volunteers so if you have passion and interest to be involved in this area, become a volunteer. It’s a great way to be able to help out in the industry and showcase your skills too.
Or, why not start something yourself? We did that with the Proud Lilywhites and it’s been a great success.
Hear more from Chris on the Echoes of Glory podcast
Echoes of Glory 🎙⚽️ (@_EchoesOfGlory) / Twitter
Interviewer: Sascha Gustard-Brown
Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.