Newcastle Panthers captain backs 'vital' Rainbow Laces campaign with Newcastle United Foundation
A committed manager, captain and centre-half for Newcastle Panthers Football Club, John Harper has become a role model in his own right.
Dedicating more than a decade to the North East's first and only LGBTQ+ football team supported by Newcastle United Foundation, the 35-year-old is a keen advocate for inclusion, diversity, and acceptance for all through the sport he loves.
Harper joins his fellow teammates on the pitch each week for training in West Denton, Newcastle, with support from Foundation Football Development team coaches, helping to structure sessions and build player performance.
Through the Panthers, the Foundation supports 30 LGBTQ+ participants and actively promotes as supports inclusive campaigns such as Stonewall's Rainbow Laces which is being celebrated at Tuesday night's game between Newcastle United and Norwich City.
Harper said: "Campaigns like Rainbow Laces are a reminder that there's still a need for further education and awareness of LGBTQ+ issues in sport.
"For me, it's the fact the campaign is visible, and it highlights the need for inclusivity in the sport, no matter what anyone's sexuality is.
"Rainbow Laces is promoted at all levels, so even though it's promoted at Premier League games, grassroots players, coaches and managers can also visibly support the campaign by wearing rainbow laces at a local level.
"As the campaign suggests, this allows us to 'make sport everyone's game'."
By wearing laces in ace, bi, lesbian, non-binary, pan, rainbow and trans flag colours, everyone can provide visibility for LGBTQ+ people in sport and awareness around experiences of the community.
The movement celebrates the impact sport has on LGBTQ+ people, and the impact LGBTQ+ people have on sport - promoting equality and diversity for all through organisations like Newcastle United Foundation, sports clubs, and grassroots groups.
During Tuesday night's game, supporters will see support for the Rainbow Laces campaign around St. James' Park, with rainbow flag armbands, pin badges, ball plinth, and jumbotron messaging.
At Newcastle United, anyone who witnesses or experiences discrimination or feels threatened while they are at St. James' Park can text 'HELP', followed by their seat number and details of what has happened to 60070.
Like many others in the stadium on Tuesday, Harper was one of millions of people moved by Josh Cavallo's coming-out video posted last month across social media. By sharing his story, the Adelaide United left-back has become the only current top-flight male professional footballer in the world who is openly gay.
"Josh Cavallo is a role model for other players going through the same experience," said Harper. "We need more role models like him. His coming out not only has a huge impact on the LGBTQ+ community, but on society.
"The response to Josh coming out shows how much football as a sport and how society has progressed. I've watched his video and Josh mentions he felt 'ashamed' of who he was - this shouldn't be the case and his video can only help those going through a similar experience to realise that.
"The response to Josh coming out was - as he's alluded to - absolutely immense. Messages of support on his Twitter account highlighted this with sports stars like Olivier Giroud and Marcus Rashford MBE, as well as clubs from around the world including Liverpool and Barcelona, showing their support.
"This should send a clear message out to all those going through a similar experience, that it's okay to be gay and play football."
Now a teacher living in Gateshead, Harper is hopeful younger generations can grow up in inclusive communities - accepting and welcoming across all aspects of society, from sport, to work and education.
In figures published by ICM for Stonewall in 2020, around 20 per cent of sports fans currently think anti-LGBTQ+ language is harmless if it's just meant as 'banter'.
Harper admitted: "One of the biggest barriers for me in making sport and football more inclusive is the language used around football grounds and - to some extent - in society as a whole.
"It includes comments that some people may see as 'banter', but it can be disrespectful to certain groups of society.
"For me, this is what stops some young people from being themselves if they're aware of other people's supposed feelings towards a particular group in society.
“Eradicating this can be achieved through education and this is fundamental if we're to create a truly diverse and inclusive society."
Harper added: "It's another reason why Rainbow Laces is vitally important as it educates those involved within football about issues around sport and homophobia."
Growing up in South Yorkshire, Harper honed his talent at Barnsley's Academy for six years before accepting trials at Hull and Scunthorpe. By his late teens, a career in professional football eventually slipped away, but still looking for opportunities to play, Harper found the Panthers while studying at university in Newcastle.
"I've been involved with the Newcastle Panthers since they formed in 2008," Harper said. "The Panthers have been supported by Newcastle United Foundation since 2017 and my first experience of the charity was being offered coaching sessions on a weekly basis and sponsorship for a new kit.
"As a club, we were extremely pleased to have a Premier League club supporting their local LGBTQ+ team and there was a buzz around the team when it happened, especially for those Newcastle United fans.
"Other LGBTQ+ clubs from around the UK are aware of the partnership with Newcastle United Foundation and this is acknowledged by those clubs as a way of breaking down barriers to participation and becoming a totally inclusive sport.
"The main way the Foundation has helped me is by helping to increase awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in sport and in society - it's been fantastic."
For Harper, playing for the Panthers has offered him opportunities of a lifetime like playing on the pitch at St. James' Park - becoming the first LGBTQ+ inclusive team to play at the home ground of a Premier League club.
He said: "The Foundation continue to provide weekly training sessions for the Panthers - this has helped the team massively, especially over the pandemic, as the weekly training sessions have not only helped improve our physical wellbeing, but our mental wellbeing as well.
"There have been a few standout experiences from my time at the Panthers, including winning the Gay Football Supporters' Network (GFSN) National Cup in 2011 and the GFSN Summer Tournament in 2018, which was held in Newcastle.
"It was also an honour to represent the Foundation at the Third Sector Awards at an event in London in 2018. The Newcastle Panthers were also awarded the United As One Award for a commitment to ending discrimination and inequality in the game at Newcastle United Foundation's Annual Awards Dinner in 2019, and we've also had the opportunity to play at St. James' Park in May 2021."
Newcastle Panthers always welcome new players of all standards and meet weekly for training for campaigns in both the GFSN Football League and the Midlands Unity League.
"Many of our current players did this and they are still with the club several years after that initial contact. For anyone else interested in other sports, contact your local LGBTQ+ sports team or club."
Newcastle Panthers are also supported by players of the People's Postcode Lottery through the Foundation, helping to educate, inspire and connect communities across the North East.
"Campaigns like Rainbow Laces are a reminder that there's still a need for further education and awareness of LGBTQ+ issues in sport. For me, it's the fact the campaign is visible, and it highlights the need for inclusivity in the sport, no matter what anyone's sexuality is."