Joyce Cook: Actions speak louder than words

28 Jun 2021
  • Joyce Cook, FIFA Chief Social Responsibility & Education Officer: We should celebrate and recognise the LGBTIQ+ community’s contribution to football

  • FIFA is dedicated to supporting its member associations in combatting discrimination on account of sexual orientation

  • We have to do better - and we are determined to do so

Every year Pride month during the month of June is a celebration for the LGBTIQ+ community, as well as an opportunity to peacefully protest and raise political awareness of current issues. 

FIFA’s Chief Social Responsibility and Education Officer Joyce Cook discusses FIFA’s ongoing commitment to promoting LGBTIQ+ inclusivity and diversity within football at all levels, and the continued fight against discrimination around the world. 

How important is it to promote diversity and inclusion, for the development of football? 

These two goals go hand in hand – one can’t truly exist without the other. But for this to be the case we have to ensure that football everywhere is accessible, welcoming, safe and enjoyable for everyone. It’s also important to promote and celebrate the game’s rich diversity. As the custodian of global football, it’s a responsibility we take very seriously at FIFA, by using our voice to raise awareness across the game and more widely. 

How would you describe football, as a diverse and representative community, and its role in LGBTIQ+ awareness and inclusion?

Football is incredibly diverse, just look at the most successful teams – both on and off the pitch. More than 40 openly gay and bisexual women took part in the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 in France. Superstars such as Megan Rapinoe and coach Casey Stoney act as positive role models that LGBTIQ+ young people struggling with their sexuality can relate to and feel a sense of pride and belonging, rather than fear and unfounded shame.

We have to face the fact that a great deal of bigotry and hatred towards the LGBTIQ+ community still exists – and that our game is not yet as welcoming and inclusive as it should be. Recent events have reminded us of this both within football and more widely. We have to ask ourselves why most male LGBTIQ+ footballers still feel unable – too afraid – to speak openly about their sexuality. 

Discrimination is largely based on fear and ignorance, but it can cause untold harm and pain with some choosing to leave the sport they love, or worse still, self-harming or even taking their own lives. So much more still needs to be done. That said, there is a great deal of positive work being undertaken across the game to combat homophobia and discrimination and to celebrate diversity and inclusion.

We often speak about the values of football – teamwork, respect, fair play – and tolerance and kindness, too. Unless we truly live by these values, we cannot move forward.

What is FIFA doing to combat discrimination against the LGBTIQ+ community? How could it do even more?

We are fully aware of our responsibility to tackle discrimination in the game as clearly set out in the 11 goals of the FIFA President in his Vision 2020-2023 – Making Football Truly Global.

Most recently, the FIFA President and Secretary General came together to support #Pride2021 with the rainbow flag flying at FIFA HQ for the first time ever in its 117-year history – a small but incredibly symbolic and proud moment for many in the game including myself and other LGBTIQ+ staff, families and allies working at FIFA. 

FIFA’s stance is clear. We have a zero-tolerance position on discrimination, including around our tournaments and events. Ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2022™ in Qatar for instance, FIFA is working closely and in full cooperation with stakeholders including LGBTIQ+ organisations and fan groups, training security forces, staff and match officials in and around the stadiums and law enforcement authorities, to ensure that all fans are welcomed with respect. For future FIFA events, these human rights requirements will also form an integral part of the bidding and hosting processes.

How can football stadia be more welcoming environments for LGBTIQ+ players, coaches, staff and fans?

Education is key. We provide guidance and advice to help our 211 member associations (MAs) in developing their national strategies and actions based on FIFA’s Good Practice Guide on Diversity and Anti-Discrimination. And we urge FIFA’s MAs to work with their local experts to develop tailor-made educational toolkits and solutions. 

This guidance and support is helping to ensure that actions speak louder than words. We need to reiterate the importance of this, and show how we all win when we embrace diversity and inclusivity. As a symbol, we also welcome the rainbow at all FIFA competitions, whether that be a flag, warm-up shirts, bootlaces or through other expression. 

In using social media to promote LGBTIQ+ awareness, how would you assess social attitudes towards inclusivity within football and beyond?

I recognise its value to share information and to promote the values of diversity and inclusion more widely. I am always greatly encouraged when I see how open, positive and friendly the vast majority of users are – much like the greater majority within our game. However, it’s very clear that harassment and abuse is an increasing problem on social media.

It’s a problem that FIFA, in partnership with our MAs and the players themselves, are taking extremely seriously. The legislators and social media platforms need to do more to address this problem and we are reaching out accordingly. 

Which stories have had the greatest impact on you, in terms of LGBTIQ+ representation in sport? 

Mara Gómez recently became the first trans woman to play professionally in Argentina last year, which is a huge landmark, while Lily Parr was championing LGBTIQ+ rights ahead of her time, back in the 1920s. And I, like so many in sport, was deeply heartened to see Carl Nassib come out as the first openly gay NFL player. It was such an important and brave step and Carl’s actions will undoubtedly save lives and offer hope to many young people across sports.

Sadly, it’s going to take still more players and personalities coming out such as Thomas Hitzlsperger – especially in men’s football - before we reach a ‘normalised’ state of play, where it is truly not a big deal anymore. That day will come. Of that, I have no doubt.

Lastly, we should never forget the bravery and suffering others have endured, the shoulders on which we stand today, including Justin Fashanu, the first openly gay male player in Britain who ultimately took his own life. We have to do better - and at new FIFA we are determined to do so.   

We have to be willing and proactive in uplifting the voices of marginalised groups, and that definitely includes the LGBTIQ+ players, staff and fans. And to celebrate and recognise the enormous contributions that they have made to football and to society more widely. 

What did it mean to you to see the rainbow flag proudly raised at the Home of Football?

It was a historic and proud moment for FIFA, our team and myself. For me, it represented a meaningful and genuine reinforcement of our commitment to diversity and inclusion, and our pledge to support the LGBTQI+ community. Everyone is welcome at new FIFA. We mean what we say and we carry these values with us through concrete actions and measures that we hold in the utmost importance, throughout the year.