Isca Apollo FC: Exeter-based LGBT team dreams of playing in mainstream league

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Isca Apollo FC: LGBT football team dream of playing in mainstream league

On a chilly Wednesday evening, Isca Apollo FC are training under the floodlights on an all-weather surface in Exeter.

It is a sight seen up and down the country, but these players, who are preparing for their first match, feel their sexuality means they are not welcome in other football teams.

"When I grew up I knew I was gay and knew that I was different and didn't feel like I wanted to play football, even though I wanted to so badly," says Lewis Bell-Cawthra, who co-founded the side.

"It got drummed into my head that I shouldn't play football if I'm gay, that's what I always thought."

But while living in London he found out about a gay-friendly football team via the dating app Grindr, and the rest, as they say, is history.

After moving to Exeter he wanted to carry on playing and so, with the help of local League Two side Exeter City's Community Trust, set up Isca Apollo.

"This is a fun, social activity where people have got the opportunity to play football and be physically active away from prejudice against their sexual orientation or gender assignment," says Jamie Vittles of the City Community Trust.

'We don't want transwomen in the club'

This month Football v Homophobia, an organisation trying to highlight the issues the LGBTQ+ community face in the sport, is holding a month of action, and as part of it, Isca Apollo will parade at half-time during Exeter City's League Two game with Bury on Saturday.

But prejudices still remain in the game.

"Seven years ago I started going back to football," says Melissa Webber, a transgender woman who plays for Isca Apollo.

"I offered my services to a girls' team and they turned round and said 'we don't want transwomen in the club'. Their concern was over safety aspects.

"I totally lost sport because I was turned away, I left sport alone and stayed home at weekends. I felt unwanted and disrespected."

But now with Isca Apollo she has rediscovered her love of the game.

"It means a lot, it's not just getting me out, it's getting me fit, I'm meeting new people. I'm doing things that I love, and the camaraderie afterwards is second-to-none," she adds.

'There are gay footballers out there'

Alisha Lehmann and Ramona Bachmann
West Ham's Alisha Lehmann (left) played against her partner and Chelsea forward Ramona Bachmann

While there are many gay players in women's football - West Ham forward Alisha Lehmann recently played against her partner and Chelsea player Ramona Bachmann in a WSL game - there are no openly gay male professional players in England.

In fact, not since Justin Fashanu came out in 1990 has there been an openly gay professional in the UK, although others, such as former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger and ex-Leeds United player Robbie Rogers, did so after leaving the English game.

"They're scared of what the repercussions are going to be," says Bell-Cawthra.

"When people think a Premier League footballer may be gay the chanting that comes from the stands is disgusting.

"There are gay footballers out there, but a lot of them probably haven't followed their career because they knew they were gay and stopped at the beginning."

Dreaming of playing in a mainstream league

Isca Apollo are preparing to play games against other LGBT sides from around the UK and aim to take part in the Gay Football Supporters' Network (GSFN) league next season.

But the aspiration is to one day play in a mainstream league and be accepted for who they are as footballers, rather than their sexual preferences.

"That would be the dream for me," says Bell-Cawthra.

"There's probably a little way to go before that does happen, not just us but any LGBT-friendly team in any UK league aren't comfortable enough yet.

"The dream really is not to have an LGBT-friendly football team, just to have a football team with people who want to play football, that's the end goal, not to have a separate team that makes people feel safe."

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