Rainbow Devils in United We Stand

This interview with our chair, Eric Najib, was printed in the March 2023 edition of United We Stand, reproduced with kind permission. For information on how to pick up a copy and subscribe, as well as listen to their podcast, visit www.uwsonline.com.

UWS spoke to Eric Najib, chair of Rainbow Devils – United’s first officially recognised LGBTQ+ supporters’ club.

How did the group come about in the first place and what are its aims?

“We formed in February 2019, I’ve been a season ticket holder since I was 15. We saw other Premier League and Football League clubs that had LGBTQ+ fan groups and I felt that United should do the same thing. We’ve just tried to progress and grow as best we can with the support of the club and other organisations like MUST. We had the unveiling of our banner at Old Trafford in the last year which was a huge thing for us and the visual sighting shows United is for everyone, as it should be. Our membership has grown to over 300, we attended Manchester Pride with 30 people and by the end 50 or 60 had tagged along.

Everything is in place with mission statements and a strong committee. We have a good relationship with the club but we are officially recognised as opposed to an official supporters’ club. We want to be able to have that distinction with independence.

Our aim is to have a dialogue with everyone at United, which includes the club, fanzines, supporters’ trusts and so on!’

There was plenty of discussion around a certain chant aimed at Frank Lampard during the Everton game in January. Could you explain why someone who is part of the LGBTQ+ community could find it offensive?

It’s important that we aren’t there to be seen as a group that just wants to meet up and have drinks, we’re there to educate the greatest support of any club. Its important we get the messaging right. It is offensive, despite whatever people may think, and derogatory and homophobic. The term ‘rent boys’ is slang for a young man who is having to sell themselves to make money. People that argue that straight guys do it too miss the point. It has been criminalised, It’s seen as a hate crime. There were people who thought there was nothing wrong with the J-sung Park and Lukaku songs. If we want to be a fanbase that embraces everyone we don’t need to be singing it.

We have such a vast songbook compared to any other club, we don’t need it. We’re the first set of fans that always kick off about other clubs that sing Who are you?’ etc and other generic songs, but when we play Chelsea or Everton we sing the same one that every other side has sung. We should be embracing the uniqueness we have on our terraces. The amazing songs that we have are there for all to see.

We have far bigger fights as United fans and this is so easy to eradicate, but I think there is a stubbornness because people don’t see it for what it is. Times have moved on – if it is offensive to a certain group of the fanbase we should take the moral high ground and do something else.

We have such a great fanbase which is often self-policed. We don’t need to be told what is right and wrong because someone who has been going for years will tell you this is how to behave as a United fan. Most United fans are not homophobic or racist. I’m a well-known United fan; I go home and away and everyone has accepted me for who l am since I came out in 1999. Other people might have had it differently, but I can only talk about my own personal experiences.

Most people are just joining in. If you speak to people one on one, they won’t be singing it. It’s the mentality of following the crowd. That’s why I’m a believer in education before punishment. If that messaging isn’t getting across then the club should act.”

Manchester city had a big presence at pride this summer despite the rights given to LGBTQ+ people in the UAE, and we saw how the Newcastle takeover split their fanbase. How would you react if a nation state with a poor human rights record bought United?

“One of our members is on the Pride in Football committee group and the Newcastle group left after the takeover: I can categorically say on behalf of our supporters club and most United fans that we would not accept a nation state of any kind, let alone one with questionable human rights or poor LGBTQ+ rights. Having said that the problem we have is whoever the next owners are, it won’t be Mother Teresa. As individuals we will all have a different red line. In the same way the current one was for many people who joined FC United. It’s interesting to see who it will be.

How helpful has the current regime been in terms of supporting the group?

“The club has been extremely supportive and are doing the right things. We are part of the All Red AIl Equal campaign but that doesn’t mean we don’t challenge them to do more. We always will. But we are independent, not an official supporters’ branch. The big distinction is that being officially recognised means that we can’t apply for match tickets as a group.

One thing I have always felt strongly about is that it is easy for other clubs to get away tickets together because the allocation is less. I don’t think our sexual identity should qualify us for match tickets – to me that is a separate issue with the demand. We
want to be part of the club, but we don’t want to alienate ourselves from other groups and be detrimental to what we are trying to achieve.”

What are the plans going forward for the group – moving forward in terms of membership numbers and making more fans feel inclusive?

“The group can grow as much as it needs to. We are meeting up more before games with allies and being a platform within our community. I have two people on the committee who hadn’t set foot in Old Trafford for a good few years because they didn’t
feel it was an inclusive and safe space, but now they have the confidence back in themselves to go to matches. I’m quite fortunate because I’m a confident person, but not everybody is.

We are there for two purposes: socially, so people can meet like-minded people, but also to be a mouthpiece to speak to the likes of MUST or TRA when people have personal negative experiences at matches or collective ones like the Everton game.

James Young