Ben Wilmot made his professional debut for Stevenage as a 17-year-old and moved to Watford less than a year later after bids to buy him from a clutch of Premier League clubs.
Since then he has enjoyed loan spells at Swansea and Italian side Udinese, along with appearances for England Under-21s, before a switch to Stoke in 2021.
His older brother Joe is gay and has been on the sidelines supporting Ben since they were boys.
They joined Football Focus to discuss the sport’s relationship with sexuality – in the stands, in the changing rooms and in the media.
Joe: I don’t think there has ever been a time when someone in the family hasn’t been involved in football. Our dad (former Stevenage goalkeeper Richard Wilmot) was still playing while we were growing up.
Mum has got a photo at home of us both on the pitch with him – in full kit – before he played a match for St Albans City.
Dad used to manage your under-14 side and mum and I would run the tea bar, following you around in the freezing cold on a Sunday morning.
I remember Matt Le Tissier giving you a golden football when we went to a football tournament at Butlins one year. That sticks out. Those were really fun times.
More recently, one of my fondest memories of us as a family was coming to see you play for Udinese away to Juventus during your time in Italy.
Ben: I would say that too. It was the first time I had lived away and to have you all come to watch that game was special. I don’t think any of you had watched football abroad. You hadn’t needed to!
Joe: I don’t think we ever actually talked about me coming out at the time. My story is quite a weird one – I came out to mum in a PowerPoint presentation. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind telling dad. I don’t actually know how you came to find out. Did mum tell you?
Ben: Yeah, it wasn’t a passing comment, but it wasn’t a big deal either. Mum told me. I said OK. And that was that. I don’t know what it felt like to you, but, for me, within our family, it didn’t feel like a big thing.
Joe: Yeah. And that is what I wanted. I didn’t want a song and dance about it, I just wanted people to know, so it didn’t become a weird thing.
We went to the same school, you were a few years below me, and no doubt people were talking about it, because back then it wasn’t a particularly common thing to do.
But I didn’t feel I needed to speak to you directly about it. I felt like it was done and then we moved on.
When I have told that story before some people have asked if my family didn’t really care. But that isn’t it. You did care, but we didn’t want it to feel like it was abnormal.
Ben: What are some of your experiences of being gay and football fan?
Joe: I have a running joke with dad that I become a different person at a football match – I don’t recognise that person. I am effing and jeffing, I’m shouting, and my voice, for some reason, goes so much deeper.
It is not intentional or something that I feel I have to do. It is just, watching you, I am really into it.
The thought of being gay and being at a football match has never really crossed my mind. That is probably a bit of a luxury for me.
I know for a fact though some people who are concerned about the reaction to how they present, act or look when they watch a football match.
I am really fortunate in that sense.
Ben: It’s good to hear that you have always felt comfortable watching me because you have not been watching in a corporate box. You have been in away ends and the rest of itâ¦
Joe: I have felt absolutely fine with being gay – I have been 100% comfortable with that – but watching you play is really hard. Mum and dad will attest to that. We spend the entire game stressed out! But the gay part of it is absolutely fine.
How do you think football has come on in the last 10 years or so, being on the inside of it?
Ben: I haven’t been a professional for 10 years! But from my experience there is a lot more awareness of the issues. A lot more people are more educated on it.
Ideally, in 2023, sexuality shouldn’t be something that we still need to talk about.
It should be something we can accept and get on with. It doesn’t affect anyone apart from the person involved. Football should be a safe enough space so players can come out while they are playing, but I feel, with the abuse that players get day-to-day online or on a matchday, they don’t want to give fans another angle to come at them.
Joe: I completely agree. I don’t even like having the conversation [about whether a high-profile player will come out while still playing]. It can feel like a bit of a witch-hunt.
You can get headlines about Premier League players potentially planning to come out or being in same-sex relationships and I think ‘why are you drawing attention to it?’
Let people get on with their lives.
Ben: There is this idea that that there has to be at least one LGBT player at every club – and people start guessing who it might be.
Joe: Exactly! People are watching television, or looking through the squad online and saying ‘do you think it’s him?’
Maybe they decide it is a player who dresses eccentrically or likes fashion – that doesn’t make a player gay, it just means they like fashion!
They have all the money in the world, of course they are going to buy loads of nice clothes!
At the moment, the first Premier League player to come out knows they are going to become some sort of figurehead.
What if they don’t want that?
It is so much pressure and it is probably having the opposite effect. I think keeping the fanfare low and not making a big deal out it of it is the best thing for everyone.
Just like it was for us as a family – a quiet conversation and we move on.
Ben: Speaking on behalf of the dressing room I am in the moment, I think if someone did want to come out they would be more than comfortable doing so to the group we have.
We have such a good group, no-one would be bothered. It wouldn’t be a big deal. And overall, I feel like football is going that way.
Back in the day the dressing room was a lot harder and young players especially might not have been treated well – a lot of that has gone. There wouldn’t be any stick or abuse for sure.
Joe: If you look at today’s generation of footballers, what’s their average age? Maybe 27 or so? They know what society is like. I cannot imagine for a second that homophobic slurs are used in dressing rooms any more. I think we are completely beyond that.
I read that when [Blackpool’s] Jake Daniels came out, he had told the team and they had kept it to themselves and respected his privacy.
I don’t know any bigger gesture from a team-mate than that respect of his privacy.
He must have been really nervous and for them to do that is massive.
If any players are wondering how to show support, it doesn’t have to be rainbow laces or Instagram posts. You don’t have to shout about it. Sometimes the subtle, quieter gestures are the most powerful.
What do you think are some of the barriers that prevent players potentially coming out?
Ben: I think the biggest one is the fan and social media reaction. I don’t think a player would have any problem coming out to the lads they see on a day-to-day basis.
But there are so many people who give it ‘the big’un’ behind a keyboard. They wouldn’t be able to say it to your face, but people can do so online without many repercussions.
Given how much time people spend on their phone these days and how things get passed about, a player would probably see it, even without meaning to. I think that is the biggest thing they would be worried about.
Joe: Absolutely, I completely agree. But another thing to say would be that although there will be abuse online, it would be 2% or 3%. The rest would be so positive. The amount of people who will come out in support will be enormous.