Five years ago, in September 2018, the Supreme Court of India read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalising homosexual sex. Celebrations of queerness followed as many members of the LGBTQI+ community felt more confident about asserting themselves in public.

At the time of the court decision, Bengaluru FC were in their fifth year of existence. As a competitor in the country’s top football competition, the Indian Super League, the club had already endeared itself to its home city. It had consciously woven Bengaluru culture and the Karnataka state identity into its publicity.

Soon after the 2018 verdict, the team decided to lend their support to the Supreme Court’s decision. The team management approved the creation of rainbow labels for the Bengaluru FC players to wear on their jerseys. Since then, the team has continued to show its support for the LGBTQI+ community every June – Pride Month.

This year, though, when the club changed its display picture on Twitter to the Bengaluru FC logo circled by the colours of the rainbow, it received unusually intense backlash online. Some social media users claimed that Bengaluru FC was “taking a loss” for supporting LGBTQI+ rights.

Some Twitter users declared that “there were only two genders”. Other called for posts supporting the LGBTQI+ community to deleted. A few fans also said that they would unfollow the Bengaluru FC account.

Officials in charge of Bengaluru FC’s public communications said they were baffled by the negative reaction this year to the club changing their logo to one with Pride colours.

“I genuinely don’t have an answer,” said a Bengaluru FC public communications official. “But we were discussing it within the team and we’re like, wow, this year there’s like a lot of people who are not happy about the club’s decision to just change.

The official added: “We as a club, we do have fans from the (LGBTQI+) community. So if this little bit of support means the world to them, then so be it. At least they feel that a community outside of the one that they belong to also accepts them.”

In September 2018, after the court verdict, Bengaluru FC club officials said that players were asked whether they wanted to support the initiative by fixing labels on their jerseys as they walked into the stadium for an Indian Super League match against Atletico de Kolkata (now Mohun Bagan Super Giants).

They were given a briefing on the situation and encouraged to engage in conversation about matters that they may not have had the opportunity to learn about before.

During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the club used its social media following to showcase local businesses that needed support. In June 2020, it continued this trend by highlighting businesses that supported the LGBTQI+ community.

Reaction among fans

Though teams in the United Kingdom collectively support the Rainbow Laces campaign that aims to promote equality and diversity through football, in India, Bengaluru FC is one of the few sports teams to take a stand for the LGBTQI+ community. The club management and staff emphasised that while they are not claiming they are experts on the issue, they make it a point to consult with members of the LGBTQI+ community about the club’s communications and initiatives.

The team also expresses its support for the LGBTQI+ community within the football world abroad. For instance, when Blackpool FC’s Jake Daniels came out in May 2022, Bengaluru FC cheered him on in a Twitter message.

With Bengaluru FC attempting to project an image as a club for the people of the city, it was important to both management and staff to engage with all sections of society and emphasise that the club, and by extension, the stadium, was a safe space for all.

“I know this probably sounds cliche but it’s actually one big family here at Bengaluru FC,” said former player and current Director of Football at the club Darren Caldeira. “That’s how everyone functions. So, it’s a very nice environment, very nice place to be.”

Officials said that they recognised that it was natural that some fans would oppose the non-footballing initiatives undertaken by the club.

“Everyone’s opinions are respected,” said the Bengaluru FC public communications official. “You don’t support it. No problem. That’s your call completely. And that’s fine by us.”

The official added: “We’re not saying because we as a football club support this, hence you, by virtue of being a fan also have to support it.”

Bengaluru FC fans show their support for the LGBTQ+ community during a football match (Courtesy: ISL)

For the queer community in India, especially those who follow football, Bengaluru FC’s initiative is welcome – though some warn that it could be seen as tokenistic.

Some football fans are wary of amplifying this initiative for fear that it is “simply marketing tactics”. Among them is Siddharth Jha. “The annual social media posts are a start, but ideally we need an environment where players and fans are comfortable being open about their identity and not considered anomalies,” he said.

He added that clubs like Bengaluru FC should create safe spaces for not just queer fans but also queer athletes.

Caldeira, meanwhile, said that he received messages from colleagues and others informing him that Bengaluru FC was right in standing for the LGBTQI+ community and should continue to do so.

For Aakanksha Singh Devi, who works at a travel website, the backlash against Bengaluru FC’s posts indicated how much more work needs to be done to spread awareness about LGBTQI+ rights.

“We cannot and should not assume everyone is an ally,” she said. “The backlash, for the most part, is due to lacking awareness. Despite the desire to be inclusive, accepting and have the live-let-live mentality, the reality is far from it. So, it’s good to know where we stand, really.”

Another fan, a co-founder of an Indian startup who wished to remain unidentified, summarised how many queer Bengaluru FC fans probably feel. “We respect the sport and this team for not limiting themselves to easy dreams,” the supporter said. “Worthy pursuits are rarely easy.”