Ben Wilmot made his professional debut for Stevenage aged 17 and moved to Watford less than a year later after offers to buy him from a group of Premier League clubs.
Since then he has enjoyed loan spells at Swansea and Italian side Udinese, as well as appearances for England Under-21s, before moving 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 sport’s relationship to sexuality – in the stands, in the dressing room and in the media.
Joe: I don’t think there was ever a time when someone in the family wasn’t involved in football. Our dad (former Stevenage goalkeeper Richard Wilmot) was still playing while we were growing up.
Mum has a photo at home of the two of us on the pitch with him – in full kit – before he played a game for St Albans City.
Dad used to run your Under-14 side and Mum and I ran the tea bar, following you around in the freezing cold on a Sunday morning.
I remember Matt Le Tissier giving you a golden ball when we went to a football tournament in Butlins one year. It stands out. Those were really fun times.
More recently, one of my fondest memories as a family was watching you play for Udinese at Juventus while you were in Italy.
Well: I would say that too. It was my first time living away from home and seeing you all come to watch this game was special. I don’t think any of you have watched football abroad. You didn’t need it!
Joe: I don’t think we really talked about me then. My story is quite bizarre – I came out to mom in a PowerPoint presentation. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind telling Dad about it. I don’t really know how you came to know that. Mom told you?
Well: Yeah, that wasn’t a passing comment, but that didn’t matter either. Mom told me. I said okay. And that was it. I don’t know how it felt to you, but to me, within our family, it didn’t seem like a big thing.
Joe: Yeah. And that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want a song or dance about it, I just wanted people to know, so it didn’t turn into a weird thing.
We were in 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 the need to tell you about it directly. I felt like it was done, and then we moved on.
When I told this story before, some people asked if my family really didn’t care. But it’s not that. You care, but we didn’t want it to look abnormal.
Well: What are some of your experiences as a gay football fan?
Joe: I have a running joke with dad about me becoming a different person at a football game – I don’t recognize that person. I mess up, I yell, and my voice, for some reason, goes so much lower.
It’s not intentional or something that I feel I have to do. It’s just that looking at you, I’m really into it.
The idea of being gay and going to a football game never really crossed my mind. It’s probably a luxury for me.
I know for a fact that some people are concerned about the reaction to how they look, act or look when watching a football game.
I’m really lucky in that sense.
Well: Good to hear you always felt comfortable watching me because you didn’t watch in a corporate box. You’ve been outside and the rest…
Joe: I felt perfectly fine being gay – I was 100% comfortable with it – but watching you play is really hard. Mom and Dad will attest to that. We spend the whole game stressed! But the gay part is totally fine.
How do you think football has evolved over the last 10 years or so, being inside of it?
Well: I haven’t been professional for 10 years! But in my experience there is a lot more awareness of the issues. Many more people are more educated about it.
Ideally, in 2023, sexuality shouldn’t be something we still have to talk about.
It should be something we can accept and continue. It does not affect anyone except the person concerned. Football should be a safe enough space for players to go outside while they play, but I think with the abuse that players are experiencing daily online or on a matchday, they don’t want to give fans another coming angle on them.
Joe: I completely agree. I don’t even like to have conversation [about whether a high-profile player will come out while still playing]. It may sound a bit like a witch hunt.
You can get headlines about Premier League players potentially considering dating or having gay relationships and I’m thinking ‘why are you drawing attention to this?’
Let people live their lives.
Well: There’s this idea that there has to be at least one LGBT player at every club – and people are starting to guess who that might be.
Joe: Exactly! People watch TV or browse the team online and say “do you think that’s him?”
Maybe they decide he’s a player who dresses eccentrically or likes fashion – that doesn’t make a player gay, it just means he likes fashion!
They have all the money in the world, of course they are going to buy lots of nice clothes!
For now, the first Premier League player out knows he’s going to become something of a figurehead.
What if they don’t want that?
It’s so much pressure and it probably has the opposite effect. I think keeping the fanfare low and not making a big deal out of it is the best thing for everyone.
Just like it was for us as a family – a quiet conversation and we move on.
Well: Speaking on behalf of the locker room that I am at the moment, I think if anyone wanted to come out they would be more than comfortable doing it with the squad we have.
We have such a good group, no one would be bothered. It wouldn’t matter. And overall I feel like football is going in that direction.
Back then the dressing room was a lot tougher and young players in particular might not have been treated well – a lot of that is gone. There would be no batting or abuse for sure.
Joe: If you look at the current generation of footballers, what is their average age? Maybe 27 or older? They know how society is. I can’t imagine for a second more homophobic slurs being used in the locker room. I think we are completely beyond that.
I read this When [Blackpool’s] Jake Daniels is out, he had told the team and they had kept it to themselves and respected his privacy.
I don’t know of a greater gesture from a teammate than this respect for their privacy.
He must have been really nervous and for them, that’s huge.
If players are wondering how to show their support, it doesn’t have to be rainbow shoelaces or Instagram posts. You don’t have to shout about it. Sometimes the subtle, silent gestures are the most powerful.
In your opinion, what are the obstacles that potentially prevent players from going out?
Well: I think the most important thing is the reaction from fans and social media. I don’t think a player has a hard time coming out to the guys they see on a daily basis.
But there are so many people who give it “the big deal” behind a keyboard. They might not say it to your face, but people can do it online without much repercussion.
Given how much time people are spending on their phones these days and the way things are going, a gamer would probably see it, even unintentionally. I think that’s the biggest thing that would worry them.
Joe: Absolutely, I completely agree. But another thing to say would be that even if there will be abuse online, it would be 2% or 3%. The rest would be so positive. The number of people who will come in support will be enormous.