Watch: Meridian In Conversation with Jahmal Howlett-Mundle
When former Sheppey United footballer Jahmal Howlett-Mundle came out as bisexual to his teammates last year, he didn't know what to expect.
The 24-year-old has helped the Ites in a record-breaking campaign in his first season - winning four trophies.
To the players he shared a dressing room with, he is still Jahmal - the solid, centre-half they can rely on. But for him, football's stereotypes, and the risk of abuse, meant he was reluctant to share a secret he desperately tried to hide for many years.
And Jahmal is not alone.
This week, Blackpool teenager Jake Daniels became the first male professional footballer to come out as gay since Justin Fashanu in 1990 - a decision he admitted took him months.
Jahmal believes Jake's brave decision is inspirational to the next generation of LGBTQ+ players in sport and will spark a much-needed change for the future of football.
ITV Meridian's Joe Coshan spoke to Jahmal about his decision to come out as bisexual, what it means for the sport, and his hopes for inclusivity in the future of football.
Jahmal thank you ever so much for speaking to ITV News Meridian for our In Conversation series, it’s almost a year on from your decision to come out as bisexual, how are you doing?
"I'm actually doing much better than I expected to be.
"A year ago I came out to my teammates and management staff, and after the season the team and I have just had, I didn't expect it to go the way that it has. I was low on confidence when I joined the club, but after two and a half seasons, I'm now playing the best football I've ever played.
"I'm a lot more open, a lot more expressive than I've ever been. Everything has gone the best way it could have given the circumstances."
Jake Daniels - first male professional footballer to come out as gay since 1990 - how did you feel seeing that news?
"I had this massive sense of pride.
"Him being not only 17, but the first openly gay footballer, he's now set the precedent for a lot of people that will come after him.
"It's an opportunity for others to see they can openly have a same sex relationship, but also an opportunity for him to hopefully go on to have a fruitful career."
What does that mean for the LGBTQ+ football community to see an icon coming out so young?
"The community now has someone we can see visibly, rather than just a silhouette image that has been associated to a gay or bisexual footballer in any of the football leagues. He's now this person that people are going to look at. Whether that's a pressure he would like to take on, it is going to happen.
"Being at such a young age, he's now allowing people to see that regardless of age or their sexuality, you can go on to become a professional footballer.
"It doesn't matter that he's gay - he has turned up to work week after week and performed well enough to sign his first professional contract.
"I can't imagine the pride that he is feeling - it's just amazing."
You made a similar decision when you shared your sexuality, Can you talk us through what was going through your mind in the months leading up to it, what would’ve been going through Jake’s mind?
"In my circumstances, it was a mixture of excitement and anxiety. I've always been someone who suffers with low moods, and I've had depressive episodes in the past due to my sexuality.
"But the more I opened up, and each step that I took, I found that I am being me.
"Previously I would have done things to appease others, but now I've come out, I'm playing football really well and I'm enjoying myself. I spend more time around my family and friends, and I have a smile on my face.
"I've got to a point where I'm comfortable. I hope it's a point Jake gets to, if he's not completely there yet."
Why do you think it’s taken this long? Football stereotypes?
"A lot of it is due to fear and stigma.
"People often assume that being gay or bisexual means you're overly feminine, and that can be the case, but it's also not the case."
Let's talk about football for a moment. 48 games, 23 clean sheets. The team got 102 points out of a possible 114 and won 4 trophies - a liberating season, and a successful one at that?
"I was part of a group where we had each other's backs. It doesn't mean we were always friendly to each other, as those moments where we had to be strong towards our opponents, those are the moments that pulled us through.
"My football really has come along in leaps and bounds. I'm playing with no fear or anxiety.
"We've won four trophies, including the League title, breaking the points record, and three cups. That's no easy feat.
"If I hadn't of come out when I did, I don't know if this season for me would have gone the way it has done.
"I'm grateful to myself, and this is the first time in a long time I've been able to say that, but I'm also grateful to my former team mates and the management as we picked each other up."
Jahmal has sadly been the target of homophobic abuse since he came out as bisexual in July last year. The following month a police investigation was launched after an incident at a match.
In a second incident in April this year during Sheppey United's cup final against Hollands and Blair, the opposition wrote to Jahmal to apologise for what the club chairman Paul Piggott described as a "regretful situation".
Jahmal, can you talk us through some of those moments and what it was like for you to experience that?
"The first time was completely out the blue. It was something I expected at one time or another, but being so soon after I came out, I didn't know how I would handle it.
"I was shocked. It only sunk in when I got home after the game. We won the game so I should have been feeling really excited, but I had to report a hate crime. I felt like I had taken a step back and withdrew for a while. I really started to question myself. But why should I have to suffer because I want to play football and I'm bisexual?
"It took me six weeks or so to snap back into my rhythm and not let it get the better of me."
So when the second incident happened, I cried.
"I was playing in a cup final with almost a thousand people there, but it wasn't the fans. After the game in the dressing room, I felt pleased that the season was almost over. I had to reflect on how this year has really made me feel.
"I could have gone out kicking and screaming but I'm proud of the way I handled it. And I've realised people do care."
Do you think the punishments are appropriate considering the level of abuse? Should we see longer term bans for those involved?
"The first thing to do is to address it, and quickly.
"The length of time someone should serve is not for me to say, but it's all about education, and treating members of the LGBTQ+ community as human beings, whether they enjoy football or not, we all have a right to live safely."
I loved Jake’s answer to this - about being paid to play football, the 'say what you want attitude because you're paying to watch me' - Is that harder when you’re in the lower leagues and there’s less protection?
"It used to be a concern, but I'm at the point where I can defend myself if I need to. In the professional leagues, that level of education I talked about is being provided, so is there a similar level provided in the lower leagues? Just because we aren't 'professionals' doesn't mean we don't have feelings and could still face that type of abuse.
"That could be looked at to create a more inclusive community within football."
Jake said he discussed it with his family first, did you do the same?
"Back in early 2019, I opened up to my former manager and said I was struggling with my mental health. I cried after a game and didn't know if I wanted to continue playing football. I let it all out, and he gave me the time to breathe. That was the first time in a football environment I was able to do that.
"It wasn't until the end of that year that I sat my family round. I was crying and sweating, but I had to start with the people most important to me. I wanted their support."
How long did you bottle it up for? What was that like growing up?
"Since I was a child. I was probably 9 or 10 years old. Back then, I wondered if anyone else felt like that.
"Seeing things on TV, it made me feel that it wasn't right to feel that way. Because I had that preconception at such a young age, in my teenage years, I was angry. I'm not proud of it, but I wasn't in a good place. I felt like the world was against me, as I didn't know anyone who felt like me, and I battled it internally all the time."
You’re leaving Sheppey United after more than 2 years - what was the reason for that?
"I'm stepping into the unknown, but it's a journey that I'm proud of. I still see my teammates as my family, and have so much respect for the Chairman, former manager and coaching staff.
"The last two and a half years have flown by. But I've done what I came here to do. I've met people who will be my friends for life.
"It was completely my decision, and a massive part of me wanted to stay, but I had to make this career decision as I want to reach a higher level."
Are you worried about finding a new club? Not because of your footballing ability of course, but actually because it’s finding a club to suit you, that’s inclusive?
"I'm not worried - I don't have anything to prove. I'm only going to become more confident, and more vocal in terms of my sexuality. I'm also coming off the back of a season where it's unreal what I've been a part of.
"I do have to go somewhere where it is going to be welcoming of course, and it would be great to go somewhere that has an LGBTQ+ fan group for example. Looking into next season, that is something that is important to me.
"I need a manager and players who don't think me being bisexual is a big issue. It's becoming less and less of an issue for me, so I want to be able to walk into a dressing room, and just be a centre half.
"To be able to have those conversations about my sexuality. Have a laugh and a joke, but when it's time to train, it's time to train."
There’ll be plenty of clubs across the South East watching this - tell them what you’ll bring?
I'm dominant on the pitch, and play with my right and left foot. I played most of the season as left centre half. I have that will to win. I am steely - I may not look it from the way that I dress or my mannerisms, but I am hard as nails."
We’ve seen action being taken to tackle racism in sport, do you think that same energy is there to stamp out homophobia in football?
"Yes 100%. All the campaigns, and everything that goes into the Pride event for example the rainbow laces, the events, that does help things go a long way. But someone being racist and someone being homophobic, they are both hate crimes. No-one deserves to be on the receiving end of that.
"I'm not saying we should focus on homophobia more than racism, but there could be more ways that homophobia could be tackled in the same way."
How much did the Justin Fashanu saga set us back? The whole idea that if you came out it would affect your football career?
"That set us back a really long way, because I think even if it had been a year after Justin Fashanu, it may have been too soon.
"The association with his unfortunate passing is always going to be related to his sexuality. That's wasn't fair on Justin, it's not fair on Jake or anyone else who comes out.
"The fact it's taken so long - there's been this grey area where someone is going to be the first one in such a long time, so now that Jake has been comfortable enough to begin to be himself openly, hopefully it will lead to another player and another player.
"It does break down the barriers and these things need time."
Is there hope for the future of football with a new generation coming through that are better educated, and more inclusive?
"Football has come a long way from where it was say 30 years ago. The young players coming through now have much more access to information. More and more people are speaking about topics that they feel are important and people are sharing that and in the know. It's something that is really important - the visibility of those conversations.
"Jake's news is brilliant and that will go far and wide. He won't even know how many people in all types of dressing rooms that he will inspire.
"Look at social media and how quickly it can spread - the amount of support he would have received from his teammates too, it goes on and on. For him going into that first pre-season since he came out - hopefully he gets the privacy and space he needs to be able to focus on that.
"He's going to be amazing."
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