ENGLISH referee Ryan Atkin has become the first official associated with professional football in the UK to openly declare himself as gay, leading to hopes that footballers will feel able to come out in a sport noted for its homophobia.

Though it is known that there have been gay players in the Scottish game, no Scottish player has ever come out, though Justin Fashanu did so in 1990 before his spells with Airdrie and Hearts – Fashanu committed suicide in 1998 following allegations of a sex crime in the US.

Fashanu was the first and so far only openly gay professional to play in Britain, though both American and German internationalists Robbie Rogers and Thomas Hitzslperger declared their sexuality after leaving Leeds United and Everton respectively.

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Atkin, 32, told Sky Sports yesterday that he had decided to speak publicly about his sexuality for the first time to help break down barriers for gay people in the world of football. He joins Nigel Owens, the Welsh rugby referee who came out in 2007 and went on to referee the 2015 World Cup final, as a high-profile openly gay official.

Football’s governing bodies have acknowledged that the sport has a problem with homophobia - Jesús Tomillero, the Spanish referee, received death threats last year after revealing his sexuality.

Though he is relatively junior as a referee, Atkins’ stance was being hailed yesterday by footballing authorities and gay rights campiagners alike.

Atkin said: “Role models are important to show that being gay and being interested in football are by no means mutually exclusive.

“Homophobia is still a problem but things are improving all the time. You can change the game and culture by changing your mind.

“Referees get a lot of stick for a number of reasons but their sexual orientation cannot be one of them.

“I myself have never been a victim of homophobic abuse but I am aware others have been. The biggest challenge I might face in the future as an openly gay referee would potentially be dealing with homophobia that could come from players, spectators and possibly even refereeing colleagues, though so far I have found officials within football to be very open-minded. It’s something the game can be proud of.

“Being gay doesn’t matter in the context of refereeing a football match. But if I am speaking about equality and diversity then I am going to mention that I am gay because it is relevant. It is important to be who you want to be, and to be accepted for who you are.”

Mike Riley, the managing director of the referees’ body the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) praised the enthusiasm and commitment Atkin had shown in his progress as an official.

Riley said: “With the continued support of the FA and PGMOL coaches, he has a great opportunity to realise his ambitions to referee in the EFL and the Premier League “We are proud to support him in emphasising that in whatever walk of life, people perform better when they can be themselves, which is a hugely powerful message.”

Robbie de Santos, head of campaigns at Stonewall, said: “We’re so pleased Ryan Atkin feels able to be open about his sexuality. Ryan’s story underlines just how important it is that there are allies who are willing to stand up for LGBT inclusion at all levels of sport.

“He is an inspiring role model and his decision to come out will no doubt give others the confidence to be themselves in football. Role models who step up and talk about their experiences in public are so crucial, especially for young LGBT people.”