Jesús Tomillero was a referee in Spain’s Andalucían regional league. He was also the first openly gay referee in the country. And he might end up being the last.
Tomillero came out publicly in March, 2015. His coming out was necessitated by way of reporting a homophobic incident involving a kit man from a team in the region’s U19 league. Tomillero filed a formal complaint against the kit man, and as a result the toothpaste was officially out of the tube.
The kit man was suspended for nine games and handed a €30 fine. That was it.
Tomillero ended up paying much more for it. Over the next 14 months, the young man was subjected to homophobic abuse regularly during games— from fans, from players, and from technical staff. His story was picked up by the media and he was held up as a symbol of progress and tolerance in the game, but this didn’t do much to alleviate the abuse he received.
He received support from fellow referees (including, apparently, some who worked in La Liga) as well as local political leaders, but the Andalucían football federation remained conspicuously silent after Tomillero came out and especially after the abuse started in earnest.
Last weekend, he had enough. After Tomillero awarded a penalty during Saturday’s game between Portuense and San Fernando Isleño, visiting supporters started hurling slurs in his direction. “That’s that [redacted] who was on the telly! You can stick the goal up your [redacted], you [redacted] [redacted]!” The worst part about the incident, Tomillero explained, was that “everyone in the crowd laughed.”
After the game Tomillero filed a formal complaint about the incident to the Andalucían football federation. But he also declared his decision to leave his post as a football referee. He hopes that stiffer punishments will be handed down this time, but he insists he’s done with the abuse.
That homophobia is so prevalent in football is distressing, even if it’s not entirely surprising. One is immediately reminded of Robbie Rogers, who famously made a public announcement in 2013 in which he simultaneously came out as gay and retired from football, saying that he couldn’t hide who he was any longer but understood football culture for what it was and knew that practically no dressing room would have him now (at least not in England). He soon returned to playing after MLS and the LA Galaxy made very explicit overtures toward him, and now, three years and a position change later, Rogers seems to be doing pretty well for himself.
Yet even Rogers’ story is most definitely the exception in a sport where queer folks— players, technical staff, officials, and, until recently, fans— simply aren’t welcome. For all the noises made by national associations, UEFA, and FIFA about tolerance and acceptance, and for all the well-meaning public initiatives like Football v Homophobia and Don’t Cross The Line, the story of Jesús Tomillero shows that there’s still a very, very long way to go.