He was only 16 when Luke Tuffs, drunk in a pub with some of his teammates, showed them a photo that would change his life.
He was playing for Camberley Town FC at the time, an English soccer club in a level akin to Division III in the United States, an hour west of London. One of the guys eyed a couple young women in the corner. He motioned toward them and told Tuffs he should make a move on one of them.
Tuffs took out a photo of his boyfriend, showed it to his mates, and let them know he wasn’t interested in any women.
“Thankfully they were all very supportive,” Tuffs told Outsports.
He did say that as time wore on there was one player in the club who withdrew from him. “That was a shame, but the vast majority were very supportive and helpful.”
Over the last 17 years Tuffs has been a part of seven clubs across England as a player, coach and manager. He’s been out as a gay man in all of those roles, and the acceptance has been extraordinary. Everyone knows at this point — Tuffs is not shy about sharing his love for his fiancé on social media.
Mind you, this all started in 2003, before same-sex marriage was legal in England. In the U.S., gay sex was still illegal in some states.
Tuffs said the percentage of players who have ranged from “don’t care” to totally supportive has been somewhere between 95% and 98%. That’s widespread acceptance.
One of the players who seemed a little funny about it at the time was a goalkeeper at the club. He found out Tuffs was gay as the two stood next to one another in the shower. It threw him for a bit of a loop.
Years later the two ended up on the same coaching staff. The player still hadn’t gotten his head around a guy in soccer being gay, but that simply didn’t stand in the way of a friendship.
“He doesn’t understand it,” Tuffs said. “He can’t get his head around it, but he really likes me and we have a great time together.”
His entire career, Tuffs has made it a priority to be disarming. He isn’t offended by much and gives the stereotypical locker-room nonsense as well as he takes it.
“I try to break down barriers. As gay people we’re often seen as not being able to cope with the culture within football. And I want to break that. I’m probably the least ‘PC’ person you’ll meet. Anything goes between me and my mates. I don’t get offended by things easily.”
Instead, Tuffs will use the banter and conversation to open honest discussion about how people feel.
He’s found this tactic to be particularly effective.
“I’ll ask people, ‘Why do you think that? Are you religious? God made us this way.’
“They start quoting all sorts of stuff from the Bible and the Quran. It’s the weirdest thing. They pick and choose which literature from those books they’re going to follow.”
For Tuff’s part, he’s focused on being the best club manager he can be. That includes preparing his team ahead of each match to handle an easy win or pull off the upset. There’s no way to move up in levels other than creating some “upset” wins.
“There’s always a way to win, no matter whom you’re playing against. Even a club three tiers higher, I really believe there’s always a way to win.”
Now the head manager at Ashford Town FC — a club currently in the eighth-tier Isthmian League — he has his sights set on moving the club up to higher levels.
“Hopefully we can take Ashford up,” he said. “The aim of the club was to keep their Isthmian League status. Our resources are less than other clubs at our level, but I think we can do well. I think I can put us in a good position in the next two or three seasons.”
As with everyone who engages in English football, Tuffs would like to advance to the Premier League one day. While it may seem to some like a stretch to jump so many levels in English soccer, he’s increasingly confident in his ability.
“If someone said 10 years ago I’d be the manager of this club, I would have laughed and everyone around me would have laughed.”
Wherever his career takes him, Tuffs will continue to break down barriers as an out gay man in English soccer.
You can follow Luke Tuffs on Twitter @luketuffs, or on Instagram @coachluket.