Demi Stokes: ‘Being quite open and honest, I can help a lot of people’
Demi Stokes is fielding plenty of questions from her England teammates as they prepare for the looming home Euros. “Have you got any updates this morning?”; “How’s he doing?”; and “Can I come round?” are regular ones.
Two months before the tournament, which start next week, Stokes’s partner, Katie Harrington, gave birth to Harlen and so the Manchester City defender is juggling parenthood with preparations for the Euros alongside her son’s new army of aunts. “The girls have been great,” says the 30-year-old. “I think he’s going to be very spoilt with a lot of aunties around. He’s a very lucky boy to have all the people that he has around him.”
Despite the pressures of Stokes being in camp the left-back says “all is good” and she and her partner are “coping”. “The baby is a breath of fresh air at the minute. That’s easy for me to say because I’m only going home every few days, so I’m getting a bit more sleep and stuff, but yes, we’re just enjoying it, enjoying the journey.”
The process of having a baby as a same-sex couple can be long, and it took two years before Harrington was pregnant with Harlen. It is hard for Stokes to remember a time without him.
“When I’m at home I just think: ‘Well, what did we used to do when he wasn’t here?’” she says. “It’s almost like he’s always been here. But we’re just loving it, enjoying it, even the night feeds I’m enjoying. I mean, ask me in six months and I might change that and say ‘bloody hell’, but no, we’re loving it.”
As it is for any professional sportsperson, the speculation on whether Stokes’ and Harrington’s child will go into sport themselves is a frequent topic of conversation. “Everyone keeps saying that. I say he’s got big hands and big feet so I said he could play basketball or football,” she says. “But I think it’s important to allow kids to figure out what they want to be, who they want to be and, equally, do what they want. If that means football, then I will support from the sidelines – I won’t be a squealing parent.”
Becoming a mum will, Stokes believes, inevitably affect the way she approaches football. “It will change things in terms of balancing life,” she says. “We travel a lot as well so, that will be difficult – leaving and stuff like that. But on a positive note I can use [my son] as extra motivation and he can give me an extra ‘up’, so it’s all just a blessing and it’s all positive.”
The decision of Blackpool’s 17-year-old forward Jake Daniels and 22-year-old Australian footballer Josh Cavallo to speak publicly about their sexuality as gay men bucked the silence in men’s football. In the women’s game there is such an acceptance of gay players and their relationships that many, including Stokes, never need to come out.
“It’s honestly not something I gave too much thought to. It was just about: ‘I’m Demi and I’m authentic’. I didn’t do the post to say: ‘I’m gay, I’m here, I’ve arrived’. It was more just that I openly spoke about my partner and that’s it. That’s how it should be: If you’re going out with a boy, a girl, it doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t change anything.
“It’s about being comfortable with yourself. And the men’s game is very different, there’s a lot of taboo there. You can see there are players [in the men’s game] that are starting to come out and the more players that do that does encourage the next person.
“It’s obviously a slow process but within our game [the women’s game] we welcome everyone, and that’s good. As well as sharing my story and being quite open and honest about a lot of things, I think I can help a lot of people, so it’s about using my voice. Some topics are uncomfortable, and I don’t know everything, but it’s about me being in a position and using my platform to help the next person.”
Stokes “doesn’t have the answer” to why the women’s game is so much more of a welcoming environment. “But I think our fans are great, and teammates, and it’s just about being yourself, being authentic with it and if you open up on it, nobody can pull you up on that.”
Stokes is comfortable and happy, and proof – like many openly gay players in the women’s game are – that it is possible to be a professional footballer and not have to mask your sexuality.
Stokes is free to focus on family and football so what would success look like for England at the Euros? “When you’re a player you just think of trophies and winning, and that’s why we do what we do, but I think there’s also a bigger picture,” says Stokes.
“Look at the ticket sales, the stadiums that we are playing in, we almost lose sight of that sometimes. We have a very good squad, a strong squad, so it’s about not losing sight of that and jumping the gun. It’s about taking each game, ticking it off, using that as a process. And if we take care of that as a team then we’ll do the best we can and that’s all we can do, and I think that would put us in a very good position.”
Stokes believes this is the best-prepared squad she has ever been a part of and credits the manager Sarina Wiegman with England’s development. “How Sarina works, she’s very direct, so you know where you stand, you know what you’re getting,” she says. “I think that’s quite good going into a tournament. Everyone knows their role, they know what we stand for, it’s about keeping on pushing yourself and your team, because it’s about the team, not just the starting XI, but the whole 23 as a collective.”