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Homosexuality: Football’s last remaining taboo

February 28, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Ask any football fan of a certain age the question ‘Do you remember Justin Fashanu?’ and they will likely reply with something along the lines of ‘Yeah, the gay one.’ The gay ONE. ONE.

When it comes to homosexuality in football, one is something of a recurring number. One: the number of players who have ‘come out’ in the history of English football. One: the number of openly gay professional footballers in the world at the moment. One: the number of taboos that remain in the professional game in the 21st Century.

Football is not the only sport that has come under fire for a perceived lack of support for players who may be gay and reluctant to publicise that fact. However, in Gareth Thomas and Steven Davies, rugby and cricket have two high-profile international-calibre players who have been brave enough to reveal their sexuality. Both Thomas and Davies have spoken candidly about their decisions to go public and the relief they felt as a result of it being out in the open, with Davies stating ‘the difference is huge, I am so much happier.’ What is heart-warming is the support and acceptance Davies and Thomas received from their coaches and teammates. The England wicketkeeper said that his rival for the position behind the stumps, Matt Prior, went out of his way to help by giving him a hug and saying that Davies should have told him earlier. ‘That was special,’ says the 25 year old.

Football is the most popular sport in England, with thousands upon thousands of amateur and professional players. Despite the benefits of ‘coming out’ described by those who have done so, football does not have a Davies or a Thomas and people are understandably beginning to ask why.

In 2010, Britain’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) conducted its first ever survey of sexuality. The findings showed that 1% of Britons identify themselves as gay/lesbian and a further 0.5% as bisexual. To put this into a footballing context, there are approximately 700 players in the Premier League so if ONS statistics are correct, seven players could be gay and another three or four bisexual. There are of course, no openly gay footballers in the Premier League. In fact there are none in England at all. Why not? The answer is far from simple and is borne out of a number of factors.

The first, and probably most obvious, obstacle to ‘coming out’ is the fear of what teammates and managers will say. It took tremendous courage for Davies and Thomas to ‘come out’ as they had no idea what the reaction would be from teammates and coaches. They did of course receive great support, but evidently footballers do not feel comfortable doing so and anyone who watched the recent documentary ‘Britain’s Gay Footballers’ on BBC Three will understand why.

The programme followed a young lady as she explored attitudes to homosexuality within the game and sought to see if she could get a player to ‘come out.’ The young lady in question was Amal Fashanu, the niece of Britain’s only ever openly gay player, Justin Fashanu, and daughter of former Wimbledon striker John Fashanu. The journey she undertook was therefore driven by a desire to understand why, after more than 20 years, no player in England has felt able to follow in her famous uncle’s footsteps. It was emotional for her and for the viewer, quite shocking. When she saw how her father reacted to the news that his brother was gay, she was visibly shaken. ‘I wouldn’t like to play or even get changed in the same vicinity as him, that’s just the way I feel so if I’m like that, I’m sure the rest of the footballers are.’ This is the mentality of a 14 year old at an all boy’s school and is built on the ridiculous assumption that gay men are attracted to all other men. It is unfortunately a mentality that is commonplace in the game. If somebody cannot even call upon their own brother to rise above this, is it a wonder that players who may be gay are reluctant to say so?

Justin Fashanu (This image is the property of Allsport)

Amal braved the testosterone-fuelled environment of Millwall’s training ground and when she approached some of the players to discuss the issue of homosexuality in the game, the stark reality was again brought home. She asked some of the team’s younger players how they would feel if a teammate announced he was gay and they refused to discuss the matter. They looked uncomfortable and even more shockingly, seemed to find it amusing. Some of the clubs senior players such as Darren Purse and Steve Mildenhall were prepared to speak on the matter and said that they would be fully supportive of any teammate who was gay as it is not an issue for them. It was good to see this sort of mature, informed attitude that has become the norm in wider society, but given the reaction of most of the squad, you cannot blame a gay player for being reticent.

Amal wanted to get a big-name Premiership player to speak on the issue on the programme and claimed that she had attempted to contact the likes of Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Joe Hart and Theo Walcott. No volunteer was forthcoming until Joey Barton stepped forward. Barton is not a man who is shy when it comes to giving his opinion on matters, but homophobia in football is something about which he clearly feels very strongly. Like Amal Fashanu, Barton has a gay uncle and so has first-hand experience of accepting someone who ‘comes out.’ Barton says that for him it is no issue at all, he loves his uncle for who he is, not because he is straight or gay or whatever, and that he would be the same with any teammate. For Barton, a person is a person and deserves to be treated as such regardless of their sexual preference, but sadly, he seems to be the exception. Barton said that he feels there will be an openly gay player in England within the next ten years, but that he thinks there will still be what he calls ‘archaic figures’ in the game who will continue to discriminate. According to the QPR midfielder, these ‘figures’ feel that there will be ‘all sorts of shenanigans’ going on in the dressing room. As he rightly points out, such an assumption is incorrect and ridiculous. As Barton also states, this attitude betrays a lack of social awareness and intelligence, as did John Fashanu’s reaction to his brother’s announcement. Upon learning of Justin’s public announcement, John Fashanu spoke of the ‘consequences’ with which his brother would have to deal, the inference being that Justin’s sexuality was a choice he had actively made. Again, this is simple and ill-informed. A gay man does not choose to be gay, it is not an active decision, if more people realised this, there would be less bigotry. This is however, another attitude that seems to be prevalent within the sport and the recent punishments handed to Ravel Morison, Federico Macheda and Nile Ranger for using homophobic language in tweets do little to prove otherwise.

The second factor that appears to discourage any player from ‘coming out’ is the fear of how fans will react, a fear anybody who has ever attended a football match will understand. Would they get booed every time they touch the ball? Would they be subjected to obscene gestures and/or chants? Would their own fans turn on them? There are still too many uncertainties for a player to feel comfortable revealing he is gay. As someone who has attended his fair share of football matches, I can state with a great deal of certainty that the use of homophobic language is not rare. Most of the time, it is not used in a vitriolic, vindictive way, but it is still unacceptable. If a player is seen to be making a meal of an injury, he is often told to ‘get up you poof!’ This cannot help.

Amal went to Brighton & Hove Albion to watch them play Leeds United. For those of you who may not be aware, Brighton is seen as the ‘gay capital’ of the UK and the fans recited some of the chants they often hear from away supporters. Among them were: ‘We know why you’ve got soft seats,’ ‘Does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ and ‘Stand up if you can’t sit down.’ Some call it banter, others label it homophobic abuse, but if there is a gay player in the Brighton squad, would he feel comfortable in that environment? As a straight male, I can only speculate, but I would imagine he would find it disconcerting, perhaps even distressing. Famous gay football fan Matt Lucas says that he finds some of the chants amusing and believes that you ‘have to allow a little bit’ but there is a line. Unfortunately, opposition fans intent on riling players often do not respect the line, or even know where it lies.

One man who stands as a symbol of hope and was brave enough to risk crowd and player abuse is Swedish player Anton Hysén, son of former Liverpool midfielder Glenn. Hysén is currently the only openly gay professional footballer in the world and the strength of character he has shown to be recognised as such cannot be overestimated. The 21 year old defender was living a lie, walking round with a model girlfriend until, in March 2011, he realised that he could no longer continue to do so. He decided that honesty was the best policy and went public with his homosexuality. He should be applauded for having the courage to do so. His teammates insist that they had always suspected that Anton was gay, but the relationship is so much better now that they know. Anton and his colleagues state that there is a great deal of banter between them and the youngster admits that he feels accepted and that he is happier than ever. Hysén does not face hostility from fans, but the Swedish third tier is different to Europe’s big leagues. Furthermore, Sweden’s liberal values have also undoubtedly made Anton’s life easier. Whether he would receive the same reception in England, Italy or Spain is doubtful. Whilst we should celebrate Hysén and his courage, it is a sad indictment of the state of football that he stands alone.

Anton Hysén (This image is the property of The Sun)

Before a player can feel sufficiently comfortable to come out in England, the footballing authorities need to do a great deal to create an encouraging environment. So, what are they doing? In truth, not a lot. Compared to other issues such as racism and safety in stadia, homophobia receives very little airtime. In fact, in my experience you are more likely to be admonished by a steward at Old Trafford for standing up than you are for yelling homophobic slurs.

Openly gay former NBA star and gay rights campaigner John Amaechi believes the lack of action on the issue is the fault of the sport’s authorities. As he correctly points out, the game is run by old, straight, white men who are clearly not comfortable with new fangled ideas like women in boardrooms or black people in management positions. Amaechi even claims to have been in boardrooms in which people have speculated on a player’s sexuality and he says that what he heard ‘took him back to being 11 years old.’ He argues that football has no excuse, that it has the power and the money to change things for the better, but do the people at the top want to? Perhaps not.

John Amaechi is yet to be convinced (This image is the property of BBC)

Amal Fashanu found an official (assistant referee) willing to speak to her and ‘come out’ on the programme, but the FA pulled the plug on the interview claiming that it does not allow officials to discuss non-football matters with the media. She had run in to what she called ‘the brick wall of the football authorities.

For its part, the FA would point to its new anti-homophobia campaign. ‘Opening Doors and Joining In’ is the association’s attempt to stamp out homophobia within the sport and was launched last Monday (19th February). Upon announcing the campaign, the FA’s Adrian Bevington said: ‘The message here is clear. Let’s embrace individuals for their outstanding skills, talents and differences. After all, that’s why we all love football in the first place. I hope we can count on your support in kicking homophobia out of football and creating a ‘so what?’ culture.’ The rhetoric is impressive, but does that translate in to concrete action?

Amaechi remains unconvinced. He still feels the FA is missing the point and that the problem lies with them. It is hard to disagree. Sure, the FA cannot control what comes out of every fan’s mouth, but it can make a difference within the game. As Amaechi highlights, this will take more than posters and videos and he feels that the FA needs to act as a leader and stop trying to shift the blame. The starting point he argues is a more diverse board: ‘If you look at the first horrible video they did on anti-homophobia, it made it very clear that the problem lies with you. You stupid, blue-collar people in the terraces. It’s you stupid urban, re black, people on the field. It’s your fault. Then they sit in their boxes and their boardrooms and all the attention is deflected away from them. Well, it’s 2012 and they have just appointed their first woman to the board. Does that really tell you they are a progressive organisation or they are now reacting to the fact the focus is starting to shift on to them? A board that has just voted a woman on to the board in 2012 is not progressive. They are by definition the problem.

Amaechi’s stance is also supported by the Chairman of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), Clarke Carlisle: ‘The responsibility lies with the national governing body. They need to make sure they set the precedent of levels of acceptance. Then the onus is on the players union, the football leagues, and the individual clubs to disseminate those messages.

Unfortunately, PFA Chief Executive Gordon Taylor is not singing from the same hymn sheet as his lead player representative. He stated in a recent interview with BBC Radio 5 Live that homophobia is not high on the sport’s agenda. Herein lies the problem. Obviously creating a welcoming and accepting environment for players and fans of all races, genders and sexual orientation is not as important to the players’ union as helping Carlos Tevez appeal against the perfectly justifiable fines issued by Manchester City. PR guru Max Clifford claims three players have spoken to him about being gay/bisexual, whereas PFA chief Taylor says none have approached the union. If this is the case, something has gone spectacularly wrong.

Having watched the new campaign video, I cannot help but agree with Amaechi. Frankly, the video is an embarrassment, even insulting perhaps. There is not one current Premiership player featured in the video, with the only recognisable male figure being Gareth Southgate. It looks like a video that they have produced for use in-house, to screen at the beginning of a presentation maybe. It is certainly not hard hitting. If you wish to make up your own mind, you can view the video on the FA’s official YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibqyGq8vBkU. The video should be hard hitting, strong action is required, but the FA’s decision to pull the original video for having too strong a message says much about its stance.

The approach of people high up in the game, such as Taylor, and the FA’s soft stance on the issue and reluctance to tackle it in any meaningful way, mean that attitudes within the game are unlikely to change any time soon and I do not share Barton’s optimism regarding an openly gay player within the next ten years. Maybe in another 20 years, the late Justin Fashanu will still be known as ‘The gay one’. The gay one who was ultimately driven to suicide. Football should be ashamed.

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