D3D4 Correspondent Chris Stringer takes a look at the issue of homophobia in football and ask what needs to change to make the game open to everyone?
Is Football Open to All?
In 1990, Justin Fashanu became the first professional footballer to come out as gay. This was a landmark story in football and, sadly, did not get the response it should have done. His own brother even offered him £75,000 in an attempt to prevent him from coming out and then went on to accuse him of attention seeking. The talented footballer struggled to continue in the game and after accusations of sexual assault in the US, he fled to London where he committed suicide in 1998.
The tale of Justin Fashanu resonates with many. An incredibly talented footballer, the first black footballer to be valued at £1million, had his career tarnished because of his sexuality. Though the climate in the general public towards the LGBT+ community has improved a lot since Fashanu’s death almost 20 years ago, the culture within football both of fans and professionals creates an atmosphere that is toxic towards those wanting to be openly LGBT+ within the game – it is no real shock that players haven’t followed in Fashanu’s footsteps.
Despite 2% of the general public identifying as homosexual, not a single one of the 5000 professional players in the English game are openly gay.
According to Stonewall, who run the ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign, 72% of football fans have heard homophobic abuse at matches. The language used is usually said without malice intended; often used in the heat of the moment as an insult towards a cheating player or poor refereeing decision. This is wherein the problem lies – people don’t know or think that the language they use can so deeply affect people. The implications of this language extend much further than a casual insult. US based footballer Adam McCabe, who spent a period on trial with various clubs including Bradford City, suggested that the homophobic nature of locker room chat made it difficult for him to face his sexuality. Often coaches and fans alike would refer to the opposition using language such as ‘bender’ and ‘poof’ (amongst more colourful language), which made McCabe feel that he, as a gay man, was “the opposition”. He also discusses how those in the closet don’t feel they can come out as gay, fearful it may rock the boat and disrupt a good run of form in the team. Robbie Rogers temporarily retired from football, aged 25, when he came out in 2013. The Californian born winger stated that he “couldn’t face the scrutiny of the fans and press” over his sexuality.
These worries aren’t unfounded either, Ex-Chelsea manager Luiz Felipe Scolari said he would throw out any player he found out to be gay. Freddie Ljungberg was questioned over his sexuality for enjoying musicals. Ex-footballers, such as Max Clifford, have encouraged footballers not to come out as they risk their career opportunities if they do. By all accounts it is clear that being openly gay in football would present a new challenge in dressing rooms – with many players admitting they’d feel uncomfortable if a gay player was in the dressing room. It really is playing a risky game with your careers if you decide to come out as gay in football.
The issue of homophobia and transphobia isn’t purely something that affects the professionals, fans too are affected by this language. Jake, who is a trans man and Manchester City supporter, has experienced homophobia and transphobia at matches – which has severely reduced his interest in football. “I’ve hear people say ‘poof’ and ‘tranny’ and it makes me uncomfortable and unwelcome”. Jake feared, particularly before he began hormone replacement therapy, that if he were to be outed as transgender there could be violence – “I wouldn’t use the bathrooms for fear that the hypermasculinity could translate into violence if I was outed”. He hears these comments in the family stand at The Etihad and worries the comments could be worse in other parts of the stadium. This is at the club that has an active LGBT+ group, the ‘Canal Street Blues’, and is considered to be one of the most inclusive clubs to work for. Jake went on to say that “removing the possibility of homophobic/transphobic insult” would change the experience for him – “the environment is everything”.
Football is a beautiful sport and this beauty stems from its ability to bring people together. The game that has reached all corners of the world and sees people of all races, ages, political and economic backgrounds come together. It sees people ignore their differences for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon whilst they watch their team make or break dreams. Why waste the talent of players and fans alike over meaningless ‘banter’ or as silly insults? When 22% of football fans aged 18-24 (compared to 11% overall) would feel embarrassed if their favourite footballer came out as gay, then there is still a problem with homophobia in football. Now is the time to tackle this issue. Football has done a good job at stamping out racism, it’s now time to tackle homophobia and transphobia. After all, it will be football’s loss if it fails.
By Chris Stringer
Many Thanks to Jake for taking time to talk about his experience.