Football must come out

Published

Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Max Pixel

Andrew Quinn
Sports Editor

“Men’s football is a bit behind culturally, and should take inspiration from others. The women’s game is a great example.”

I have felt quite empty for the last few weeks. I’ve found myself not knowing what to do in the evenings as I sit and flick through television channels as I long for what I had less than a month ago. The World Cup is over, and the void has not been filled yet for many. I had a great month of watching my favourite sport on TV, but others are not so welcome to enjoy the beautiful game. Russia and Qatar, hosts of the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, are two countries which are not completely safe for LGBTQ+ people. This underlines that perhaps inclusion is not important for the leaders of the world’s most popular sport.

However, in Scotland, there is a movement to get more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people involved in sport. The Scottish LGBT Sports Charter is a massive part of this.

The code was developed with the desire for “Scotland to be a country where everyone can take part, enjoy and succeed in sport at all levels whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity.” It recognises that there are barriers for LGBT people in sport, and is “about working together to take visible steps to remove these barriers.” Many different Scottish governing bodies of sport are signatories, ranging from Judo Scotland to the Scottish Handball Association, and big-hitters like the Scottish FA and Scottish Rugby. More than half of Scottish senior football clubs have signed the charter, showing commitment to changing the problem of a lack of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender representation in sport.

Although we are moving in the right direction, there is still massive progress to be made. The Interim Report of the Independent Review of Sexual Abuse in Scottish Football reveals that there is a “historical and a persistent culture of homophobia in football” according to Leadership, Equality and Active Participation (LEAP) in Sports Scotland and Equality Network. It is still okay to be homophobic and class it as “banter” or “patter”. This does not encourage young LGBTQ+ people to get involved in the sport, and means “the beautiful game” suffers as a result.

Some people use homophobic terms because they genuinely hate gay people, but most Scots are not homophobic. Most just don’t realise how hurtful these slurs are, but if they had team mates who were out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, it might challenge their ideas. They would see that it is not okay to use these derogatory terms, and would see the pain that they cause. Moreover, there are many talented young LGBTQ+ sportspeople who do not get involved in sport due to this culture. Obviously, this affects the quality of players for national teams, because currently a whole group is not participating.

We have come a long way since the days of Justin Fashanu, Britain’s only openly gay footballer, who was verbally abused by fans across the country and even disowned by his own brother and fellow professional footballer John, who said that he wouldn’t get changed in the same dressing room as him. Yet, 20 years after the tragic suicide of Justin, Britain’s first black million-pound footballer, there are less than a handful of openly gay footballers in the men’sgame. What are the reasons for this?

Anton Hysén, son of former Liverpool player Glenn Hysén and midfielder for Swedish fourth-tier outfit Torslanda IK, is only the second active professional footballer to be openly gay. He reckons that homosexual players are afraid of fan reaction. The abuse from the terraces can be brutal at times, and sometimes football supporters are not the most progressive thinkers. However, having a gay player in your team would help change attitudes. If a gay footballer scored the winner in the Champions League final, his sexuality would be forgotten; no supporter of his team would complain and it would enlighten those who might never have given a real thought into their views on homosexuality. There are rumours of secretly gay players in the game, and with so many players, it is impossible that there is not at least one LGBTQ+ person in the men’s major leagues. Why, then, do they keep their sexuality a secret?

Often there are calls for these footballers who are hiding their sexuality to come out. There is a real shortage of LGBTQ+ role models for young people in football, and if there were some big-name LGBTQ+ footballers, it would surely encourage more young people to get involved in the sport. However, the idea of coming out is part of the problem. To come out makes homosexuality seem abnormal or a novelty. It appears that you are doing something different which should not be the case. It makes a big deal out of homosexuality and grabs headlines which it shouldn’t because to be gay is not out of the ordinary and we shouldn’t treat it so. It’s not the norm for someone to come out about their sexuality if they are straight, so to come out as gay is proclaiming heterosexuality as standard and homosexuality as irregular. Obviously, this is not what the players want, so it is preferable for them to keep their private life private, and not talk about their sexuality at all.

Gareth Thomas, former Wales and British and Irish Lions captain said when he came out in 2009 that he didn’t “want to be known as a gay rugby player. I am a rugby player, first and foremost I am a man.” Clearly, we need to change homophobic culture in sports first, and then we may see more openly gay footballers, who haven’t had the need to come out because there is no big reaction to their sexuality. This can be by advising children in football teams that it is not okay to use homophobic slurs as insults or as “patter”. If we teach our children to be open-minded, they will lead the way for the future.

Men’s football is a bit behind culturally, and should take inspiration from others. The women’s game is a great example. In 2012, both England Women’s coach and captain (Hope Powell and Casey Stoney) were gay women. They are obviously a big inspiration for lots of young girls who play football, and they help normalise attitudes towards homosexuality in general. Tom Daley has won medals for team GB at London 2012 and Rio 2016, and Billie Jean King is one of the greatest tennis players of all time; they are both hailed as LGBTQ+ icons. Change will come for the most popular sport in the world, and it may take time, but the way in which we can do it is by talking, and highlighting to children that being gay is not strange, it is normal. When we do this, and it will happen, the game will be even stronger.