Can rainbow shoelaces give homophobia the boot?

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Credit: Kirsten Colligan

Amy Shimmin
Writer

Amy Shimmin looks at recent initiatives to combat homophobia in football

Stonewall, the UK’s main LGBTQ+ rights charity, launched its flagship sports campaign Rainbow Laces in 2013: the campaign encourages sport at all levels to publicly support LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport through the wearing of rainbow patterned shoelaces. Since then, Rainbow Laces weeks have taken spots in both the SPFL and the English Premier League. Furthermore, at the end of March, GUSA teams will also lace up during the annual Glasgow Taxis cup.

Stonewall Scotland’s research also indicates that 10% of LGBTQ+ people who attended a live sporting event experienced discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, while 46% think that public sporting events aren’t a welcoming space for LGBTQ+ people. Significantly, half of LGBTQ+ men surveyed maintained this opinion – football crowds are predominantly male, therefore this higher-than-average statistic is revealing of the environment perhaps created in stadiums.

Not even in the first week of January this year, 20-year-old Chelsea fan George Bradley was fined and banned for using homophobic chants at a Brighton match in late 2018. Following this incident, Sussex Police described the response to the incident as a “great example of stewarding and policing”; while the swift response and condemnation shows that the issue is being taken seriously, it unfortunately demonstrates the ever-present nature of discrimination in modern football.

In addition, announcements on English Premier League club social media accounts relating to Rainbow Laces have attracted a high volume of backlash. The Guardian reported that 43,000 “angry” reactions were recorded on Manchester United’s Facebook post announcing the campaign, as well as various homophobic comments. Campaigner Peter Tatchell responded to this virtual discrimination, saying that “existing campaigns [to curb homophobia in football] have not been sufficient”. However, Stonewall Scotland claim that “sports fans who have seen the Rainbow Laces campaign are more likely than those who have not to think that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are unacceptable”. It’s important to consider, too, the scale of online responses: Manchester United’s Facebook page has over 73 million likes; 43,000, while a number far too high, accounts for not even 0.1% of total likes.

An important element of Rainbow Laces is creating “active allies”, and this was highlighted during the 2018 campaign. Kirsty Clarke, Stonewall’s Director of Sport describes this allyship as “taking responsibility for making LGBT people feel welcome” or “challenging chants or insults about LGBT people”. The campaign, as evidenced throughout the years, has focused more on creating dialogue in all levels of sport as a whole, rather than simply prescribing behaviour. Given the ongoing homophobia in football, we can see the campaign as playing a small yet positive role in moving away from the current culture. It’s encouraging to believe that supporters nowadays would feel enabled to call out homophobic abuse in a way that perhaps wouldn’t have been normal a decade ago.

Stonewall Scotland have also worked closely with Scottish Student Sport, a national network across Scottish universities, to ensure university-level sport is inclusive for its LGBTQ+ members. At our own university, Stonewall Scotland works closely with GUSA to train club members in LGBTQ+ inclusion. GUSA have marked LGBT History Month on campus for a number of years, and this year, all Glasgow University teams will wear rainbow laces during varsity games in the Glasgow Taxis Cup. The campaign’s ethos of “everyone’s game” feels pertinent as it includes all people as well as all levels – from professional football to amateur university leagues, it seeks to open discussion around inclusion and allyship.

On a more sentimental level, if Rainbow Laces benefits one person, then arguably it’s done its job. If one supporter felt safe and encouraged in their identity last November, or if one GUSA member feels able to come out to their team, knowing that they will be accepted, then it’s been a successful campaign. Rainbow laces alone will not cure ingrained tensions within football, but it’s a positive step towards an inclusive future.

Changes in attitudes are being made across the board: free sanitary products at stadiums, for example, demonstrate a commitment to gender equality in football. Female and LGBTQ+ football fans and players have always existed; campaigns like Rainbow Laces affirm this, and provide an encouraging platform for change.