Can football break its gay taboo?
In a previous article I discussed footballs role in breaking the stigma surrounding depression. The response to this was absolutely fantastic, with people from all walks of life contacting me through twitter to give me their opinions and share their experiences. It reinforced my genuine belief that football, despite its many ills, can still be a force for good and one of the most powerful tools we have in breaking down the barriers that are still prevalent in our society. During discussion of my article on twitter however, one issue continued to raise its head. Can the footballing world ever accept homosexuality?
In the 1970’s and 80’s racism was rife in British football. Players such as Viv Anderson, Cyrille Regis and Garth Crooks (amongst many, many others) were regularly subjected to torrents of vile abuse emanating from the terraces. Racism seemed to be ingrained in the psyche of a large percentage of the match going support. Fast forward to today though and huge progress has been made. I am not claiming for a minute that football has eradicated racism entirely, but imagine the reaction of the supporters you sit amongst if you tried to start a monkey chant at your next home game. I am of course writing this in the context of British football, recent events in Russia involving Peter Odemwinge and Roberto Carlos have shown that racism still thrives and may be on the rise in many footballing cultures. Racism became unacceptable in a society where it was previously the norm, will homophobia ever achieve the same level of revulsion that racism now attracts?
The reasons for the retreat of racism are many and varied, great credit must go to clubs, associations and charities who helped to educate people and alter their perceptions. Something that is often overlooked though is that the talent, commitment and ability of these black players eventually won over the fans. The colour of their skin became less and less relevant as players such as the aforementioned Regis wrote their name into club legend with their displays on the park.
Would supporters come to accept a gay player if he scored a hat-trick in the local derby, or cup final? I happen to genuinely believe they would. There is though one rather obvious problem with this theory, for there to be a ‘gay’ hat-trick hero there first of all must be a gay player. In this country we have had one openly gay professional footballer, Justin Fashanu could not even rely on the support of his brother John (also a professional footballer) and tragically committed suicide eight years after announcing he was gay. The rampant homophobia of certain fans can be illustrated by the horrifying ditty ‘he’s gay, he’s dead, he’s hanging in a shed, Fashanu, Fashanu’ still occasionally heard when Ipswich visit Fashanu’s old team Norwich. John Fashanu has since expressed his regret about the way he dealt with the situation, it should not have taken the suicide of his sibling for him to come to realise that he was in the wrong.
We do have some evidence that there are gay players currently plying their trade at the top level of British football. The publicist Max Clifford has claimed he advised two Premier League stars to keep their sexuality a secret. These individuals should of course be able to be open about their sexuality just as they would in any civilised society, however it is hard to argue with Clifford when he claims that football is “in the dark ages” and “steeped in homophobia”. Whatever you think of Max Clifford he has made a career of judging how the general public will react when confronted with a front page splash, and then spinning that story to the benefit of whoever is signing his cheque that week (I do not think much of Mr Clifford as you may be able to tell!). And he has effectively judged the story of a gay footballer as “unspinnable”.
The name Anton Hysen may not mean anything to the majority of you, but recently he has become the only openly gay player in world football. By all accounts the reaction amongst players and fans to his ‘coming out’ has been if not wholly positive then at least not wholly negative either. No disrespect to the young Swede but he does not have the footballing ability to become the poster boy that gay football requires, he will never score in the Champions League or in a World Cup, he does not have the talent to break down footballs last remaining prejudice. However, Hysen who plays in the Swedish fourth tier, does have a higher profile than would normally be afforded a player of similar ability. His father Glenn is a former Swedish international and previously plied his trade at Liverpool, his brother Tobias has also played for the national side, in short he is part of a Swedish footballing dynasty. The fact he is a Hysen has not only raised his profile but has to some extent made the fact he is a gay footballer more acceptable. Hysen has no intention of becoming the face of gay football and of course he should be under no obligation to do so, he is after all just a normal young man looking to go about his life the same as everyone else. I genuinely hope, and to an extent believe, the case of Anton Hysen is a small step in the right direction. I am however aware that I may be being overly optimistic.
There have been a few positive signs from the wider sporting world. The most obvious of these being the ex Wales rugby captain Gareth Thomas, whose announcement that he was gay has been met with an overwhelmingly positive response. His status as a national hero was already cemented, his sexuality has not diminished his fine achievements on the pitch and he has largely been supported in his decision to come out (the Independent newspaper put him joint first in its annual pink list). Unfortunately the thought that despite its macho image, the average rugby supporter is a more tolerant beast than their equivalent football fan remains a relevant one.
It does seem doubtful that we will see a player appear in both World Soccer and Attitude in the near future. It’s not just the level of abuse that would inevitably rain down from supporters on matchdays but maybe more crucially the lack of support from their peers. The Fashanu tragedy may have played out in the 90s but have attitudes really changed since then? The excellent secret footballer column in the Guardian and the player column in 442 magazine have laid bare the ruthlessness that can exist in a Premier League dressing room, especially with regards to sex. It is not an environment that encourages tolerance and understanding. The English FA attempted to produce an anti-homophobia video but was unable to find anyone from the footballing world to front it. The fear of ostracism was too great.
Football needs one brave individual to stand up, someone whose talent will be more noteworthy than their sexual preference, someone whose value to the team was so great that it overcame the homophobia of his team-mates. That is surely the only way the most ingrained of all prejudices can begin to be eroded, education can play its part but on its own is not enough. In a world where players have been the victims of homophobic abuse because they have admitted to reading the Guardian or occasionally attending the theatre, that individual would need to be prepared to sacrifice his quality of life for the greater good of a society that would offer him no thanks in return.
Incidentally if that player is out there and holds any ambition to represent his nation in the World Cup he’d better hide his sexuality until after 2022, as FIFA have decided the best place to hold footballs showpiece event in that year is Qatar, a country where homosexuality is illegal. Well done FIFA.
This is without doubt an incredibly complex issue with no obvious solution and no easy answers, but it is an issue that for the good of the game needs to be properly debated. I would really appreciate any comments you may have, either on here or via my twitter account which you can access from the about the author section of this site. Thanks.