Football is Living in The Queer Dark Ages

The movement to stamp queerphobia out of football is what the sport needs, but is it enough?

There are real efforts being made to stamp out racism in men’s football – but as proven in the past week, it still lives ferociously in women’s football. Diving (or as many like to call it, cheating) has become a regular occurrence in the game. And wages have increased to such a drastic amount that footballers feel invincible. Football has taken over the sporting world, but it’s still so backwards in so many ways.

One of the biggest issues within the sport right now is the lack of progression in stamping out queerphobia. Earlier in the year, gay rugby player Gareth Thomas explored homophobia in the BBC documentary, Gareth Thomas v Homophobia: Hate in the Beautiful Game. He spoke to the only openly gay footballer within the global sport, Robbie Rogers. He also attended a Brighton away match, in which the Brighton fans were subject to chants such as “does your boyfriend know you’re here?”

This documentary was well received by the newspaper and media outlets that bothered to pay any attention to it. But essentially no one really cared. The first time it was aired was at 9pm on a Thursday night on BBC One, but only in Wales. For the second broadcast, it was moved to BBC Two on a Sunday night at the later time of 10:30pm, but Northern Ireland was still excluded. The last time the programme was shown on TV was a Tuesday night at 11:15pm, and finally Northern Ireland was included.

Joe White is the Campaigns Officer for The Alliance of LGBT Fan Groups, Pride in Football. While he believes Gareth Thomas’s documentary was necessary, he also doesn’t see this as a fix. “I think Gareth Thomas raised some important issues, and gave a platform to some of the issues we’ve been facing,” he says. “But it’s up to those of us involved in the game – whether as fans, as clubs, as players and officials or as organisations – to ensure that the awareness raised is utilised and that the conversations that we need to have continue when the spotlight from a documentary has faded away.”

Paul Ashley-McHale is a fan doing just that, keeping the conversation going. He’s the founder of the Nottingham Forest LGBT+ fan group, named LGBT Trickies. “A recent poll conducted by our group of just Forest fans saw results stating 10% of the people polled (sample size approximately 100) were either fearful for themselves or someone they know from the LGBT+ community and didn’t feel safe,” he says. “Groups like ours have been around for a while and we are playing catch up in some degree, however there are many clubs that do not have any groups at all. It raises serious concerns of how much is not reported due to fear.”

“Groups like ours have been around for a while and we are playing catch up in some degree, however there are many clubs that do not have any groups at all”

The fear from both queer football fans and football players most likely is exacerbated by the tragedy of Justin Fashanu. Before Robbie Rogers, he was the first and only openly gay footballer, and it has been widely rumoured and reported that he suffered abuse from his team mates, managers and fans for his sexuality. He committed suicide on 2nd May, 1998.

Pride in Football predicts that each Premier League match has around 2000 queer supporters attending. And yet, a BBC Radio 5 survey conducted in 2016 showed that a whopping 8% of football fans would stop supporting their club if they signed a gay footballer.

Will Shillibier is a freelance sports journalist, and although he hasn’t witnessed queerphobia at the football matches he has attended, he agrees there is a real issue, and believes Robbie Rogers won’t change anything. “It’s hard to get away from the macho image of men’s sport,” he says. “Rogers’s reach is also not as widespread. Major League Soccer has always been looked down upon by British football fans/media, and that might also lessen the impact of his sexuality and openness.”

So, history teaches us that if a footballer comes out, they’re abused to the point of committing suicide. Present day teaches us that unless you’re one of the biggest names in football, your queerness will make no difference or impact to the way in which the sport treats the queer community.

Ashley-McHale believes at least part of the reason for this is down to the football clubs themselves. “I think clubs are starting to get better affiliating themselves with groups and making public statements that this abuse won’t be tolerated,” he begins. “We saw recently the stadium bans issued to some supporters of Leicester City. I do feel clubs are starting to look at this situation but also feel there is a whole lot more that all clubs can do to make minority groups like LGBT+ feel included and fear free.”

On 19th August 2017, Leicester City fans were ejected from the stadium during a match against Brighton, with two being arrested. They had reportedly shouted homophobic chants towards the Brighton supporters.

Although the punishment towards the Leicester fans was hopeful for Ashley-McHabe, Shillibier felt a little less optimistic. “I was disheartened to hear that Leicester fans had been banned for chanting at Brighton,” he explains. “I thought honestly it had faded away. Calling someone gay just because you don’t like someone always felt a bit infantile; reserved for secondary school jibes, not at football pitches. With Brighton in the Premier League, I hope it doesn’t make a comeback, and that clubs continue to foster relations with LGBT groups and to stamp down on all offensive chanting.”

In terms of what’s happening in football to tackle this old-fashioned and abusive queerphobia, White does have a plan. “Recently, we’ve put time and energy into engaging with fans and clubs that haven’t got an existing fans group. The Pride in Football network keeps growing, and in recent months our current membership has increased to over 30 clubs represented – we’ve had new groups start in the past few months at Bournemouth, QPR, Leeds and Nottingham Forest to name a few, with even more in development,” he states. “Obviously a large short term goal is to work with the FA, FIFA and other football fans to ensure that the Russia World Cup is safe for LGBT fans to attend. Outside of that, we want to use this as a chance to instigate and maintain a dialogue with key players in the game that can help to call out queerphobia within the sport.”

Basically, stuff is being done. A few fans got chucked out of a ground, a couple even got arrested, and fans are doing what they can to make the queer community feel safe and accepted within football. But ultimately, the big power houses in football such as FIFA and the FA simply are not doing enough. While footballers aren’t coming out, it’s proof that they’re scared of the repercussions.

Repercussions of being who they are. Repercussions of their sexuality. Repercussions of being honest. These are not crimes, nor should they be cause for humiliation or secrecy. Every person has the right to come out, and in 2017 it’s shocking we’re still having this discussion in one of the most popular sports on the globe.

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