Thursday, 2 February 2012

Football's big taboo: time for some real leadership on homophobia in sport

The Swedish player Anton Hysen: a "one off" as the only openly gay professional footballer in the world

I've never been a big fan of football, although my whole childhood was dominated by it. Many of my family are big fans of our local team, Ipswich Town (“The Tractor Boys”). Some of my family have even worked for the club itself over the years. And, they gain much pleasure from their interest, which is great. I did go to a few matches when I was a kid, but never caught the bug – I don't know why. In fact, when it came to any team sports at school, being a little uncoordinated and ungainly in stature, and a little bit blind, I preferred to sit these things out on the sidelines with a good book.

To sit through a live football match today would probably bore me, at worst make me feel a little uncomfortable. Yes, the tribal singing and audacious banter that goes wherever a group of football fans happen to be - the stadium, the railway station or the street – must bring with it a sense of comradeship and belonging that I probably envy, deep down. But the unease that I occasionally feel in these settings comes is a result of what seems to be one of the last remaining vestiges of public prejudice – that is to say chants and singing motivated by casual homophobia, even if the group dynamic doesn't intend it in a nasty or vindictive way. Nonetheless, it's the sort of environment I avoid.

The Football Association and groups like Kick It Out have done a great deal of work in eradicating racism in the game, notwithstanding the occasional high profile incident. What's important is that the game's authorities quite rightly take the issue of racism seriously, as do the media.

But what about dealing with homophobia in such a robust way? Watching
Britain's Gay Footballers this week was a disturbing reminder of just how gaping the void is between the country's overall awareness and acceptance of homosexuality and where football as a game, an industry and a part of a society happens to be. The 'elephant in the room' cliché is an understatement. Homosexuality is simply not discussed in football, full stop. It is 20 years behind the rest of the country, long since moved on. Of course, footballers don't live their lives in isolation from everything else that's a part of our culture; be it fashion, music, film or TV. But those industries are by and large however, comfortable with the idea of out gay men – as are other sports including rugby and tennis to a large extent. Sadly, with respect to homosexuality football is still trapped in a world of unchallenged social attitudes, its star players and leadership alike abstaining from the responsibility of making the game more tolerant of diversity.

Britain's Gay Footballers
centred on a thoughtful journey of discovery by the model Amal Fashanu, whose late uncle, Justin Fashanu, hung himself in a garage in east London in 1998. Justin was, to date, the only gay footballer to have ever come out in English professional football. There's a local link for me too, as Fashanu once had a trial with Ipswich Town.

But what drove Fashanu to suicide? We may never really know, other than by speculating on the consequences of the pressure caused by coming out, very much in the public eye, to a largely intolerant press and the even more hostile world of professional football. And there's more than a hint that Fashanu's sexuality was the cause of bullying over his sexuality which would be deemed unacceptable in 2012.

Back in the early eighties, Fashanu was a player at Nottingham Forest, and after having come out of the closet, Fashanu had claimed to be “accepted” by team mates, although he had admitted that they would often joke maliciously about his sexual orientation. He eventually became the target of baying, hostile crowds as a result. But according to former team captain, any criticism or mocking of Fashanu was because he was deemed to be not performing at the club, as the former Forest team captain John McGovern remarked in the programme. McGovern displayed staggeringly unfortunate ignorance of the sort of language that he seemed to find acceptable in conversing with Fashanu:
Poof – that's just slang for homosexual isn't it? I don't even call that discrimination”.
OK, maybe he wouldn't. The meaning of language changes with each generation. But would be refer to a black player using the N-word? Even during less tolerant 1981, there's a question mark over whether a top league football manager would have stood for that sort of abuse. In the macho environment of the changing room, derogatory language relating to gay men was, it seemed entirely acceptable. And it was evident at management level too. Forest was, at the time, managed by the infamous Brian Clough, supposedly a committed socialist and one-time chair of the Anti-Nazi league. Yet he was light years away from his party's more progressive view on gay rights. As Clough famously recanted in his autobiography:
Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?” I asked him.

A baker's, I suppose” answered Fashanu. “Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?”

A butcher's”.

So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs' club?”
Fashanu frequented many gay venues which seemed to jar with the lifestyle prescribed by Clough, who had battled alcoholism right up until he died in 2004. We've all got our demons, I suppose. But is it any wonder that, therefore, given the treatment of Fashanu by the 'legendary' Clough, that this once brilliant player had lost all his confidence and had stopped scoring goals for the team? He was no angel, but Fashanu had become the target of constant crowd abuse because of his decision to come out. As Andy Wasley points out in his recent article on the subject, gay sportspeople who are out and comfortable with their sexuality perform better. Regardless of what he had said in the papers about his supposed sexual conquests, Fashanu deserved to be treated as a human being and a professional footballer and not with the contempt he appeared to have received from fellow players and managers alike.

Have things changed at all since 1990, when Fashanu outed himself of his own accord in the pages of the Sun? In conversation with Amal, t
he publicist Max Clifford related the view of Premiership players who had approached him. “Their career would be finished if some TV producer wanted them to come out” said Clifford, adding that “players are as frightened now as they were ten years ago. Football is still in the dark ages”.

And what has the Football Association been doing? Virtually nothing. Amal briefly interviewed the FA's diversity manager (apparently a tokenistic appearance – where was the chief executive?), who enlightened us little about what the FA might be doing to tackle homophobia in the game in future, other than the paltry £10,000 it has committed so far to an awareness campaign.

Football deserves better than this shoddy and ignorant approach to diversity, only serving to highlight the ignorance of the FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, indifferent to the potential issues that may be faced by gay fans in Qatar at the World Cup.

Football's institutionalised homophobia is doing nothing for the reputation of the game, and it's time in was brought kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. I'm sure that many grass roots organisations such as the Gay Football Supporters' Network and Kick It Out! are doing as much as they can to bring about a change, but surely a stronger lead from those in charge can entice a few more fans of the beautiful game?


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