You would think, would you not, that in the day and age where rights are equal, where mobile phones are a better gauge for social standing than job, wealth or breeding, and where England are actually better at cricket than Australia, football would be something that everybody can enjoy. A place where anybody could go to watch their (or any) team play and have ninety plus minutes of entertainment. We are a free and equal society, after all.
Last weekend was Football vs Homophobia (you might not have heard about it, given the lack of press attention the event received, despite the amount of work its organisers put in); a day endorsed by The Justin Campaign, a charity set up in the name of Justin Fashanu, the only professional footballer to have come out of the closet, to oppose discrimination of homosexuality in the national sport. Despite his talents, Justin Fashanu is remembered chiefly for two things: being the world’s first openly gay footballer and for committing suicide. Even a lot of football fans forget that chuffing good goal he scored against Liverpool for Norwich in 1980.
Nevertheless, it’s still a common occurrence: ‘gay’ has become synonymous with ‘bad’ in all high schools and amongst young people, “who’s the faggot in the pink” is still heard throughout football stadiums up and down the country (usually aimed at an away fan who had such poor foresight to wear a pink shirt), and no professional footballer has the confidence to be open about their sexuality if it isn’t straight, despite there being thousands upon thousands of players in England.
Everton’s pink kit came in for similar criticism. Nicklas Bendtner was, a few seasons ago, subjected to taunts about his sexuality for wearing pink boots when coming onto the pitch at one match I was at. You know, because pink is a colour that no heterosexual man would ever be seen wearing. And when I commented that making homophobic comments was out of order, I was informed that I was trying to remove banter from the game (really?), that it was only a bit of fun (again, really?) and asked whether I would like football fans to sit in silence and applaud only when goals were scored (clearly, the most logical and rational extension of my position).
Of course, I don’t blame any professional footballers for staying firmly in the closet. The last openly gay player was hounded to suicide. Think of the constant press attention. Think of the chants from opposing fans; the type of fans that, en masse, think it’s acceptable to sing “who’s the faggot in the pink” to a man in a pink shirt. Certainly doesn’t look appealing, does it?
Last year, a report from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender charity, Stonewall, highlighted that three in five fans believe that anti-gay abuse from fans dissuades gay players from coming out. Almost two thirds of fans believe football would be a better sport if anti-gay abuse was eradicated. Over half of fans think the FA, Premier League and Football League are not doing enough to tackle anti-gay abuse.
And some would say that that over half of fans is right, considering the launch of the FA’s anti-homophobia video in 2010 was cancelled and, at the time of writing, nothing has been done to replace that launch. Of course, the video did make it to the internet, but it’s hardly been a ringing endorsement from the footballing authorities in this country. And the video wasn’t too well received by gay charities, either.
Though take a look around the stadium next time you visit your team’s home ground. Slogans like Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football or Respect The Referee are plentiful. Both of them are FA endorsed campaigns and rightly so. But their back-burner approach to homophobia does feel like the message is, in fact, get rid of racism, but feel free to give the gays both barrels.
What can one or two fans do about a group of one or two hundred singing homophobic songs? What can the stewards or police do? In short, nothing. But perhaps the FA might be able to have some sort of influence on these fans with their campaign and try and change attitudes. I mean, it’s not like we still make monkey noises or throw bananas at black players.
Worse than Sepp Blatter’s answer to the question of what gay football fans should do with homosexuality being illegal in the future World Cup venue of Qatar (“[gay people] should refrain from sexual activities”) was the reaction of the journalists in the room, erupting into laughter. Ho ho ho, what a card that Blatter is! Never mind how the actual gay fans (and, indeed, gay players going to Qatar) would feel.
And then, this week, there has been more controversy. This time it’s come from Poland, one of the two countries that will be hosting Euro 2012. Homophobia is still a large problem in Poland, according to reports, and it has been suggested by a gay rights group that there should be a separate section of the stadium at each match of the tournament just for the gay fans. The idea is to provide a safe area where gay fans can enjoy the game.
The idea, though, is a stupid one. Rather than being a friendly environment, an LGBT section could quite easily have a stigmatising effect; it could create a ‘them and us’ environment, not too dissimilar to that you get with home and away fans. That’s providing that enough gay fans have the courage to sit in this section.
What should be being done is a move towards equality. The gay fans should be free to go to a football stadium without feeling intimidated for their sexuality and they shouldn’t have to sit in a special area to do that. It’s not the gay fans that are the problem, but the attitudes of some others.
Only last November did Vlatko Markovic of the Croatian FA say that while he’s “a president of the Croatian Football Federation, there will be no homosexuals playing in the national team.” Charmingly, he went on to say that “luckily, only normal people play football.”
Football may well be the greatest game on the planet, but its attitudes on some things really are in the dark ages. And it’s about time they changed. If the gender of somebody’s partner truly bothers you, then you really need to get over yourself.