July 9, 2011

IconHomophobia in women’s football

It’s the final week of the Women’s World Cup, writes Chloe Setter. But where are all the lesbian football players? Is homophobia in the women’s game as bad as in men’s football?

In 2009, Stonewall published a report stating that English football is “institutionally homophobic”. The report referred mainly to the Premier League, which is, of course, exclusively for male footballers.

According to Stonewall’s research, 70 per cent of fans had heard anti-gay abuse in grounds, leading the chief executive, Ben Summerskill, to conclude that homophobia in football “almost always goes unchallenged”.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and one that’s compounded by a total lack of representation at professional level. There’s not one single male player in the Premier League, or indeed, in the top teams of the world. The only openly gay player is Anton Hysén, a Division 2 player in Sweden.

In the women’s game, female footballers already suffer discrimination against their gender, leading to a lack of support and credibility, but does the same level of homophobia exist for lesbians too?

Homophobia in women’s football

One might think that there would be less prejudice among female players and fans. Their world is far from the indulgent, self-gratifying microcosm enjoyed by the top male players in which women are frequently used and objectified – merely sparkling accessories to the star in question – and in which stereotypes, money, power and sex dominate.

For the women, if they’re lucky, it’s a salary that the England and Arsenal star Kelly Smith once described as “barely enough to survive on” – and there’s no multi-million pound sponsorship deals or country mansion spreads in Hello.

So why are there no openly out female players on the England team or in the most successful league teams?

Despite the existence of some openly lesbian players on the world stage, such as German players Inka Grings and Linda Bresonik (pictured above), most professional players are not keen to speak out about the subject, most likely because it will automatically mean they are themselves assumed to be gay, or because it will bring unwanted attention if they are.

Even in the past month, football’s governing body Fifa moved to condemn anti-gay comments by the coach of the national Nigerian women’s team. Ngozi Eucharia Uche said in an interview, ahead of the 2011 Women’s World Cup that homosexuality was “dirty” and “spiritually and morally very wrong”. She also admitted that she had removed all gay women from the squad: “There are no more lesbian players on my team. I cannot tolerate this dirty life.”

A spokesman for Fifa said it is “against all forms of discrimination”, yet Uche remains coach and Fifa’s true commitment to kicking out homophobia is in question.

Reports of female players in South America being told to dress and act more ‘femininely’ to prove they are straight are common, and in extreme cases, the risks of being known as a gay player can be fatal.

The suicide of the successful English male footballer Justin Fashanu is well-documented. A less-known story is that of Eudy Simelane, a South African coach and footballer who played for the national side. Eudy was one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in her hometown of KwaThema, but it was a choice that led to her death; she was gang-raped, beaten and stabbed 25 times by a group of males.

A report following her murder claimed her death was a hate crime committed against her because she was gay – a case of ‘corrective rape’ in which men try to ‘cure’ lesbians by assaulting them.

However, it is not just the global professionals that suffer the repercussions of being open about their sexuality. Grassroots players in the UK, too, understand the pressures for conformity when playing a team sport such as football, although to a much less dangerous extent.

Discrimination at grassroots level

“I’ve never felt discrimination about coming out as such, as I am a confident person, but I’ve definitely experienced homophobia as a player,” says Michelle, who plays for a team in west London.

“I’ve played for many years with men, and gay and straight women, and I’ve repeatedly come across a section of straight girls that, once discovering they are playing alongside lesbians, adopt a more ‘feminine’ style of play, as if to reinforce their heterosexuality in the presence of a gay person.

“This can be annoying as they will purposefully demean their own skills on the ball and not tackle properly – it’s like an attempt to detach themselves from the stereotypical ‘masculine’ passion displayed by a man or a gay woman.”

Michelle says although this isn’t a direct case of homophobia, it can make it harder for gay players to feel comfortable among a mixed team. This is perhaps why clubs exist solely for LGB players.

Ruta plays for Leftfooters, a London-based team made up of mainly gay and lesbian players . “It’s quite pointed when people ask why there needs to be gay-orientated football teams,” says Ruta.

“I can understand it – if you don’t give too much thought to it, there’s not much logic in it. However, the reason is more an atmospheric thing than a football one. There’s LGBT banter flying about all the time and it does feel good to have freedom like that.

“There have been rare occasions when people passing by have asked to join in, been accepted and then wander off or act awkwardly once they catch on that most of us are gay or bi, leaving an unpleasant, regretful feeling that our social time was spoiled by it.”

Another player, Emily, says she believes a lot of hostility towards women’s football is influenced by both sexism and homophobia. “There’s a sense that it’s a ‘man’s game’, and perhaps it’s threatening to see women in that space, particularly if those women and strong and athletic.

“And people assume that women who reject traditional notions of femininity are automatically lesbians.”

Rob, the male coach of Kew Green FC in London, says this is a real problem in the women’s game.

“Despite football being the fastest growing sport among women and girls in this country, still the tired old cliché lives on that for women to want to play the game, it means they are most probably gay.

“I’d like to think our team – in which the majority of players are straight but any sexuality is welcome – helps to put that tired notion to bed. It should just be all about the game.”

And Emily believes it is this sort of attitude that might put off potential young players – either because they are straight and don’t want to be labelled gay, or because they are gay and are self-censoring.

Sexism at all levels

The experiences of homophobia varies among lesbian and bisexual footballers, but one theme came through consistently: above all, it was an issue of gender.

“In terms of discrimination, I’ve experienced more for being a woman,” says Rupa.

“I was part of a women’s club some time ago, and we booked a local pitch with the council. Every week, boys would hassle us off it, which made it very difficult to use our time. If we were using half of the pitch for a few minutes, they would see fit to occupy the rest of it. There was really no respect for our space at all. It’s not surprising that places like that are dominated by boys and men.”

Emily agrees. “Playing for my local team, we’d get lads turning up, shouting abuse and running off. Everyone laughed it off but if we weren’t all together in a group, we may have felt more vulnerable.”

And for Michelle, it’s been a case of having to work harder to prove her skill in what is seen as a ‘man’s game’.

“Growing up, I loved football, but when I was kicking the ball about with boys, they’d always target me to tackle or chase down; this meant I had to either improve or quit. I chose to practice harder and run faster. Ultimately, with most of them, this earnt me respect. However, there were a minority that tried to belittle me with insults and over-aggressive tactics. But I wasn’t going to let that put me off doing something that I love.

“Even now, in our all-female team, all the guys crowd round our pitch to watch. Some seem genuinely fascinated, which I find quite laughable really. It’s a game of football. And believe it or not, women – as has been proved by the English team and its successes in comparison with our national men’s side – can be bloody good at it too.”

The current Women’s World Cup might go some way in reversing the stereotypes of women playing football, regardless of sexuality, but there’s a long way yet to go.

In 2011, we have the most high-profile women’s tournament yet, but we also have Sky presenters saying women don’t know the offside rule, coaches claiming they have ‘rid’ their team of lesbians, and the media’s radar barely flickering even when the England team reach the quarter-finals of a world cup.

What the female footballers of Britain want today is the provisions and support to be treated as equals and to excel in their chosen sport. Fifa, are you listening?

1 Response to Homophobia in women’s football

  1. Haybee says:

    great article. i didnt have a clue a womans world cup was even going on until i happened to be flicking channels and notice the france-england game! the missus is an ardent footy lover and even she didnt know. its a real shame, it needs to be far more widely advertised for a start.

Milly Shaw

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