April 17, 2012

IconOf course Britain’s gay footballers won’t come out

Hope Powell, England Women's Team Coach

There are 5,000 professional male footballers in the UK, and every single one is completely heterosexual. What are the chances of that, eh?

Pretty slim, actually. By even the most conservative estimates, 1.5% of the population is gay or bisexual, which would mean that right now there are at least 75 gay or bi footballers playing professionally in the UK. And yet not a single one feels able to come out of the closet.

In the history of men’s football there has been one out gay footballer – Justin Fashanu, who committed suicide in 1998 because of the homophobia he experienced on and off the pitch.

Justin’s niece, Amal Fashanu, recently made a BBC documentary called Britain’s Gay Footballers, which was broadcast on 30 January 2012. In the same week, the Football Association (FA) proudly announced that all 20 Premier League clubs have signed up to the Government’s Charter for Action against Homophobia.

It seems that the right questions are being asked, and the issue is starting to get noticed, so could we finally be on the brink of a new era of gay-friendly football?

91% of fans don’t care

In her documentary, Amal Fashanu was frustrated at the silence she encountered when trying to talk about the issue of gay footballers. Hardly any pro footballers were willing to speak on camera about the issue, and those that did were explicitly identified as heterosexual in the documentary, just to avoid any potential misunderstandings. (Or litigiation, presumably.)

But current players who did speak on camera, including Queens Park Rangers’ Joey Barton and a number of Millwall players, were refreshingly open minded. No it wouldn’t make any difference if a team mate was gay, they said. Society has moved on, it just wouldn’t matter.

A few fans spoke on camera too, with similar attitudes. The general view seemed to be that as long as a player was good at football, his own fans wouldn’t care if he was gay. Opposition fans would use it as ammunition, but the player’s own team fans would protect him.

Of course there’s always a chance that there are still a lot of footballers and fans with more homophobic views, and they just didn’t want to voice them on camera. But the documentary’s anecdotal evidence points the same way as larger surveys – a 2011 study of 3,500 people by Staffordshire University found that 91% of fans simply don’t care about footballers’ sexual orientations.

“The word ‘poof’? It would only be used in a comical sense”

Team-mates don’t care, and fans don’t care. So who cares? Management, it would seem. Football is a young man’s game, but the real players in the business are the ones in the boardrooms. Often former players themselves, the men at the top of the clubs and the FA are from another era – Justin Fashanu’s era – when homosexuality was a shameful secret at best, an abhorrent scandal at worst.

There’s a telling moment in the documentary Britain’s Gay Footballers when Amal Fashanu is talking to John McGoven, who was team captain at Nottingham Forest when Justin Fashanu was on the team, and a close friend of Brian Clough when Clough was manager.

When he realised Fashanu was gay, Clough banned him from training with the rest of the team. And in his autobiography, Clough refers to Fashanu as a ‘poof’. “What do you think about that?” Amal Fashanu asks McGoven.

McGoven laughs in response, and feigns ignorance. “I take it that’s a slang word for homosexual?” he asks.

Amal pauses, incredulous. “Yes,” she says. “So was it ok, to call him a poof?”

McGoven tries that lighthearted laugh again, and brushes away any suggestion of homophobia. “I’m laughing because at the time we would have laughed as well, as footballers. I don’t even call that discrimination. It’s another word for what we’re talking about, being a homosexual… I think it would only be used in a comical sense, rather than trying to victimise somebody.”

Beyond tick-box charters

If the problem of homophobia in football exists in the boardroom, then the Government’s Charter for Action against Homophobia is surely a welcome move towards establishing better attitudes throughout all levels of football.

It’s certainly encouraging that all 20 Premiership clubs have signed up to it, but it’s a rather woolly statement about how everyone should be able to enjoy sport without discrimination. Only time will tell if it’s a box ticking exercise or a genuine commitment to changing attitudes.

It’s been 22 years since Fashanu came out. In that time LGBT rights have come a massive way – we’ve had legislation for an equal age of consent, gay people serving in the military, equal rights in the workplace, and civil partnerships. In the same 22 years, the football industry has managed to pull together one toothless statement saying Discrimination is A Bad Thing.

Gay professional footballers do exist. 30% of football professionals – that’s footballers, managers, referees and other officials – personally know current footballers who are gay, according to Staffordshire University’s report. Or to phrase it another way – just under a third of all the professionals in the industry know some gay footballers, and the world has not stopped turning.

A Charter against homophobia is nice, but it is nowhere near enough. Football clubs need to show that homophobia is as unwelcome as racism, and the FA need to lead. You can’t push gay footballers to come out, but you can show them it’s ok by encouraging gay football management to come out. Better still, employ people who are openly gay.

The FA need to employ people who are good at their jobs and knowledgeable about the industry, and who happen to be gay. People like Hope Powell.

The current England Women’s Football coach has already indicated that she is planning to leave coaching, so it’s the FA’s chance to give Powell a high profile, meaningful role in the men’s game where she can make a positive impact on the game and also attitudes towards homosexuality.

A woman, in a senior role in the FA? Maybe if we wait another 22 years we could have a charter for that.

1 Response to Of course Britain’s gay footballers won’t come out

  1. Michelle says:

    What about the female footballers? I know many of them aren’t exactly in the closet but whenever Magazines like Diva or websites like Afterellen ask for interviews the England Women’s team wont comment. In other countries like Finland, Norway or even the USA being out in the press doesn’t appear to be a problem. Why is it such a big deal in England?

Milly Shaw


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