A few months ago, whilst watching an enthralling contest between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates stadium, I found myself in a position of some conflict. The man next to me, an Arsenal regular who’s been going for years, would occasionally hurl homophobic abuse at the referee or opposition when a decision particularly upset him. I am ashamed to say that rather than confronting him, or asking him to tone down his language, I said nothing. This is a decision taken by too many football fans – 72% say they’ve heard homophobic abuse at a game, but few do anything to change this.
The male game has a shocking record when it comes to facilitating and encouraging openly LGBT+ players. The most famous, and only, openly gay professional footballer in England’s top four male leagues was Justin Fashanu, who tragically took his life at the age of 37 in 1998. His career was one of majestic highs and tragic lows. In 1980, during a stellar season for Norwich City, he scored the goal of the season, earning him a £1m transfer deal (the first black player to break this landmark) to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. However here the institutionalised homophobia present in football at the time reared its head. Clough, often deified as the best manager in the history of the game, marginalised and attacked Fashanu after discovering his sexual orientation. He prevented him from training with the first team and boasts in his autobiography about criticising Fashanu’s visits to gay bars. This regressive attitude is unfortunately something that has not been eradicated from the modern game. As recently as 2014 Roy Hodgson, then manager of the English National Team, admitted he didn’t know what LGBT stood for.
Fashanu came out to the public in 1990 via the tabloid press, in an attempt to advance tolerance. The backlash he suffered was fierce, from malicious jokes from other players, to abuse in the stands, to being disowned by his own brother − also a professional footballer. This along with injury contributed to the collapse of career and personal life, leading to his eventual suicide. Homosexuality was legalised 23 years earlier, yet Fashanu’s story highlight the unwillingness of football to change.
In contrast to this antiquated, regressive system, the women’s game is a leading light for tolerance in sport. The presence of LGBT professionals is commonplace − to the point where it’s so ordinary it is not worth mentioning. At the 2015 Women’s World Cup there were 14 openly LGBT professionals, compared to zero at the Men’s World Cup the year before. Casey Stoney, a central defender with an illustrious career including over 100 caps for England, came out whilst captain of the national side. The disparity between the two could not be greater.
So why is there such a gap between the two forms of Association Football, and why has so little changed since Fashanu’s brave revelation in 1990? The women’s game is, by its nature, progressive − so it stands to reason why it would promote equality not just in terms of gender, but also in terms of sexuality. This contrasts with the lack of desire in the men’s game to change − LGBT tolerance is simply not a priority. Some charities, such as Kick It Out or Stonewall have attempted to tackle homophobia in the sport through campaigns such as ‘Rainbow Laces’. Tellingly however, according to a survey by Kick It Out, incidents of discrimination are up by 38% from last season. Homophobia is the second most cited form of discrimination, after race. The men’s game is travelling in the wrong direction.
It seems in this case, no one is blameless. The ignorance of managers and bias of players must form a toxic atmosphere within the dressing room. Whilst 55% of spectators say they wish more sports people felt free to come out, perhaps more telling is the 45% who don’t feel that way. Furthermore, some within the game have suggested that agents urge their players to remain ‘in the closet’ in order to protect their image and therefore their endorsement value.
There are fundamental, structural problems within the men’s game that make it easier to remain as they are then push for progression. However, there are some glimmers of light. The women’s game is a shining example that can be followed. Some male footballers have felt able to publicly come out after retirement to help the push for equality. And maybe next time I hear homophobic abuse on the terraces, I’ll speak up.