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Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Racism is in the spotlight but what is being done to tackle homophobia?

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Sqf Heaney

The FA stamped down on Luis Suarez’s racism towards Patrice Evra. And it’s quite right that they did, isn’t it? For when we look back into the past, and certainly in football’s past, we see things that are shockingly vile. In the seventies and part of the eighties, black footballers were subjected to awful torrents of abuse from the baying crowds. We all know that – and it comes as a shock to us because we recognise that now, in the year 2011, just how racist and discriminatory we were.

But there are indeed other taboos within our game. For example our attitude to mental illness – seen as the mark of a weak man within a testosterone fuelled, ‘hard’ gender’s game. It’s not even taken into account, depression, is it? It’s not taken into account that for all the money, the women, the fame, certain footballers may still go home and cry themselves to sleep.

Another taboo is the rejection of tackling homophobia. We have seen racism condemned so frequently in the past but what about the abuse of men who are deemed to be homosexual, such as the defender Graeme Le Saux who had to endure waves of abuse simply because he reads The Guardian? What about – and with his name comes a certain impact – Justin Fashanu, who along with his faith and family rejecting him, was discriminated against because of his sexuality in our sport? He hung himself in the late nineties and remains the only openly homosexual footballer ever in England. In so many years of football – just one. It’s mad isn’t it?

There are things that annoy me in this debate. First is the notion that being gay has nothing to do with football, and so therefore there is simply no reason to come out. That is an incredibly narrow-minded view when imagining the life of a gay footballer. And do: do imagine it. Not being able to go to gay clubs, not being able to go out to a date with a partner because of the ubiquity of the media; the fear of the torrent of abuse sure to be levelled their way. They would probably wince every time one of their teammates makes a typically football, laddish, homophobic joke. In the football world – unless admirably a player has come out to his club in secret and been accepted – they would feel trapped in their sexuality; much like black men were once trapped in their colour.

This is a sporting world that documents the lives of the participants as much as the football they play; these men must live in fear of homophobia and alienation from their own testosterone-fuelled team-mates as well as the fans. They are trapped and it should be up to the FA – and most certainly FIFA – to make massive strides in equality in our game. It really is quite embarrassing: in rugby there is Gareth Thomas, an openly gay man. The same goes with cricket. But we know these men would probably not be welcomed if they were to come out within the realms of football.

The second thing that annoys me is that apparently, if you do not speak with a lisp, wear tight shorts and listen to the Village People then you aren’t gay. Wrong. But it is interesting the amount of people whom seem to think the stereotype of homosexual people is an accurate one. Just because these men put in scorching tackles and train like demons does not mean they cannot be gay but this view is actually held by many people. Why? And how accepted would a gay footballer be if one did come out? Would he be subjected to awful abuse? Probably. It would cross the line between ‘banter’ and abuse, as it often does.

Sure, heterosexual players like Terry and Rooney are criticised for their extra-marital ordeals but it isn’t as insidious as homophobia in the game. Their ‘mistakes’ – in their affairs – are punished, but we live in a football world where there is not one openly gay footballer. Not one! That tells us all we need to know about what football players, who are the people in the best situation to judge, think of it. For from the stands to probably the players themselves, it does exist. Go to any game and you will hear ‘poof’ and slurs about anal sex – I know I have.

Yet it is never contained and punished in the same way racism would be. And it isn’t just from the gay footballer’s perspective. It just makes our sport as a whole look so prehistoric, doesn’t it? In most other forms of entertainment – from the sexually ambiguous Prince in music to the hypnotist-cum-illusionist Derren Brown – homosexuality is accepted. But not in football. It’s never even considered as an issue.

The stigma that is attached to being gay in football can be eliminated. For once the target of abuse is taken down, what else can fans say? If they ‘accuse’ a footballer of being gay and he replies ‘yeah, so what?’… what else can be said? The fear of being outed is replaced by a proud salute to your sexuality, and the stick they so disgustingly use to beat you with disappears. But the FA can make the first move with this; posters, a re-working of that failed kick it out advert … anything but acting like it doesn’t exist.

We must persuade gay footballers to not feel trapped for what the ignorant may think. Then if a group of players came out as gay with big star names like the Ferdinands or the Beckhams to support their bravery, it could go some way to normalising homosexuality in football. There are gay footballers in our sport that obviously feel like football is not doing enough to welcome them.

And when there are people like the odious Sepp Blatter in charge – who advised homosexual football fans to stay away from Qatar (incidentally a country where homosexuality and homosexual acts are outlawed) – it doesn’t exactly bode well, does it? In the macho heart of football, the abuse of sexuality, in fact the abuse of love is tolerated – and would be further tolerated if a footballer came out. And that is not only painfully wrong but contagiously wrong – for every year that passes with this problem untouched, ignorance is embedded further as the more normal, respectful world becomes more accepting.

A man being in love with another man is as harmless as a man loving football. I just wish we – along with the officiators of our game – could help everyone inside our sporting community see it that way.

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Colin Illingworth



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