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Column: Football is failing its gay and lesbian fans - as well as players

Football associations have put the boot into racism. Now it’s time to tackle the rampant homophobia as well, writes TeaAndToast.ie’s Mick Reynolds.

Mick Reynolds

FROM BEING LABELLED a “slum sport for slum people” in the wake of the stadium disasters of the late 1980s at Heysel, Hillsborough, and Bradford, the landscape in English football has changed dramatically in the past twenty years.

With the influx of Sky TV money and the implementation of all-seater stadia following the Taylor Report, football is now primarily a pursuit enjoyed by all sections of society. This has led to rocketing ticket prices and a myriad of other problems in terms of the game getting away from its roots that are too diffuse to get into in this piece.

However, one of the great initiatives which has occurred since the hooligan-blighted days of the 1980s is the work done to fight racism across all levels of English football. Campaigns such as Show Racism the Red Card and grassroots activism – as well as constant vigilance by a new breed of politically and socially aware supporters – have managed to transform English football from one of the worst black spots for racism in European football to amongst the most tolerant. No one can or should underestimate this extraordinary undertaking, and ordinary fans can be proud of the work that has been done at all levels to ensure that football grounds are a friendly environment for people from all backgrounds.

That is not to say however that English football, or indeed football as a culture and a sport worldwide, is a wholly tolerant entity. For a glimpse into what an old boys’ club FIFA is, remember president Sepp Blatter’s gaffe about homosexuality in football. When asked (quite legitimately) about the treatment which would meet gay fans travelling to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Blatter chortled that “they should refrain from any sexual activities”.

In any other walk of life, or indeed many other sports in the world, this would mean a sanction or a call for the President to step down. Instead, a mealy-mouthed apology was offered a week later and the fallout was neatly swept under the rug. Then again, from a man who once claimed that “there are gay footballers, but they don’t declare it because it will not be accepted in these macho organisations. Look at women’s football – homosexuality is more popular there”, we should hardly be surprised.

So if the top dog in FIFA is not exactly a paradigm of tolerance, then maybe we can find some answers down the line amongst the organisations already praised in this piece. The English FA, for example, who regularly do great work with Kick Racism Out Of Football, have been recognisably slower in endorsing the Justin Campaign, a group founded to demonstrate that ten years after Justin Fashanu’s tragic suicide in 1998, homophobia is still hugely prevalent in both grassroots and professional football.

“As long as I’m president, there will be no gay players”

Fashanu was the first English footballer to come out as gay in the 1980s, and was met with a barrage of hate and intolerance from the media, fans, and players alike, including his own brother John and noted manager Brian Clough. His death in 1998 was the culmination of a long period of personal torment that many in the game, including PR guru Max Clifford who represents various high profile players, have taken as evidence that homosexuality will not be accepted in football even today – a shocking indictment on a game that prides itself on being at the cutting edge of modern society.

Unfortunately, the FA has done little to honour his memory since, with a decidedly lukewarm response to the launch of this video on homophobia in football whose launch was tackled at the last minute for being “too hard hitting” and was criticised by various gay rights campaigners as a poor attempt to confront the real issues involving underlying homophobia in football.

Perhaps even more shocking than this, however, was the admission of the Professional Footballers Association chief Gordon Taylor that the campaign was unable to find one high-profile supporter amongst all the leading Premiership clubs to front the campaign – and that it would be “unfair for a player to back a campaign like this in case they got targeted by football crowds”. Never mind the fact there are surely thousands of fans from the LGBT Community that go to football games every week, pay their way in, and are entitled to the same level of respect and support as anyone else amongst the supporters.

To say that the reason for not backing a campaign is that the very people whose opinion you are trying to change (i.e. ignorant football fans) will oppose it is tantamount to disrespect, and is unfortunately typical of the attitude amongst the head honchos in English football at this time.

Sadly this is a problem not unique to English football. Some of the comments made by senior administrators across the continent have been truly disgusting. Take your pick from Croatian FA president Vlatko Markovic (“As long as I’m president [of the football federation] there will be no gay players. Thank goodness only healthy people play football”), former Juventus of Turin director Luciano Moggi (“A homosexual can’t fulfil the job of a footballer. I wouldn’t put one under contract and if I discovered I had one, he would fly immediately”), or Austrian football federation chief Otto Baric (“I know that there’s no homosexual in my team. I’d recognise a gay man within 10 minutes and I don’t want to have them in my team”).

This demonstrates how ingrained homophobia has become, and that a campaign at FA and grassroots level must be undertaken to change attitudes and ensure that anyone who makes such sickening remarks is removed from their position of importance.

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Hope on the horizon

Fortunately there is some hope on the horizon, in the form of a player with Swedish Fourth Division side Utsiktens BK by the name of Anton Hysen. He has become the first high profile player to come out since Fashanu, albeit at a much lower level and gaining much of his notoriety from the fact that his father Glynn had a spell at Liverpool. His inspirational story can be read here, and in it he records that apart from a few disgruntled fans losing their senses after a cup defeat and one letter from an angry fan, his decision to come out has been an overwhelmingly positive one. Allied to recent messages of support from Bayern Munich and Germany striker Mario Gomez and German FA president Theo Zwanziger to gay footballers, these steps represent the right steps on the road towards tolerance to all in football.

Despite these positive developments, I would not be confident in seeing any major breakthroughs in terms of a tolerance of LGBT rights in football anytime soon, at least not at the top level. One can happily point to the likes of John Ameachi (basketball), Gareth Thomas (rugby), and closer to home Donal Og Cusack (GAA) as examples of players who have played sport to a high level and been broadly supported by their peers and fans after coming out – albeit at the tail end of their careers in the case of Thomas and Cusack.

I feel that there are too many vested interests, in FIFA and in football associations across Europe and the world, to deal with the issues on a mature and responsible level. People say that it will only take one high-profile player to come out to change attitudes; but while this would be welcome, a lot more work is required at grassroots level to truly equal campaigns such as Show Racism the Red Card and remove the blight of homophobia from football once and for all.

I’ll leave you with the story of Eudy Simelane, a former South African soccer player raped and killed in 2008 as a hate crime for being a lesbian and an LGBT Rights Campaigner, as well as having the temerity to play what is considered a macho sport. This was just the latest in a line of a series of ‘corrective attacks’ committed by men behind the guise of trying to ‘cure’ lesbians of their sexual orientation. The fact that Simelane was a former star player with the South African female football team, and that the World Cup would be taking place in the same country in 2010, would suggest a golden opportunity for FIFA, (a registered charity let us not forget) to raise this issue on a global scale at the opening of the games in June 2010.

Unfortunately, Eudy Simelane’s story was forgotten, and in the happy house of FIFA, the business of making money took priority once again.

Mick Reynolds is a writer at TeaandToast.ie, where this article appeared. For more information, see thejustincampaign.com, kickitout.org, and theredcard.ie.

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Mick Reynolds

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