Analysis: Gays – football’s last taboo

Alex Bryce

An article by Portsmouth goalkeeper David James, published in The Observer earlier this month, has re-ignited one of the crucial but rarely asked questions in football: why are there no openly gay players?

There were times when reading the article that I laughed out loud at some of his comments.

My favourite section reads: “Down the years I could easily have been accused of being gay.

“I practised yoga. I read. I paint. I’ve been to The Boardwalk – a gay club in Manchester – although I was with my wife at the time.

[don’t forget to mention your wife or people might actually think you are gay]

“I’ve even driven past the local gay dogging spot in Devon.

[definitely a sure sign of a gay man – driving past a dogging spot]

“There were a couple of guys in tight black shorts and vests looking like Village People try-outs.”

James has been heavily criticised by both gay and straight people for his comments, but perhaps we should be less quick to judge and see the bigger picture.

His trite generalisations seem to be based on an extremely narrow view of homosexuality.

I certainly don’t spend my evenings painting or dogging, although I have been known to wear tight tops.

But he is making a valuable point.

There must be gay people in football and it is sad that the environment is such that they are too frightened to come out.

The gay community can be its own worst enemy sometimes – so quick to condemn someone for highlighting an important issue, just because some of their comments are unintentionally misjudged and inappropriate.

The fact that David James acknowledges there is a problem and is brave enough to talk about is extremely refreshing.

What is particularly revealing, however, is that even David James – clearly more liberal and thoughtful than many of his peers – has views about gay people which seem so archaic and outdated.

Then again, with no openly gay people in football, how can we expect footballers to base their opinions about gay people on anything other than what they see in the media?

That leaves us with a dilemma.

In order to create a better environment for gay footballers and football fans, we need to challenge those damaging stereotypes which still exist in the male-dominated, insular world of football.

But in order to do this we need more openly gay people in the beautiful game.

The best hope of challenging gay stereotypes in football is the World Champion gay football team Stonewall FC.

They are one of a number of gay-friendly football clubs in the UK who offer a safe environment for gay football enthusiasts to pursue their hobby.

The key difference with Stonewall is that as well as competing internationally against other gay teams, they compete at a high level in a Football Association league.

Nigel Carter, club secretary and first team player for the club, highlights the key difference between Stonewall FC and other gay friendly football clubs:

“We challenge stereotypes every match by simply competing with teams at a good level.

“People perceive gays to be camp and weak and not good at sport.

“This is how society has felt comfortable labelling us for years, particularly in the media.”

His experience of the reaction the club receives from other teams is more positive than one might assume.

“There are teams that we play against that don’t mind that we are gay at all.

“They are there for the same reason as us – to play a good game of football and are not interested in our personal lives.”

Stonewall FC players’ experiences of being openly gay and competing in football draw a stark contrast to those of the only ever openly gay professional player.

Justin Fashanu went from being Britain’s first £1 million black footballer to being labelled a “bloody poof” by his club’s manager Brian Clough.

For being honest about his sexuality he was cast aside by the black community, including his own brother John.

In Clough’s autobiography he recalls almost proudly how he lambasted Fashanu after hearing rumours that he was going to gay bars.

“‘Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him. ‘A baker’s, I suppose.’

“‘Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’ ‘A butcher’s’. ‘So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?'”

Fashanu committed suicide in 1998.

Perhaps football has progressed since Justin Fashanu’s remarkable but short life was tragically cut short by hatred and extreme prejudice.

Several Premiership clubs have outlawed homophobic chanting in their grounds, and the Football Association has launched a number of initiatives which have had a modest impact.

One Premiership club which has taken a bold step forward is Manchester City.

They were the first, and so far only, professional club to sign up to Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Scheme.

That decision was correctly described by gay rights organisation Stonewall’s chief executive Ben Summerskill as a “significant step for English football.”

Man City has incorporated a number of gay friendly initiatives which they hope will attract gay fans and potential employees.

Despite that positive development, homosexuality in football still remains taboo amongst players and managers.

When BBC Radio Five Live asked the 20 Premier League managers three questions about homophobia, all 20 refused to answer.

I tried a little hopeful digging to get some comments from people in key positions in football.

My first point of call was the Professional Footballers Association, which is the oldest established sporting union in Britain.

My assumption was that as the union boss responsible for representing footballers would be happy to discuss the issue of homophobia in football, given that it directly effects their members.

I was wrong.

A secretary gave me PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor’s own e-mail address, assuring me that he would receive my correspondence and respond directly.

I was surprised to get no response whatsoever.

It is extremely disheartening that the union which represents players refuses to comment on a subject as important as this.

Next I contacted Manchester City. I was promptly put through to someone in charge community programmes.

He was polite, if a little awkward and guarded, and asked me to send him an e-mail to which he promised to respond directly.

Two days later there is still no response.

In November 2005 the BBC1’s Politics Show featured a report on homophobia in football, timed to coincide with the FA’s first ever homophobia summit.

They contacted all the clubs in London to see if they saw it as a problem and only received a couple of replies – replying that they didn’t.

Although the deafening silence which surrounds this issue is not proof of homophobia in football, it does reveal that the subject is still taboo.

I could count on one hand the number of players or ex-players who have made positive comments on the issue.

So why is it that nobody within the game wants to talk about homophobia in football?

Do they fear a backlash from fans or team mates or do they simply not see it as an issue worth talking about?

I suspect it is a combination of both.

I have played football at a reasonably high level from a young age and can fully understand why footballers remain firmly in the closet with the door tightly locked.

Team mates would be reluctant to share communal showers or changing rooms based on the absurd notion that gay men will inevitably be attracted to them.

However, at the top level of English football I suspect that players are more concerned about the backlash from fans and the media rather than team mates.

Given the celebrity status of Premiership footballers it is virtually impossible to imagine any players who have lived such an isolated life that they haven’t come into contact with gay people.

But media rumours and abuse from opposing teams and their fans is an undesirable but unavoidable part of football.

If we look overseas to Italy or Spain where racism is still a huge problem, it makes me proud to be a football fan in a country where such prejudice has become taboo.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about homophobia.

The FA’s “Kick Racism Out Of Football” campaign was a huge success and although they have made some welcome steps to tackle homophobia, I still sense that it will never be prioritised as highly as racism was.

I suspect that many of those who join in and sing homophobic chants at a football match aren’t always the die-hard gay-haters we might assume.

They simply get carried along with the hysteria and passion which is generated by the crowd at a football match.

If the FA launched a very public anti-homophobia campaign then these people, unwittingly perpetuating the homophobic climate which prevents openly gay people taking part at all levels of football, would realise that what they are doing is wrong.

Stewards must be vigilant and expel fans who hurl homophobic abuse.

Referees should be compelled to send off players for homophobic abuse on the pitch.

And crucially, well-known footballers should be encouraged to front media campaigns calling on homophobia to be kicked out of football.

Perhaps a team of premiership all-stars could play an exhibition match against Stonewall FC to launch the campaign!

Then and only then will we ever see a climate in English football where a professional footballer would come out.

Justin Fashanu paid a very heavy price for his courage and his openness.

Gay footballers today see his tragic story as a warning to stay in the closet.

In 2007, I hope that if a gay footballer was brave enough to be open about their sexuality, others would soon follow him out of the closet.

Given the reluctance of the whole of the football world to talk openly about the issue, a public anti-homophobia campaign as ambitious as “Kick Racism Out of Football” seems like little more than wishful thinking.

Football is such a powerful medium that having an openly gay footballer would undoubtedly aid the fight against homophobia in other parts of our society where it is still rife, especially in schools.

There are very few positive gay role models for young people in our society, particularly ones which challenge stereotypes.

An openly gay footballer in England today would make a huge difference to the lives of all the young people growing up and struggling to come to terms with their sexuality.

That is one thing David James and I agree on.