Jordan Henderson apology to LGBTQ+ community over Saudi Arabia move labelled ‘gaslighting’

England star Jordan Henderson’s apology to the LGBTQ+ community over his move to Saudi Arabia, after years of queer allyship, has been branded as gaslighting.  

The 33-year-old midfielder made 492 appearances for Liverpool during his 12 years with the club before signing with Saudi Arabia Pro League side Al-Ettifaq last month, in a deal thought to be worth about £12 million ($15 million).

The move was controversial to say the least. 

Henderson was a steadfast supporter of LGBTQ+ inclusion in football during his career with Anfield club, backing Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign and being nominated for Football Ally at the LGBT+ Awards in 2021. 

Saudi Arabia, however, is hostile nation LGBTQ+ people, with both homosexuality and being trans illegal, and the death penalty a possibility for those found to be engaging in same-sex acts. Alongside this, queer folks face state-sanctioned oppression and abuse and have no legal protections from discrimination. 

Fans and pundits alike aired significant criticism of Henderson for seemingly throwing away years of allyship for a big-money move. His salary is rumoured to be in the region of £36.4 million ($45.7 million) a year.

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Jordan Henderson’s move to Saudi Arabia has attracted a lot of criticism. (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

In an interview with The Athletic, Henderson denied that the move was solely about the pay cheque, telling journalists David Ornstein and Adam Crafton “money has never been a motivation” in his career. 

The interview included an in-depth discussion about his LGBTQ+ allyship, fan reaction, the situation for queer people in Saudi Arabia and the potential sportswashing of the country’s human rights record. 

‘I’m sorry they felt like that’

Henderson, who has 77 international caps, insisted that he still cares about the causes he championed while playing in the Premier League, saying “for people to criticise and say that I’d turned my back on them really, really hurt me”. 

He went on to say: “I can understand the frustration. I can understand the anger. I get it.

“All I can say is that I’m sorry they feel like that. My intention was never to hurt anyone. My intention has always been to help causes and communities where I felt they had asked for my help. 

“When I was making the decision, the way I tried to look at it was, by not going, we can all bury our heads in the sand and criticise different cultures and different countries from afar. But then nothing’s going to happen. Nothing’s going to change.”

“And when I’ve been asked for help, I’ve gone above and beyond to help. I’ve worn the laces. I’ve worn the armband. I’ve spoken to people in that community to try to use my profile to help them. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do. 

“I’m not going to sit here saying, ‘Why are they criticising me?’ I understand it. These are all the things I was thinking about, and I do care. 

“When I hear stuff like: ‘You’ve turned your back on us’, that hurts me. I have family and friends in the LGBTQ+ community.” 

‘We must respect Saudi culture’

When asked if he would wear rainbow laces in Saudi Arabia, he replied that he “wouldn’t rule that out [but] wouldn’t… disrespect the religion and culture in Saudi Arabia”. 

He explained his stance by saying: If we’re all saying everybody can be who they want to be and everybody is inclusive, then we have to respect that. We’ll have to respect everyone. And by doing something like that, if that did disrespect the religion, then no, I’m not going to do that. 

“But if the opportunity comes where I can do it and it doesn’t, then yeah, because that’s my values.”

The former Liverpool captain also said fans “know what my views and values were before I left and still do now”, adding that he thinks “having someone with those views and values in Saudi Arabia is only a positive thing”. 

Later on in the interview, Crafton brought up a promotional video of Henderson – shared by Al-Ettifaq after he signed – which greyed out the rainbow Pride armband he was wearing in one image. 

Henderson, however, denied knowledge of the video “until it was out”, saying: “It’s hard for me to know and understand everything because it is part of the religion. 

“So, if I wear the rainbow armband, if that disrespects their religion, then that’s not right either. Everybody should be respectful of religion and culture. 

“That’s what I think we’re all trying to fight for here in terms of inclusion.” 

LGBTQ+ football fans were less than impressed with the interview, with some accusing Henderson of gaslighting the community in his apology.  

“‘I’m sorry you feel like that’ is gaslighting 101,” one fan wrote. “The mental gymnastics he’s going through to justify this decision are insane. Looking forward to him sporting the rainbow armband there since he’s supposedly an agent of change now…”

Another supporter said: “It’s not a genuine apology and it doesn’t help your case either. Henderson acts like he got the dressing down of a life time, but the locals barely said anything.”

And a third wrote “First sportswashing, now gaslighting from Henderson.”

In a statement shared on X, previously known as Twitter, Kop Outs – Liverpool’s LGBT+ supporters group – said: “No acceptance by Henderson of his role in sportswashing, trying to disguise the disgusting Saudi human rights record. 

“This sounds more like an attempt to rebuild his ‘brand’. Sorry isn’t good enough @JHenderson, actions speak louder than words.” 

And England’s LGBTQ+ fan group, 3 Lions Pride, said: “If criticism ‘really hurts’ you, then just imagine the pain of your very existence being criminalised, penalised and the cause of state-sanctioned abuse. Your hurt over valid criticism does not supersede the reality of your decisions.” 

The group added: “Our door, as always, remains open for constructive conversations.” 

Jack Murley, the presenter of the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast, said: “Henderson says he was really hurt by the criticism he received from LGBTQ+ groups. And sure, criticism hurts. 

“But so does being lashed 500 times with a whip or hung by your neck from a crane, all of which happen to the same gay people in Saudi that Henderson says he supports.”

“If we’re going to have this conversation, let’s at least be clear about what we’re talking about. The consequences of the illegality of same-sex activity in Saudi Arabia is that people like me are whipped, tortured, imprisoned, beheaded, [hanged]. This isn’t hearsay. This is fact.

“Henderson has every right to live his life in the way he chooses, just as I do, so good luck to him. 

“But don’t insult our intelligence by taking huge sums to play in a country where you know this happens while saying you’ve gone ‘above and beyond’ to support us.”

And, in a tongue-in-cheek post, one fan asked: “Is Jordan Henderson the first high-profile person in history where him just saying ‘I did it all for the money’, would have gone down better than what he did say?”

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