Queer the pitch

As well as pointing fingers at Russia, we need to tackle homophobia at home

25th June 2018

In 2015, to rapturous applause, then US football captain Abby Wambach kissed her wife after winning the World Cup in Canada. Fans of women’s football were completely unfazed by this display of affection, of course, and not much was made of it in the media as it was no secret that Wambach’s partner was a woman.

It’s absolutely impossible to imagine something like that happening during this year’s tournament, though.

It’s clear Russia isn’t a guaranteed safe place for LGBT+ football fans or players. Many England supporters decided not to take the risk of attending the tournament because of the host nation’s reputation for rampant homophobia. And, while it’s right to call out Russia for this — and arguably media and football bodies haven’t done anywhere near enough — it’s difficult to point the finger, not least because we’d be being hypocritical.

About 4,000 men currently play professional football in the UK, according to the Professional Footballers Association, and not one is openly gay. Not a single one.

One of the reasons for this ridiculous situation could be that talented young gay and bisexual men are rejecting football because the sport has a cookie-cutter mentality as to who players should be. The other equally, if not more likely, phenomenon is that there are plenty of queer players but they’re keeping their sexuality a secret.

It’s likely at least one of the 23-man England World Cup squad is LGB

More than 4% of people aged 16-24 said they were LGB in a survey by the Office for National Statistics, and a further 4% didn’t know or would rather not say. Of course, you can’t necessarily apply these stats directly to the England squad, but if you did, it’s likely at least one of the 23-man England World Cup squad is LGB.

And it’s obvious why they might not want to be “out”.

One in five Brits still said they wouldn’t feel comfortable with a gay player on their national football squad, in a Stonewall survey last year.

What does it even matter if players are hiding their sexuality? Almost every football fan would say that being straight or gay is irrelevant to sport — it doesn’t factor into talent or success. You might say who an athlete is attracted to or in a relationship with is just tabloid tittle-tattle — it doesn’t have any effect on gameplay or performance.

Players often say they know gay players who are open about their sexuality in team settings but not in public, as they’re often advised to hide it by coaches and clubs

Except it does. Former Leeds player Robbie Rogers, who was only the second gay professional footballer in Britain, can attest to that. The United States international revealed his sexuality in 2013 after retiring and moving away from Britain — he subsequently joined LA Galaxy, David Beckham’s old team. In an interview with the Guardian that year, he said: “Would I have had the same opportunities when I was younger if I’d come out? I don’t think so. There would have been that mentality: ‘Oh he’s gay… How will that affect the team?’”

Rainbow Laces
Stonewall has had lots of success with its Rainbow Laces campaign — but it takes the public to get behind it 📸 Stonewall

Players often say they know gay players who are open about their sexuality in team settings but not in public, as they’re often advised to hide it by coaches and clubs. There’s no shame in wanting to keep your sexuality a secret when you want your personal life to stay out of the papers, or when opposition fans will use anything, homophobic or otherwise, in an attempt to get to you on the pitch.

Unfortunately, men’s football is still a place where bigotry can thrive and homophobic views can go unchallenged.

Being the first “out” men’s professional footballer will be tough. While it’s true that the women’s game doesn’t suffer the same level of homophobia (though, I’m sure it’s not free from it completely), it’s also the case that there have almost always been gay women in football — in fact, back in 2014, Casey Stoney spoke openly about being lesbian while she was England captain. Homosexuality is simply a normal part of women’s football.

We won’t eradicate homophobia from football immediately… but we need to start taking this issue more seriously right now

After the first man, there will hopefully be lots more. We won’t eradicate homophobia from football immediately — especially as the next World Cup will be in Qatar, a country where homosexuality is illegal and one of the few nations that is more homophobic than Russia, according to that same Stonewall survey. But, we need to start taking this issue more seriously right now, as football is already so far behind most of the rest of society and the longer it persists, the worse it gets for queer players.

While we can’t expect clubs, the FA or, especially, FIFA to do anything significant (since tackling the issue won’t make much money), we can take responsibility for looking at the toxic culture we have created and permit in British football, where queer men don’t feel like they’re able to be themselves publicly.

Despite how it seems sometimes, studies show fans have a lot of power, and it’s about time we used it.

25th June 2018