Following a weekend in which Premier League captains sported rainbow-coloured armbands to show their support for the LGBT community, it’s time to reflect on football’s relationship with homosexuality.
According to popular belief 1 in 10 people are gay. That turns out to be something of an exaggeration; the ONS reports that 1.7% of the UK population identifies as homosexual (2015). If the League has roughly 500 players, we should be seeing at least 8 homosexuals at any one time. As it stands, Thomas Hitzlsperger is the only openly gay man to have played in Premier League. Justin Fashanu is the only openly gay British man to have featured in the top league, prior to the formation of the Prem’. His career was blighted by discrimination; attitudes towards his sexuality are thought to have been a major factor in his suicide in 1998. Of the thousands of players in lower leagues there have been only a handful of openly gay individuals. Football and homosexuality have a troublesome relationship.
Rumours about some of the game’s biggest stars abound. Could it be that there are homosexuals playing the game who are uncomfortable revealing themselves? If that’s the case, then we have to accept that there are serious disadvantages to ‘coming out’ as a professional player. A 2009 survey suggested that 70% of fans had heard homophobic abuse and chants at games in the previous five years. Players are under pressure to perform and being singled out by supporters is best avoided. Graeme Le Saux, who was repeatedly accused of being gay and openly mocked by supporters and fellow players, stated in his autobiography that coming out would mean intense media attention and abuse: ‘the burden would be too much’.
Another concern would be the impact on relationships with other players. High profile figures in the sport have pledged their support; Buffon, for example, opined that a player is on the field to contribute to the team’s success and his sexuality is irrelevant.
‘I don’t think I have ever played with a homosexual player. But if Juve bought one, my only wish is that he’d win us games.’ – Gianluigi Buffon
That opinion is not universal, however. Several players have been reprimanded over the years for homophobic slurs on social media, among them Burnley’s Andre Gray this year. If Le Saux’s experiences are anything to go by, on-field comments are even more vitriolic. Possibly more concerning from a player’s point of view, is the career impact that coming out might have. Luiz Felipe Scolari, currently at the helm of Guangzhou Evergrande in China, was formerly manager of Chelsea, Portugal and Brazil. In 2002, during his first spell in charge of Brazil, he claimed: ‘If I found out that one of my players was gay I would throw him off the team.’ That sort of attitude would make anybody think twice about coming out.
It’s a worrying state of affairs; anyone uncomfortable being open about their identity will struggle to be happy. Studies have shown that this group is prone to depression; according to The Trevor Project, suicide attempts are 4 times more likely in LGBT youths than straight ones.
There’s evidence of some positive signs, however. The women’s game, for example, is much more accepting. At 2015’s World Cup England’s Women’s squad contained two openly homosexual players. This may be an indicator of more relaxed attitudes in women’s sport in general, but acceptance of homosexuality seems to be growing in other sports: GB’s 2016 Olympic team contained no less than 44 LGBT athletes.
The rugby community is also working hard to become a more inclusive environment. In 2009, Wales and Lions centre Gareth Thomas came out. He had spent years cultivating an image of the toughest man on the field to hide his sexuality. It was mental torture, and he had a long relationship with depression and several suicide attempts. Finally revealing himself sent a powerful positive message; it quashes the offensive idea that gay men can’t be tough. Thomas spoke out: ‘It has been really tough for me, hiding who I really am, and I don’t want it to be like that for the next young person who wants to play rugby, or some frightened young kid’.
Thomas has been active with Childline, trying to make more young people feel comfortable talking about their sexuality. All of this is symbolic of steps being taken in the sport. England back-rower James Haskell is outspoken in his support of the community, ‘personally I wouldn’t give a sh*t if any of my team-mates were gay’; and he’s featured more than once in LGBT magazines like Gay Times and Attitude. This is being translated to the grassroots of the game. The world’s first gay rugby club, King’s Cross Steelers, was founded more than 20 years ago and now have more than 200 members. In that time roughly 70 LGBT clubs have sprung up worldwide.
Returning to football, there’s little of this activity. As goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard put it: ‘there is a problem if young homosexuals who love football have to quit the sport because they feel excluded. Homosexuals are in need of a hero’. In 2014 Paddy Power put forward their case, teaming up with Stonewall to release Rainbow Laces. They distributed them to pro footballers nationwide, and supported their movement with tactical social media content. The campaign was hugely popular, garnering support from high-profile figures like Joey Barton, Gary Lineker and the Arsenal squad. Within a week 25% of the UK population was aware of it. While this is hugely impressive, it remains to be seen what the effects are; until people feel completely comfortable, the situation won’t have been resolved.
I’ve heard the frustrating opinion that ‘homosexuals just aren’t interested in sport’. Not only is that ridiculous – this article is packed with examples of driven and successful sports people who happen to be gay – but it’s a naïve and dangerous position. Lindegaard’s comments are particularly illuminating in this respect. If young people feel isolated because of their sexuality they might be put off from the game. Perhaps there really aren’t any gay footballers because they’ve been made to feel so unwelcome. That would be a far more worrying state of affairs, and one that’s even more problematic to solve. I salute the Premier League’s adoption of the rainbow armband; the support of elite players sends a positive message. But if this is missing from the grassroots then nothing will change. The emergence of more accepting clubs, like King’s Cross Steelers, would surely be a good starting point; and Stonewall FC is one such outfit. With attitudes towards homosexuality changing, football still has to do a lot more to keep up.