It seems that the issue of gay footballers, conspicuous by their statistically unlikely absence, comes up somewhere in the media at least once a month. Various related issues get discussed and then the conclusion comes that the football world is just “not ready” for gay players. They wouldn’t be accepted in the dressing rooms, we’re told. Or they’d lose lucrative sponsorship deals. The nail in the head comes when someone states with confidence that the relentless barrage of homophobic abuse from the terraces would be too much for the player to handle psychologically.
Firstly, although I’m not a professional footballer, I find the suggestion that they wouldn’t be accepted by their teammates quite bizarre. They already are accepted (probably) in their dressing rooms surely? Besides, what self-respecting metrosexual footballer wouldn’t appreciate a gay teammate’s trained eye being cast over his dubious fashion choices? *cheap stereotype alert*
As for sponsorship and advertising, I can’t see past a player’s coming out having precisely the opposite effect on his worth as an aesthetic selling point for brands desperate to cash in on the so called ‘pink pound’ as well as those who are genuinely progressive. Business will always rush to associate itself with the story of the moment.
But then again I don’t have much (any) experience of the dressing room or of advertising. What I do have considerable experience of, however, is the terraces, or stands as they mainly are now, of the Football League and the chanting and ‘banter’ that goes with them. And I simply don’t buy the idea that fans would make playing unbearable for any gay player.
Obviously I wouldn’t belittle the psychological impact that homophobic abuse can have on someone, having experienced it first-hand myself, and having thousands of people chant abuse at you because of your sexuality when you had taken the decision to be a trailblazer in coming out in the first place would be horrendous, no doubt about it. The thing is, though, is that this attitude does no justice to the modern football fan. I am unequivocal in saying that modern football crowds are not intrinsically homophobic. That’s not to say there are not homophobes among them, of course there are, but as a group they, *we*, are not a gay-hating, abusive mob.
I’m quite certain that any gay player would be greeted with wolf whistles from opposition supporters, but so are players with long hair, players that re-enact Swan Lake on the pitch and players who appear in their pants on billboards. He would probably also face chants of ‘Does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ but only in the same way young players get asked if their mothers know their whereabouts or similar chants refer to the particularly strong willed girlfriends of media friendly players. This would not be homophobia and those who suggest it would be are merely adding to the problems we face when we encounter real, dangerous homophobic behaviour.
The point of football chants, the good ones at least, are that they’re funny, tongue in cheek and loud. They’re designed to catch the attention of the opposition fans, wind up opposing players and motivate our own. I can honestly say I have never been at a ground where one racist, sexist or homophobic idiot has started a chant that’s caught on and I have certainly never experienced hundreds or thousands of people coming together to abuse the race, gender or sexuality of any player, manager or official. That’s just not what football is about.
As a gay fan, and one who’s open about and unashamed of their sexuality, I have never felt anything other than welcomed by the family of Ipswich Town supporters with whom I endure terrible away grounds and worse away performances. Many of these stereotypical ‘lads’ would be undoubtedly judged as small-minded homophobes by those who don’t understand the culture that surrounds following a football team, particularly away from home. The thing which proves that ill-informed reactions and cheap stereotyping can lead to nothing good is that if they were judged like that then so would I be. Together we drink, we sing, we are a raucous crowd of blue and white that make our hosts see that Suffolk is well and truly on tour. We’re also friendly, considerate to the home fans, particularly children, and intolerant of behaviour which crosses the line, be it from an opposition fan or one of our own. I am confident that groups like ours in the colours of every club in the country would drown out homophobic chanting were it to occur from our terraces.
The reason I am so confident is because I have seen it happen. On a train back from the last game of the season in Burnley, we occupied a carriage and began treating the highly amused train guard to a ‘Greatest Hits’ of Ipswich Town songs. Guys and girls from 12 to 70 joined in and reminisced about players and triumphs past and looked forward to next season. Then one rather drunk man began a chant about Norwich City’s Justin Fashanu, Britain’s first and thus far only openly gay player. He barely got half way through the last line before he was shouted down and admonished. There was a brief awkward silence, the Fashanu chants from the 90s stand as our club’s biggest shame and no-one is more ashamed of that dark side to our fans’ history than those who currently wear the blue and white they feel so deeply for. Then we began a louder, more passionate chorus of ‘We are the Ipswich Town FC’ than we had before. The man who thought it wise to bring homophobia to the party looked sheepish. I’d never been more proud of the fans of my club.
The first gay player will have to take the full glare of the media and the wolf whistles from the terraces. But he knows that. The second and third may get a little bit of the shame treatment but the twenty-fifth and forty-second will find their sexuality is an irrelevance, it’s their performances that matter.
As a gay fan I have never felt uncomfortable on the terraces. I have never heard homophobic chanting and I’ve never heard my fellow fans, of any club, espouse homophobic and abusive views. I have never felt anything other than at home. We have learned our lessons from the shaming response to Justin Fashanu’s tragic tale and so, whatever your reasoning for gay players not coming out, don’t blame the fans. We’re more than ready.