“Sport at school teaches boys like me that we’re weak and there’s something wrong with us; that we’re not ‘real’ boys. That deep sense of terror I felt at school is with me now and will be with me for the rest of my life.”
I remember lying in bed the night before school with my duvet over my face, crying. I was 12-years-old and terrified because the next morning I would have to stuff my shorts, football socks, boots and the rest of my PE kit in my bag and make one of my twice-weekly walks of doom to school.
I hated PE. Not in the way people talk about hating maths because it was hard or Geography because it was boring. I hated PE because it was humiliating. Sport – it seemed – just wasn’t for me. I was bad at it. All of it. What I didn’t realise then, was that my lack of ability came from a lack of confidence, not some genetic curse that prevented my body from doing what others could.
The memories came back to me over the last few days after breaking the story that there are at least 20 professional gay footballers in the UK who are too afraid to come out.
I needed openly gay footballers when I was a kid. I can’t tell you what a difference that would have made to me as a little boy who felt he didn’t belong and who suffered taunts on the playing field because he was different.
Last week I attended the launch of a Sport Allies report at the Houses of Parliament. One of the conclusions in the report was that homophobia in sport starts at school age and that the “perceived ‘weakness’ of being anything less than the traditional masculine ideal is actively and aggressively policed and excluded.”
It didn’t occur to me as a boy nearing puberty that I was being taunted, shouted at, laughed at and excluded because I was gay and I don’t think any of my classmates thought that either.
As the report says, it was because of my lack of masculinity and the fact that I felt so intimidated and out of place that any potential I might have had was stifled.
After all, there were other lads who seemed to get away with being just as rubbish as me, but they were lads and I, somehow, wasn’t. The ungainly ones who were just as slow as me had funny nicknames and played the clown.
I tried all sorts of silly things to fit in and be more like the other boys. I changed the way I walked and ran and spoke. My legs were hairy long before it was the norm and that fascinated and amused some of my classmates who thought it was funny and a bit weird. So did I. So one day I shaved them using my mum’s razor. I remember realising halfway through with my foot on the bath and hairs everywhere that people were bound to notice.
They did notice and I was mocked for it. The irony was lost on me that, by shaving my hairy legs I was actually making myself even less ‘masculine’ by traditional standards but I just wanted to be like the other boys.
I was different. Not masculine at all and my insecurities only made me more self-conscious and more clumsy and effete. Even my PE teacher was openly disdainful, shouting at me as the rugby ball dropped like a conker between my flailing hands and screaming in frustration when I chickened out of a rugby tackle with a whimper. I now know that those things happened, not because I couldn’t catch or play ball but because I was paralysed by self-consciousness and fear.
To make things worse, PE often came at the end of the day so I’d sit through hours of English, History and French, feeling the sick rise up my throat.
I’d get shaky and have to go to the toilet to lock myself in the cubicle and calm down but it didn’t work. And then it was time.
I didn’t like getting changed because I’m circumcised for some long-forgotten medical thing during my toddler years and I was scared of anyone seeing my penis. Plus I was extremely pale, thin and bony and to be surrounded by those strong, fit boys shouting and laughing was terrifying. As they sang football chants, waggled their privates around for God knows what reason and shouted playful abuse at each other, I would try to disappear into the coats hanging from the pegs in the corner and get changed in quick, well-rehearsed jerks, minimizing my exposure by putting my football jersey on at the same time as removing my school shirt and getting one bare leg into my shorts while the other was still in my trousers.
By year 9 I had taken to wearing my kit under my uniform so I only had to get my clothes off after PE and not before.
Showers were enforced and the teacher would sit in a chair next to them counting us in and out in a line. The feeling of complete shame and exposure after an hour of humiliation was almost unbearable. My only solace came from the promise that once I’d washed off the mud I was free to get my clothes on again and bask in the warm knowledge that it would be another few days before the torture would return.
Today I get nervous and shaky going to boot camps in the park. It’s like I’m 12 again and nothing has changed. When we’re told to get into pairs I stand back knowing I won’t be picked and when some middle-aged testosterone lummox tuts at me for slowing down his body-weight pull-ups because I can’t get my grip right or my trainers slip in the mud I feel like dying.
But the truth is that I’m actually pretty good at stuff. I can run, jump, slide about in the mud and lift things as well as any other guy. I’m self-conscious still but not paralysed.
I think the report from Sport Allies has a point. Sports at school teaches boys like me that we’re weak and there’s something wrong with us; that we’re not ‘real’ boys. That deep sense of terror I felt at school is with me now and will be with me for the rest of my life.
It would have made a huge difference to have seen openly gay players in professional football and it would have helped other boys in class to be less judgemental too.
I’ll leave it to the experts to work out how to make sports less terrifying for boys who don’t fit the ‘masculine norm’ but I do applaud those at Sport Allies for doing what they can to raise awareness of the real damage those Neanderthal attitudes in sport can do to young minds.
I also hope that we can help gay professional footballers to see that they have huge support in the sporting world and well beyond. It is only a matter of time before a player comes out and when they do we must be ready to stand with them. It means a lot to them, a lot to their sport, but also a huge amount to children who need to know they have heroes on the pitch too.