“We will be in a much happier place when it’s the homophobes hiding in our beautiful game, not our gay players.”
There are professional male footballers out there playing in front of millions of fans right now who are secretly gay or bi. That’s not speculation, it’s not rumour and it’s not wishful thinking. It’s a fact.
Not a very surprising fact to be truthful but it’s telling that many people might not believe it. Of course there are gay and bi footballers in top flight football. There are hundreds of players in the football league so it would be downright ridiculous for all of them to be straight.
And yet, there are still those who struggle to see a place for LGBT+ players in the men’s game.
That, however, is not the root of the issue. The truth is that homophobic chanting has been a deeply ingrained problem in the British game for as long as anyone can remember and it’s not just homophobic fans joining in.
Ardent, testosterone-fuelled supporters will take any weakness they can find to try and undermine the opposite team’s performance and that includes accusations of homosexuality, regardless of the fact that many of those supporters will be perfectly pleasant to LGBT+ people outside the ground.
In fact, flabberghastingly enough, I was talking to a gay football supporter only the other week who admitted to joining in with anti-gay chanting. When I questioned him on being such a cretinous hypocrite he informed me that I don’t understand because I rarely attend football matches. Well is it any wonder I don’t?
Research has found that 72% of football fans have heard homophobia at games in England.
In the febrile atmosphere of our multi-billion dollar ‘beautiful game’, players, clubs, managers and sponsors will be worried about handing such an obvious excuse for the intimidation of one of their star players.
Brighton and Hove Albion are regularly barraged with anti-gay chants from opposing fans, just because they’re from Brighton.
“we can see you holding hands” or “does your boyfriend know you’re here?”
Two of the homophobic taunts Brighton fans reported in a dossier delivered to the Football Association in 2013, documenting abuse from rival supporters in the Championship.
That’s without any Seagulls players being identified as in any way LGBT+. Imagine if one of them came out.
The now-retired Spurs and England international star Sol Campbell suffered racist and spurious anti-gay chants for years, such as: “He’s big, he’s black. He takes it up his crack. Sol Campbell, Sol Campbell.”
With tens of thousands of fans screaming aggressive and offensive attacks at you in one hollering voice when you’re trying to play, who wouldn’t be affected?
The loss of focus leads to a drop in performance, leads to fewer games, leads to loss of sponsorship and ultimately potential exit from the club and the end of a footballing career that is, even for the most respected top-earner, hardly expected to continue beyond 30. The stakes are high on all sides.
Former Leeds United MD David Haigh told me he knows of at least 20 top flight footballers who are in the closet and, yes, for many reasons, they are scared to come out. Who can blame them?
Some of those players are quite open with their teammates and go to local gay bars. The press, quite rightly, has no justification for invading their privacy and reporting the rumours. Yet, even some sports reporters were shocked to hear there are privately open gay players in the top flight. I was equally shocked by their disbelief.
The reason many football fans don’t expect players to be gay is, perhaps, the same reason those who are homosexual don’t feel comfortable coming out: for generations society has taught us that gay guys are bad at football but great at dancing, fashion, parties and anything associated with outdated feminine clichés.
Much of society has come to understand that generalisations like that are harmful and naïve but football is seen by some die-hard fans as the last bastion of blokehood where you don’t have to conform to what they might consider ‘pc snowflake’ demands for acceptance. Just look at some of the reactions to last week’s Rainbow Laces campaign to see the kind of bigotry any openly-gay premier league player might face from the stands.
It’s little wonder that gay and bi footballers want to stay hidden. They worry their club won’t support them, their supporters will ridicule and attack them, that they’ll be chanted off the pitch, that they might lose their entire career.
These are not unfounded concerns, but as David Haigh told me, there is a lot to be gained from being the first openly-gay footballer; more to be gained, perhaps, than lost.
And not just by the individual themselves. I know from my own school days as a boy who felt cut off from football because I wasn’t one of the straight lads, how much we could gain as a country by having gay heroes on the pitch.
The revelation that gay guys are succeeding as professional footballers will expose a truth that so many people outside the liberal bubble still struggle to accept: being gay doesn’t make you less of a man and being a great footballer isn’t about following the rules of old-school masculinity it’s simply about being good at football.
Similarly, being a football fan doesn’t make you a homophobe or a lumbering Neanderthal and I have faith in most supporters to applaud any player who runs out onto the pitch as an openly gay man. In doing that, I believe they will shame any haters into silence.
We will be in a much happier place when it’s the homophobes hiding in our beautiful game, not our gay players.
Which is why I’m proud to be launching this major new national campaign, #ComeOut2Play, alongside OutNews Global and Diva magazine publisher Linda Riley and David Haigh.
It’s aim is to make it easier for top flight football players who want to come out, to be open about who they are. That’s important, that ‘want to’ bit. It’s not about pressuring anybody to come out if they’re not ready to or don’t feel a need. It’s simply about sending a positive message and offering some reassurance.
The campaign states: “True football fans do not care who their heroes score with off the pitch, only that they score on it.”
I think that sums it up.