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The fight against prejudice involves all Sunderland fans: Homophobia

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In the second part of our series on the role of fans in challenging prejudice and discrimination in the game, Rich Speight looks at homophobia in football and contrasts the prominence of LGBT+ people in the men’s and women’s game.

Sunderland v Coventry City - Sky Bet Championship -Stadium of Light Photo by Dave Howarth/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

In the first article of this short series on prejudice, I looked at the recent controversies about racism in and around football in general and within the Sunderland fanbase in particular. I looked at how Black footballers, despite their visibility and prominence on the pitch and in the media, remain marginalised in the corporate hierarchy of the game. I wrote of how antiracism campaigns have faced a backlash as part of a “culture war” that is being waged against the majority of people who stand against discrimination in our sport and wider society, and called on Sunderland fans to remain united in the face of the vocal minority who seek to counteract movements campaign for greater equality through sport.

Here I’d like to turn to look at the challenges faced by a conspicuously invisible minority in our sport, LGBT+ people, and how together we might start to break down homophobia and the barriers that mean that, amongst the over 2,500 men currently playing in professional game, not one gay or bisexual man has felt confident enough to come out.

Homophobia is defined by Kick It Out and the Home Office as “negative behaviour which references being gay and is usually, but not exclusively, directed at people who are gay or perceived to be gay”.

In society in general, homophobia is far less prevalent than has been the case in the recent past. It might shock some of our younger readers to learn that, when I grew up in the 1990s, it was literally illegal for schools to discuss homosexuality with their students. Due to a law known as Section 28, which banned the promotion of “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”, it wasn’t until it’s repeal by the last Labour Government in 2003 that teachers in England and Wales were permitted to talk openly and supportively with young people about issues of sexuality.

The deep and enduring impact of such institutionalised discrimination on LGBT+ people’s mental health is still felt today, and although public attitudes towards same-sex relationships have been radically transformed from the dark days of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the fact that our national sport remains so starkly unrepresentative of wider society in this respect should give us pause for thought. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people have always been part of our game, the tragedy is that they’ve rarely felt able to be open and honest about their sexuality or gender.

Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Why is it the case and what, if anything, can football fans and the wider industry do to help transform the situation?

To answer these questions, we must first understand the nature and scale of the problem within the game. In September 2020, anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out published shocking figures that showed a 95 per cent increase in reports of homophobia at football grounds and on football social media, alongside an increase in reports of racism of over 50 per cent, in season 2019/20. However, only 117 incidents were reported, up from 60 the year before, and the charity has stated this this figure only represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of the level of homophobic abuse present in the game.

An optimistic reading of this statistic, one devoid of the context that’s seen the mainstreaming of far-right rhetoric over the last half a decade or so, would be to say that it reflects a greater awareness of the issue of discrimination and an increased willingness and ability to report such incidences. Whilst one would hope that at least part of the increase is the numbers of football supporters who do take a stand against the scourge of homophobia, Kick It Out’s Chairperson, Sanjay Bhandari, told The Guardian that the increase in reports found in its research “reflect the Hate Crime statistics from the Home Office that show marked national increases over the last four years.”

Further polling conducted by YouGov for the organisation found that football clearly has an awfully long way to go before there’s zero-tolerance approach embedded throughout the culture of the game:

32% of fans said they’d witnessed homophobic comments at a football match in the last season and of these 41% of respondents have witnessed homophobic abuse aimed a footballer on social media.

Although around 84% of respondents said they’d be able to recognise verbal discriminatory behaviour at a game directed at a footballer, match official, team’s coaching staff or fan who supports the same team or a different team to them, a large proportion of people (22%) say they are unlikely to report any act of discrimination in the future.

When I sat down recently to speak with Paul Nelson, Red & White Army’s Secretary and Diversity rep, about his experiences as a gay man supporting Sunderland for decades, it was good to hear that he’s never had a significant issue at the match himself and his experience of homophobia at games has been limited to hearing the ubiquitous calls of “puff” and “faggot’ hurled at players who may have bottled a tackle or gone to ground too easily, not used in an overtly homophobic way to single out a player based on their expressed sexuality.

“We all know the history of the terms” Nelson commented, “and although some who use it will do so, in their view, not in a homophobic manner, it would be good if they could consider the impact it may have on others.”

Having known and worked with and for LGBT+ people my whole adult life, I’ve been struck by how gay people’s behaviour necessarily changes in different social contexts. I asked Paul if he’d ever felt able to show any overt affection to his boyfriend when they’d attended games together; he said no. For me, that’s a sad state of affairs, but one that’s all too familiar in many provincial towns and cities and sets the challenge the game faces in a wider context.

The worst examples of homophobic abuse in football, according to Nelson, are to be found on anonymous forums and on social media. And in those online contexts, it’s most often found when fans take to their keyboards to vehemently oppose any action to challenge discrimination.

Like with black lives matter, their homophobia is betrayed in claim they go to football to “get away from all that nonsense” and, ironically, they don’t want politics brought into the ground. The reality is that too often they don’t want their prejudices to be challenged. We all know the type - they don’t mind gay people, they just don’t want it “shoving down our throats”, as if they’ll be adversely affected by being asked to think about other people as well as themselves.

Sunderland v Ipswich Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

My discussion with Paul turned to how we as Sunderland fans might improve things. Why are there almost no openly gay male footballers? Is it the dressing room culture, or terraces culture that holds people back? If the public statements by current players are taken at face value, they’re supportive of moves to promote LGBT+ inclusion in the game and would be supportive and inclusive of any colleague who wanted to come out to them in private.

No doubt there are countless examples of players who are out to their friends and to their families, but who have chosen not to be out in public. Former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger played his entire career at the top level and had a glittering career that included representing Germany at World Cups and European Championships. He came out in 2014, a year after retiring and having been in long term straight relationships for years.

Hitzlsperger is still involved in the game as Director of Football at Bundesliga side Stuttgart, but his example doesn’t give us many clues as to how either fans or players would have reacted if he’d been out during his time playing at Villa Park or Everton, let alone in front of the notorious firms of Lazio or West Ham.

The impact of homophobic bullying and less overt forms of prejudice, both societal, institutional and interpersonal, on the mental health and career prospects LGBT+ people cannot be underestimated. The English game has one tragic example of what happens to a young man who makes no secret of his homosexuality; the wonderfully talented Justin Fashanu, the country’s first £1 million black footballer and one of the most gifted players of his generation.

Although an open secret for much of his playing career, with his manager at Nottingham Forrest, Brian Clough, chastising him for attending gay bars, it wasn’t until he was 29 that he came out publicly in an interview with The S*n. Disgracefully, his own brother John went on record to disown him, he suffered “banter” from within the dressing room and vicious abuse from the stands, and his career nosedived. After fleeing his home in America following an allegation of sexual assault, he sadly took his own life in May 1998.

His legacy is one that fans of Norwich City, where he had many of his best playing days, celebrate regularly and the National Football Museum posthumously inducted him into their Football Hall of Fame 2020. Yet the campaigning charity named in his honour, the Justin Fashanu Foundation, is clear that his experience is yet to make the industry a more welcoming place for young gay men:

Whilst Justin wrestled with a number of personal demons in his life it is clear that issues around his sexuality were at the heart of his problems. There is no question that the prejudice he encountered in his professional life as a top-flight footballer for club and country blighted his career and led eventually to his death. It is a sad reflection of the continuing issues that surround professional football that twenty years after Justin’s death there is not a single openly gay footballer in the Premier League.

Soccer - Under 21 Friendly - Romania v England
Justin Fashanu playing for England Under 21s
Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Many fans will be aware of Stonewall’s annual Rainbow Laces campaign to make sport more LGBT+ inclusive, which has broken new ground regarding awareness of the issue across the game and ensured that at a corporate level, men’s professional football speaks the language of equality and openness on sexuality and gender issues.

Yet when we contrast this annual show of solidarity in men’s football to women’s football’s everyday embrace of the diverse sexualities of those who play and support the game, we see how far we have to travel. Out lesbian and bisexual players are so common in the WSL and international game as to be almost unnoteworthy.

We should remember that homophobic discrimination is not only experienced by LGBT+ people, but can, according to Kick It Out “also affect anyone who is perceived to be ‘different’ in some way. This might include people who don’t fit in with gender stereotypes, for example, boys and men who don’t have an interest in football, or girls and women who do.”

Whilst we shouldn’t be complacent about the stereotyping of women who play or support football - where both gay and straight women can be the victims of horrible homophobic abuse, difference between the two games, ultimately, comes down to cultural expectations of what a man should be as opposed to what a women should be within the arena of elite sport.

Whereas the women’s game is characterised by a spirit of inclusive camaraderie and sisterhood, the English men’s game has traditionally seen expressions of individuality as potentially detrimental to the unity of the team.

The nature of homophobia in football, both on and off the pitch, is undoubtedly highly gendered; despite all of the advances in wider society, women who play the game are derided as “dykes” and men’s football is the last great bastion of what has become known as toxic masculinity. This belief, that there is one acceptable or authentic way to be a man based on overt and often aggressive expressions of physical and mental strength, sits at the very heart of the problem. Perceived weakness is to be driven out of boys from a young age; in the face of challenges, males should simply “man up” and “grow some”.

We all know that someone’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with their natural ability to play football or their authenticity as a football fan. The example shown by the women’s game shows demonstrates the lie that dressing rooms that include both gay and straight people just won’t work.

We also know that the really strong, really brave people in football are those who take a stand. Last year, in the USA, former Premier League star Landon Donovan ordered his San Diego Loyal side off the pitch following a homophobic incident aimed at their openly gay midfielder, Collin Martin, in a second-tier game against Phoenix Rising. Donovan has set the standard and the example, and we’ve seen a similar reaction from England cricket captain Joe Root when Windies bowler Shannon Gabriel used a homophobic slur in 2019.

West Indies v England - 3rd Test: Day Three
Shannon Gabriel of West Indies was chastised for using homophobic words by England captain Joe Root in February 2019
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images,

So what can be done by Sunderland fans to help break down the barriers?

Awareness-raising, representation and public demonstrations of support are important starting points. LGBT+ fan groups now exist to support and include gay people, their families and allies at many clubs up and down the country. Sunderland AFC have participated actively in the Rainbow Laces campaign and key figures such as Supporter Liaison Officer Chris Waters have worked to support the SAFC LGBT group that has been established over the last couple of years.

RAWA’s Paul Nelson sees his role as Diversity Rep as akin to that of union rep for those who might have experienced problems at the match related to there gender or sexuality. Helpful, and he specifically highlights the Sunderland AFC Customer Charter, which specifically prohibits derogatory racial or sexual remarks behaviour, and promotes mutual respect. It is a key document that the democratic fan group refers to when challenging the club to do more, and yet despite its text outlining the good work the club undertakes to tackle racial prejudice, it’s only explicit commitments towards tackling homophobia are in relation to employment law.

As RAWA re-launches as a formal Supporters Trust, the committee plan to building inclusivity into the heart of the organisation with new policies, and through the Trust members can demand the club do more to make our club a welcoming environment for LGBT+ fans and players. It’s up to everyone who cares about this issue to raise their voices - nobody else will do it for us.

As fans, we should remember that homophobic abuse at the Stadium of Light is against the law. As much as policing others’ use of language makes many feel uncomfortable, it not only creates a hostile environment where players and fans cannot be open about their sexuality, it is against the Ground Regulations. We as fans should expect the club stewards at matches, whether home or away, to act when they hear such abuse or when it’s reported to them.

We can all download the Kick It Out app an have it on our phones in order to report incidents of discrimination and abuse discreetly when we do get back to the SOL. We can use the report functions on social media and forums to combat the homophobia that pervades our online fan communities. We can let our mates know how we feel about the issue, and not allow our WhatsApp groups to become safe spaces for hate, even when it’s dressed up as “just bants”.

We can all play our part making the game more welcoming and inclusive, and we should all reflect on where we can improve as individual and in groups. We here at Roker Report and across the fan media should reflect on the issue of inclusion and diversity too - to my knowledge, amongst the dozens of fans involved in our collective we have only one women who contributes regularly, one person who isn’t white and one person identifies as LGBT+.

The fight against prejudice is everyone’s business. The only people who stand to lose out are the are racists and homophobes. I hope that when fans are allowed into grounds, football as an industry can be that bit little bit more empathetic and inclusive, so that when that brave gay male footballer does come out, he can do so with confidence that his life won’t be made a misery as a result.