Pride and Prejudice: The difficulties the LGBT community faces in football today

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Laces, armbands, corner flags – it’s slowly becoming commonplace to see these, in a rainbow design, to raise LGBT awareness in football. But how much is this actually doing to help raise awareness? There is certainly an argument that those who are supportive and/or ambivalent on the subject merely ignore these promotions, whereas it could be exacerbating the prejudices of those who strongly oppose this equality.

Football fans tend to understand that the vast number of supporters leads to a wide range of different views in terms of race, religion, politics and sexuality. However, what we see when we introduce such ‘rainbow initiatives’ is that those who oppose the LGBT movement become more agitated; as they feel that their safe space is being invaded by something that they believe to be a separate matter.

It’s impossible to talk about LGBT in football without mentioning Robbie Rogers. Rogers has become instrumental in breaking down barriers in America and England; through the stories of his time as a professional footballer and the seemingly impossible task of coming out. Rogers talks in depth about the homophobic language and culture in football – prior to him coming out: conversations in dressing rooms were full of ‘banter’, but “sometimes, it got malicious…They often don’t mean what they say. It’s that pack mentality – they’re trying to get a laugh, they’re trying to be the top guy. But it’s brutal. It’s like high school again – on steroids.”

“Sport is a very homophobic…at times backwards culture” – this directly challenges our idealised view of the ‘beautiful game’. Rogers is one of the very few players who have been brave enough come out as gay, yet even Rogers retired in order to announce his sexuality – he came out after leaving Leeds United and later joined LA Galaxy. It’s impossible to encapsulate the struggles that Robbie has faced in merely one article – let alone encapsulate the struggles of all gay people in sport (whether they have publicly come out or not).

Reading about Rogers’ struggle is utterly heart-wrenching and, at times, shocking. Rogers also talks about the homophobia, not just from the players and fans, but also from the coaches: “they’ll say: ‘Don’t pass the ball like a fag.’ That’s when you look at them and think, ‘Fuck you. What are you talking about? Does it make a difference, if you’re gay or straight, as to how you pass the ball?’…I guess they say it because they think it’s funny. There’s the stereotype of a gay man being soft and flamboyant.”

Excerpts from his 408 words coming out publicly are where his pain and worry really seep through and you can feel his emotion. “We’re such great actors because we’re afraid to let people know who we are”, Rogers said – perhaps why most footballers are unware of whether or not their teammates may be gay. This ability to perfect self-presentation may have been enhanced as footballers are under intense scrutiny nowadays; with agents and sponsors, they are ultra-aware of their actions and their consequences. Rogers went on to say, “Honesty is a bitch, but it makes life so clear and simple.”

Rogers has been fortunate, he has come out to overwhelming support: Rogers said, with agonising emotion, “Life is simple when your secret is gone. Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work, the pain from avoiding questions, and at last the pain from hiding such a deep secret.”

Others have not been so lucky. Justin Fashanu, the first ever openly gay professional footballer, endured a rather different response to his revelation. After coming out he was quickly dropped from Nottingham Forest (in the First Division) – with his manager, legend, Brian Clough, branding him a “bloody poof” – and he found himself playing Third Division football at Torquay United. He was often (and rightly so) bitter about his fate. He talked about the deep-seated prejudice in the English game and said, “You have to understand that footballers are very narrow-minded people. When you put yourself in the firing line, you are open to attack.”

Justin even faced criticism from his brother, John (also a professional footballer – a member of Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’). John said in 2012 that he thought that football was not a place for gay people and that “It’s a macho man’s game and (he thinks) there are reasons why we haven’t had any gay footballers come out. (He doesn’t) believe there will be.” Justin was found dead, hanging from the rafters of a lock-up garage in Shoreditch, in 1998. This shows how brutal the prejudice against the LGBT community can be and it illustrates the cut-throat nature of professional sport. Patron of the ‘Gay Gooners’ – gay comedian, Matt Lucas – empathises with the hesitance of footballers to come out saying, “living as a professional footballer, it’s hard, so precarious, that anything you think might be a disadvantage you just keep quiet.”

Many organisations have started awareness initiatives and done polls to gather information. The realisation of the necessity for this support has largely stemmed from the experiences of Fashanu and Rogers. Data was compiled throughout the 2017/18 season and the ‘LGBT + End of Season Survey’ (commissioned by Football v Homophobia and Pride in Football) found that 63% of the fans surveyed experienced verbal/physical abuse and/or homophobic/transphobic chanting throughout the season. Not only this, but fans did not report the abuse 65% of the time when at home games and 72% of the time when away from home.

Perhaps even more startling data came from a 2017 Stonewall and Forza Football survey – polling different countries to see if fans would be happy to have a gay player in their national team. Results showed that only 50% of Russian fans would be happy with a gay national player and only 14% of Qatar fans would be happy – yet they are set to host the next World Cup. Results were better in England, with 80% – but for a so-called forward-thinking country, this is simply not good enough – especially considering that many people are likely to have lied and said that they would be comfortable just out of not wanting to seem prejudiced.

It must be said that the stats are not good enough and the pressure on footballers is negatively impacting their happiness and freedom. What Fashanu had to endure and the restriction that Rogers felt is unacceptable, thus we must aim to support the LGBT community in football. Everyone has a right to their beliefs, but until the abuse is eradicated, the focus on raising awareness for the LGBT’s plight will remain ever-present. We must stand hand in hand – fighting for pride, against prejudice.

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