Football Culture and Homophobia
“If one in ten people are gay, where are all the gay Premiership stars?” asks David James in a 2007 essay. After all, it stands to reason (or at least statistics) that there’s at least one on every team. So why haven’t any come out?
One doesn’t have to look much further than the tragic case of Justin Fashanu to get the answer. James questions whether it would have been different if Fashanu had been white, but he doesn’t consider the question too deeply. In the 1990s when Fashanu was playing, racism was more prevalent and he was the target of racist slurs. In the 1990s, however, homosexuality was less accepted than it is today and I am sceptical that it would have been different even if Fashanu were of another race.
Fan culture is a sticking point: James points out that the same fans who “always sing along to the camp-as-you-like Scissors Sisters anthems” are the same ones who yell homophobic slurs at the opposing team. The recent study from Staffordshire University, reported in The Guardian suggests fan culture is less homophobic than it would seem. Football fans say they will support an openly gay player, but they will still use homophobic chants that refer to players as “poofs” and say, “That’s not homophobia, it’s just stick. It doesn’t mean we are against gays.”
James also addresses locker-room culture amongst players. He says that in the 1990s, “football was also much more homoerotic, with more bum-patting and kissing — so maybe the presence of an openly gay footballer would have upset the comfort zones.” Players also taunted each other in a homophobic manner; he cites the incidence of “Robbie Fowler parting his bum cheeks to annoy Graeme Le Saux.” He tarnishes his credibility a bit here, saying he does not think Fowler is a homophobe and that the event was blown out of proportion.
Homophobia takes is more than just overt violence, just like racism is more than cross burning. The more subtle aspects are far more insidious and much harder to get rid of. The institutional belief that being gay is a lesser thing than being straight is evident in the words people choose: calling a player or ref a “poof” or a “bender” to denigrate him shows that, at some level, the speaker believes gay is bad.
The only way to change this culture is for a player to come out. He would need the support of his teammates and coaches, and strength of character that could withstand the inevitable media storm and potential backlash among fans. The time when this could happen is approaching, but I don’t believe it’s here yet.