Kick It Out Conference: Organisers of game must take more active role
At a conference run by anti-discrimination group Kick It Out, gay rights campaigners have reiterated calls for greater acceptance of homophobia in English football, this time focusing on the need for the organisers of the game to take a more active role.
This comes as welcome news to Red Card Homophobia, where we have regularly been demanding top-down action from within the football community. The homophobia inherent in football is due in significant part to the fact that the clubs, staff, players and football associations have sat back and allowed homophobic attitudes to fester and to become acceptable. How can we demand that the wider community reach out to and support gay players when there remains so much discrimination within the game itself, on the pitch, by the lockers and the boardroom?
Peter Tatchell, a former friend of England’s only ever openly gay player, Justin Fashanu, said that the FA’s anti-discrimination rhetoric needs to be “translated into stronger and more visible initiatives to make the beautiful game welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people”. Just as organisations such as the FA and FIFA have organised their anti-racism crusades, there is a pressing need for similar moves against homophobia, whether this be through education within clubs or through publicity campaigns featuring the big names of the game to raise awareness on a wider scale. Thatchell went on to provide further suggestions for a more proactive stance against homophobia in football: “The FA should impose big fines and match suspensions on players, managers, and other football staff who use anti-gay insults. But the real solution is public education to change hearts and minds.”
The imperative for education is manifest in the continued separation of the openly gay-friendly community and the mainstream football community. The existence of the Gay Football Supporters’ Network – England’s national gay football league – and exclusively gay football clubs such as Bournemouth and Hampshire Gay Football Club are positive signs of wider engagement and a degree of acceptance. However, inclusion and integration have yet to be achieved. Glen Smith, the treasurer for Bournemouth and Hampshire GFC, said that without such segregation, “a lot of our team wouldn’t be playing football otherwise. They wouldn’t want to join a straight team because they’d feel intimidated – you get the whole lad thing. People don’t realise that we just like football and we want to play football. That’s it, really!”
Clubs like Bournemouth and Hampshire GFC welcome “everyone: women, straight players, anyone who wants to play football,” Smith said. However, the same cannot be said for the football clubs we see on our televisions and on billboards. There is still a separation between the gay community and the traditionally homophobic football community, which is hardly an ideal long-term solution. Such a system allows the homophobic culture of mainstream football to continue unquestioned by taking away the issue to be dealt with. “I’d like the gay league to eventually be fully integrated,” Smith said, highlighting how stagnated a solution of segregation can become. Unless the clubs, staff and players are forced to stop pretending that homosexuality is the norm in football, we will never achieve equality. As the chairman of Bournemouth and Hampshire GFC, Martin Hastings, pointed out, “I don’t think only playing gay teams helps football to progress.”
Hastings also gave some insight into the walls that are put up between football clubs and gay players. “When I was in my teens, it was quite daunting, especially because the people you are playing with are your friends. It’s hard enough to come out to one person, let alone a whole team. You think, ‘Are people going to be comfortable with me in the changing room’?” Indeed, the atmosphere within the changing room is undeniably crucial to the ability of gay footballers to be confident in coming out. In a sport where a team is like a family, knowing that a player has the support of the people close to him could likely make the all-important difference and bolster his ability to stand up to bullying.
Several players for Bournemouth and Hampshire GFC have refused to be interviewed or photographed, and one isn’t yet comfortable playing matches and only trains with the team privately. Support, while on the rise, is still sparse and there remains a backward idea that to be a homosexual footballer is counter-intuitive or even shameful. Hastings explained, “When people hear you play for a gay team, they say ‘Do you wear pink?’ or ‘Do you play against women?'” Smith added, “So many people have said after they’ve played us, ‘Oh, you’re good; we thought you’d be rubbish.'”
These kinds of stories point to the need to ensure that the players, as much as the staff and fans, are supportive to gay players. The chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Gordon Taylor, has said that gay players willing to come out would have to be “very brave” but would be offered total support. We hope that, in the near future, such support is outlined in greater detail and that the PFA shows that it is willing to move beyond mere statements of intent and foster club environments in which players are genuinely supportive of each other regardless of sexuality.