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It is only very seldom that we re-run articles on here but, in view of the fact that today is the day of the Brighton Gay Pride festival, we thought that it would be appropriate to run a piece that first appeared on here in March 2007 on the subject of football and homophobia. It was our intention to run more articles on this subject and we will do in the future – if you can help, feel free to get in touch.
Try to imagine, if you will, watching a live football match on the television. It is, for the sake of argument, Chelsea vs Arsenal, and fifteen minutes or so into proceedings, it becomes apparent to you that the Chelsea supporters are singing, “you’re just a team full of niggers”. Your jaw drops open, scarcely able to believe that something so crass would be sung in this day and age, but it’s right there in front of you.
We like to think, at the dawn of a new century, that we’ve got this political correctness thing licked and, thankfully, the sort of scene that I’ve described above is fairly (though not, regrettably, completely) unthinkable. Racist abuse of players was, of course, not remotely uncommon for as long as there were black players on the pitch up until into the 1990s. There’s a convincing argument for saying that there is still endemic racism within football (the editorial of this month’s “When Saturday Comes” considers the fact that there has still never been a black, English manager in the Premiership), but the issue of racism on the terraces has been effectively dealt with by such campaigns as “Kick Racism Out Of Football”.
Last Saturday, I went to the FA Vase match between Whitehawk and Truro City. The visiting supporters spent much of the first half singing “you’re just a town full of bummers” and “does your boyfriend know you’re here?”. I certainly don’t want to get into a situation in which I’m labelling Truro supporters as the most homophobic in the country, because I am reliably informed that there is a high degree of homophobic chanting at every single Brighton & Hove Albion match. Brighton has held a reputation as being a liberal town for some considerable time, and it wears this as a badge of honour. The football club itself takes a strong line against the chanting and has a telephone number to call to report it, but there can be no question that, broadly speaking within football, it is tolerated in a way that simply wouldn’t be if it were racist chanting instead.
It’s difficult to say whether the issue of homophobia on the terraces would be more or less exaggerated if there were any openly gay footballers. To this day, the only openly gay British footballer to come out whilst playing was Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990, towards the end of his playing career. It was hardly a shining example of liberalism and tolerance. Fashanu, who will always hold a place in my affection for this magnificent goal against Liverpool in 1980 (which won the BBC’s “Match Of The Day Goal Of The Season” award for that season), committed suicide in May 1998 after almost a decade of insinuation and gossip. Perhaps Fashanu shouldn’t have come out in “The Sun”, who subsequently ran a series of sensationalist (and, according to Fashanu himself, largely untrue) stories about his private life, but it doesn’t need to be said that it isn’t a matter of how much abuse an openly gay person should or shouldn’t have to endure. We should really be above that sort of thing.
In modern culture, football is almost unique in having such a uniformly heterosexual culture. Interviewed by the BBC a couple of years ago, the former Crystal Palace and Wycombe Wanderers manager Alan Smith said, “Football is a profession that doesn’t allow anyone to be different. I’ve had players over the years who were single and read books and so others said they must be gay. I suspect it may have bothered them but they got on with it because that’s what they wanted to do. I think being openly gay would be something very difficult to live with in football”. It says something that Smith comes across as one of the more liberal voices in the professional game. Modern football culture is still the sort of culture in which baseless gossip can follow Graeme Le Saux for the whole of his career – it was enough for many players and supporters that he collected antiques and read “The Guardian”.
There are causes for cautious optimism on this front – the Brighton & Hove Albion hotline being one small step in the right direction. The Gay National Football League is now in its third season. Anecdotally, there is evidence that the number of gay football supporters is growing year on year. When interviewed by The Guardian on the subject, Dave Nash (of the GFSN League club Brighton Bandits) gave the distinct impression that it’s all water off a duck’s back to him, at least, and it may be a fair assumption to make that, even in Brighton, most gay football supporters have more pressing prejudices to deal with in their lives than the chanting of a few visiting supporters. It kind of strikes me, though, that it shouldn’t be a requirement for gay men (and, indeed, women) to have thick skins in order to enjoy the experience of being at a football match – and this is something that we should all be looking to tackle within the culture of being a football supporter.