A Watershed Moment In The Battle Against Homophobia?
It’s a truism to say that the past is a foreign country, but it certainly feels that way at times. It’s a little over twenty-two years since Justin Fashanu came out thanks to a lurid story in The Sun – much of which, Fashanu later told the Gay Times, was simply untrue – but the differences between that and the coming out of the former Aston Villa, West Ham United and Everton midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger have been considerable, and it is probably this rather than Hitzlsperger’s coming out that has been the aspect of this story from which we will learn the most this week.
For years, a lot of people that state that they know a lot about this sort of thing have been arguing that it would be next to impossible for a professional football to come out publicly for the terrible abuse that he would receive for doing so. It is worth mentioning that Thomas Hitzlsperger didn’t come out until after he retired from playing, and that doing so having retired as a player might well be a slightly more manageable option than in a period of life during which he would have to face thousands of often hostile supporters, amongst whom there is likely to be a proportion of homophobes. None of this is a criticism of Hitzlsperger’s timing, of course. This was his decision and his decision alone. That he felt unable to whilst playing continues to speak volumes about the perception of what would happen to a player if he did come out whilst playing.
Overall, though, the reaction to Thomas Hitzlsperger’s announcement was one that fell somewhere between mild interest and indifference. There were some who congratulated the player on his decision, a reaction that was understandable if oddly patronising, but on the whole the public reaction to it all has been mature and measured, with the first reaction of those that heard the news being to check themselves before they commented publicly about it. If all gay players who did come out could be guaranteed the reaction to Hitzlsperger has received, more would surely be tempted to do so. What would actually happen should a player that hasn’t retired come out remains unclear, but it feels as if the action would be considerably more non plussed than doom mongers have long predicted.
If the future remains mildly unpredictable, though, the present is somewhat easier to comment upon. The relationship between newspapers and their readerships is a complex two way street these days, with the press seeking to impose their social and political values upon their readerships whilst being acutely aware of the fact that they risk considerable censure should they get their tone in the slightest bit wrong. It would be unsurprising to see a columnist somewhere (and there’s no need to speculate on who it could be, so let’s just suffice to say that it would be a white, middle-aged man with a highly paid job in the media – you know, that most prejudiced against of all of society’s groupings – that would be by far the most likely to do so) offering a clickbait friendly assessment of it all for the benefit of those who remain unhappy with the very concept of homosexuality. But for now all seems quiet. All seems calm.
And it is in this relative calmness that we find something approaching a story. These days, it frequently seems as if those who shout the loudest are those who are taken as being representative of all of us and football supporters, who are frequently herded together as a homogenous group based on outdated prejudices, are subjected to this more than most. The lack of hysteria surrounding this story, perhaps, tells a story in itself, but it is worth reminding ourselves of how homosexuality and football used to fit together in this country. It is, perhaps, instructive that one article on the subject to go viral over the last few days was this thoughtful article from 2007 by the former England defender Graeme Le Saux on the subject of the abuse that he received during the 1990, not even because he was gay – and it should go without saying, of course, that such behaviour would have been mitigated if he were gay – but because… well, we can only guess at the mindset of the likes of Robbie Savage, Paul Ince and Robbie Fowler.
It’s not news that such deeply unlikeable individuals should make a living from football. Ever was it thus, although it may be interesting to hear how Savage deals with any listeners to 606 who raise the matter on the future. Before indulging in much self-congratulation, though, anybody connected with football is best advised to consider the fact that Thomas Hitzleberger was unable to confirm who he was until after he retired, the fact that it is still a news story that he did so, and ponder the fact that there is still a lot of work to be done to completely eradicate homophobia from both the pitch, the stands and the culture of the game. The past may well be a foreign country, but its hangover remains with us to this very day.
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