Pride in Jahmal Howlett-Mundle & Sheppey United

by | Aug 9, 2021

I was ten years old when I moved school. This, however, wasn’t just any move. The school I’d just left was a dour, red brick building, fenced off from the road by high railings. The new one was of the flat-pack variety, as favoured in more recent years. More significant than the architecture, though, the former was in a city and the latter was in the countryside.

Mr Jessop was the teacher for both of my two years at this particular junior school. He also gave French evening classes, which my parents attended. More than once I went to his house, admiring the oversized cuckoo clock that hung on the wall in his living room. He was also the first openly gay man I knew. He was occasionally a figure of fun at school, but considerably more often for the fact that he still wore pastel coloured flares in 1983 than for anything relating to his sexuality.

He would also turn out to be the best teacher I ever had, sympathetic to a ten year-old who was suffering more than a little cognitive dissonance at having moved from a council flat on the outer periphery of London to the actual middle of nowhere, but without ever giving me any preferential treatment. I was integrated into the class, and allowed to find my own way. When we’d first moved, I’d felt as though my whole world had fallen in, and that I could never be happy in this new and slightly scary environment. Within just a few months, I was completely settled, and I have Mr Jessop to thank for that.

I mention this story because Jahmal Howlett-Mundle is a primary school teacher. He is in a position of trust, and a position in which he can be a hugely positive influence on young people’s lives. Teachers are important, and the way in which Jahmal has carried himself over the last few days has more than hinted at his suitability towards this particular position.

It seems extraordinary to even mention the sexuality of a sportsman in the 21st year of the 21st century, but football retains its strangely distant relationship with male homosexuality. To this day, Wikipedia’s list of LGBT footballers lists just five men and five women. One of the men, Thomas Hitzlsperger, didn’t come out until after he retired. One of them is Aslie Pitter MBE, who, for all the incredible work that he’s done with Stonewall, is considerably better known for his activism than for his own senior football career.

Moreover, Jahmal came out as bisexual, and male bisexuality is one of the most hidden sexual orientations of all. Stuck between people who you’re ‘greedy’ (whatever that means), people who don’t believe you, and gay people who think you should ‘get off the fence’, it’s not an easy territory to openly navigate.

Jahmal Howlett-Mundle is also a semi-professional footballer playing as a defender in the Southern Counties East Football League, a step five league in the National League System, for Sheppey United. His coming out to his fellow players was shared on social media, with club, player and team mates all being widely praised for the support they’ve shown him. Sheppey United put out a statement confirming their unequivocal support through social media, they were covered extensively in the local media, and picked up on by BBC Newsbeat.

It only took one game for some of the positivity to bleed out of this story, though. On Saturday afternoon, Sheppey United were away to Tower Hamlets in the Extra Preliminary Round of the FA Cup, and after the match – which Sheppey won 4-1 – Jahmal reported that he had been on the receiving end of homophobic abuse from an opposing player during the match. To their credit, Tower Hamlets immediately requested further information. It is to be presumed that the matter will be dealt with, if not by the league then by at least the county FA, but again Sheppey United’s reaction to this has been exemplary, standing four-square behind their player in support.

In this day and age, there is surely nobody left who can honesty claim ignorance of what they’re doing with a homphobic slur – especially not on a football pitch, following a few days during which the very player they were abusing was at the centre of considerable media interest. What is the defence going to be, in this case? Just an outright denial? That it was just ‘gamesmanship’? Are they seeking some sort of ‘notoriety’? The stupidity of others really can beggar belief, at times.

Being realistic, though, to single out just this one case would be unfair, in some respects. We all know that a gay or bisexual person doesn’t have to be present for the homophobia to start, and we all know that homophobic behaviour remains a part of the English football experience, to some extent. Things are probably better in the stands than they used to be, but that’s a bar so low that football has to limbo under it rather than jump over it.

The timeline of this story, though, does tell us something instructive about the nature of homophobic abuse and the scale of the challenge of eradicating it. Everything in this particular story was going as encouragingly as we might have hoped. The club and the players were supportive of the player after he came out, and the response on social media was uniformly positive. Because of its very nature, however, it can only take one person break that cycle, however misguided they might be.

It is to be hoped that those charged with the job of addressing this matter understand the nature of what happened at Tower Hamlets on Saturday. The abuse in this case was targeted and, we might reasonably assume, pre-meditated. But while punishment of the individual concerned is absolutely necessary, it only forms part of the story of how we do eradicate such abuse. The most likely outlet to do so in the long-term is education. As such, it’s absolutely necessary that we don’t just have players as brave as Jahmal Howlett-Mundle, but teachers who are, as well.