In 1974, George Montague was convicted of gross indecency. This was the legal name given to the ‘crime’ of homosexuality in a time when a consensual relationship between two men could make both of you criminals.
Following a royal pardon given to Alan Turing a few years ago, over 50,000 men were recently given pardons for a crime they were convicted of, but that no longer exists. But George said that he wanted an apology, not a pardon, “To accept a pardon means you accept that you were guilty. I was not guilty of anything.”
Perhaps this is one of the problems with homophobia in society, when compared to racism, for example. Homosexuality is mistakenly considered by some as being a choice (and so in the past even a crime you could commit). I wonder if seen as a lifestyle ‘choice’, it is easier to see why the phobia lingers. Some men feel threatened by it, as if homosexuality is something you can catch or even that you can somehow be gay by association.
Apologies to other sports, but for this little slice of my meandering musings I’m going to focus on men’s football. This is partly because (despite its many flaws) it’s a passion of mine and partly because it’s the largest spectator sport the UK has, and therefore has a lot of scope to influence. That said, much applies to other sports I’m sure.
While there is certainly racism in football (and worrying levels in some countries), there is an improved picture in the UK in 2017 and certainly a downward trend in incidents. I’d also argue that racist chants would be viewed very negatively by the majority at a match in this country.
Sadly, I don’t think the same could be said for homophobia. The word ‘gay’ itself is still heard as an insult/adjective thrown around all too readily, in sport and beyond. Stonewall published a report, Leagues Behind, that said that seven in ten football fans have heard homophobic abuse while watching sport. This is despicable, but I fear much of what is heard is parcelled up as ‘banter’, thereby making it ‘harmless’, rather than something born of prejudice and hate. Again, not something that happens when racist abuse is discussed.
We have famous black players. Great players. World class athletes that are seen by many young people as role models, as heroes. Not so the gay footballer. They are there of course, it is statistically impossible for them not to be. But how many current, top level players are openly gay? Not one. A quick gander at Wikipedia throws up a ‘List of Gay Footballers’. There are SIX names in total, only two of whom still play, and none of which are household names.
This can’t help but send a damaging message to everyone, especially young gay men, that sport and homosexuality don’t mix. A recent survey by Radio 5 found that 82% of fans in the UK are comfortable with their club signing an openly gay player. Unfortunately, this leaves 18% who aren’t comfortable with the idea and worse, there are 8% who say they would stop supporting their club if an openly gay player were signed. I would say good riddance to the 8% – it’s saddening and maddening in equal measure.
What will it take to change things? FA chairman Greg Clarke warned players who came out would suffer “significant abuse”. Others, including ex-footballer Chris Sutton, argue that we don’t need more obstacles – once the first gay footballer comes out, others will follow.
I think he’s right, but there will be a lot of weight on that first man’s shoulders. It is difficult to say what tangible effects such a revelation could have. They are certain to get abuse from some elements in the crowd. But this sadly inevitable outcome will at least expose the 8% and, with increased reporting of abuse, it can then be shown up for what it is – unacceptable to the majority – and be driven out of football.
So, the first high profile gay footballer will need to be thick-skinned and have the vocal support of all those that seek to see diversity represented in sport. There is a possibility that their career might suffer too. It may be the case that clubs avoid a perceived risk to supporter income by employing a gay star and that sponsors have a similar fear about brand perceptions.
On the flip side, being in the vanguard, a trailblazer, would certainly get people’s attention. The first openly gay footballers will certainly have an increased profile, not to mention the fact that they will be heroes to many, including an audience who have long been short-changed in terms of sporting idols. Perhaps new sponsors may step forward?
Ideally, a player with the status of a Messi or a Ronaldo would step forward and tell the world they are gay, providing a big push to get the seemingly immobile ball of acceptance rolling. If not, then a group of players collectively deciding to come out could be the answer. And I hope this happens sooner rather than later. It’ll certainly be a cause for celebration when it does.
And this collective approach extends to us all. Everyone, and especially those with a following on social media, a voice people listen to, need to be vocal about their support for football becoming a family that welcomes everyone. In these times when fear and division are all too often being cultivated, I’d like to believe football can be a force for good in society and that the people’s game can become a game for all people.