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Homophobia in Football: Tackling the Taboo

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Homophobia in Football: Tackling the Taboo
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Justin Fashanu was the first, and only, openly homosexual professional footballer in Britain

How many openly homosexual professional footballers can you name? Don’t worry if your list isn’t very big—there are hardly any to be named.

There’s not one openly homosexual player in the whole of the English or Scottish professional game, none in the major footballing countries of Spain, Italy, France and Germany, and only one in the rest of Europe. His name is Anton Hysèn, and he plays in the Swedish Fourth Division.

Football is a worldwide game that is probably the most popular in the world. When the World Cup finals are shown, the whole world finds a way to be interested—whether or not their nation is represented in the 32 teams or not, or whether they care or not about club football. 

In actuality, 205 nations are FIFA registered across the globe from every continent but Antarctica, and it’s estimated that around 715 million viewers watched the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa. And football is the beautiful game, right?

Maybe that’s true. But the game still seems in the dark ages with certain topics: the use of technology to aid match officials, the combating of racism, and the latest prevalent debate of the game’s treatment of homosexuality. It’s possible to name even more, but the one of homophobia is now the most prevalent.

Now it’s a fact that there has only ever been one UK professional player who has announced himself as homosexual (or bisexual), and that was Justin Fashanu, sometime Norwich, West Ham United and Manchester City player—and the first black player to ever command a fee of £1,000,000 in the English game.

The first part of BBC3's documentary 'Britain's Gay Footballers', presented by Amal Fashanu

That was in 1990 (22 years ago). Back then, homosexuality was an even more taboo subject in football (not to mention other sports) than it is now, and Fashanu was ostracised by colleagues, managers, fans and even his own brother John, who played for Wimbledon FC in the Crazy Gang days and was twice capped by England.

Justin had a stormy career because of his bravery in letting the press and the country know that he was gay, and he tragically took his own life in 1998.  Lately, football fans, or television viewers in general, may have seen a BBC3 documentary on homophobia in football that was presented by Fashanu’s niece—and the daughter of John—Amal Fashanu.

Britain’s Gay Footballers was broadcast on January 30th, and was Amal’s investigation into the taboo subject of homosexuality in football. It was interesting to see her interview Wales rugby player Gareth Thomas and ex-NBA star John Amaechi, who both came out as gay in their respective sports, and to see how both were living happily through that.

Amal Fashanu also spoke to PR guru Max Clifford, and he said that several footballers had gone to him in order to make sure that their sexuality didn’t reach the attention of the public. For some, it is saddening that this is the case.

QPR captain Joey Barton hopes this will change. He has suggested that today’s generation of players could change negative aspects of the game, and has spoken out against the prejudice and discrimination of players that aren’t heterosexual. Barton aggravates some through his Twitter hawking and personal controversies, but his thoughts are honest and positive on this topic.

Another problem is that fans give banter about it. They may not be homophobic in their lives outside of football, but it gives them a platform to disengage from societal ethics.

An FA video made in conjunction with Kick It Out about Homophobia and football

An opposition fan who goes to Brighton to see their team play may not be highly discriminative, but he or she may sing along to "we can see you holding hands," or "does your boyfriend know you’re here?" It can be funny to some, but that probably doesn’t help the problem.

Elsewhere, Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Culture and Sport in the UK, thinks that football and its players can have a huge impact on culture and society, and that the acceptance of homosexuality in football could effect its acceptance in society. He also says that footballers are role models (how many kids admire Rooney, Messi and Ronaldo?), but some leave a lot to be desired.

Even Prime Minister David Cameron entered the debate on progress in football, holding a Downing Street summit on the problems in the game (such as racism, the lack of representation concerning ethnic minorities and homophobia).

And as the most popular sport in the country, football can be extremely influential. Although it is generally positive, it can have a big dark side too. This dark side comes out every now and again through the media in private scandals and the like, and there are still isolated incidents of racism (think Luis Suarez and John Terry facing accusations).

There are signs of change, however. The FA has recently launched an anti-homophobia plan, and there are other organisations, such as the Justin Campaign (named after Fashanu), that exist in order to combat the sport’s general homophobia.

John Amaechi OBE says that the FA needs to do more, and that it must be difficult for a board of white, male, straight men to make a change in the culture. And with no openly gay player among almost 5,000 British professionals, one can’t help but question formal efforts and highlight the enormity of the task.

A news report on football homophobia and Brighton and Hove Albion

And with the evidence that only 16 out of the 92 professional football league clubs in England have been willing to help the Justin Campaign, which "challenges the stereotypes and misconceptions around LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people in football," it looks like a task which certainly needs more focus from the footballing community.

It is accepted that there are gay players in football. One common projection of demographics suggests that one in 10 people are homosexual (but that’s just theory), and Home Office stats of 2010 suggested that one in 100 citizens considered themselves gay or bisexual. If these can be applied to football, then either around 500 or 50 British professionals are closeting themselves to the public.

Maybe it isn’t necessary for players to "come out," but that they would prefer not to, and see it is a form of protection, is something that should be examined. Now, with calls from more and more people to see its archaic attitude changed, football could see itself transform (gradually) into a sport which is more generally accepting, representative, and multi-cultured.

The debate and process, however, are still ongoing, and although there are efforts to raise awareness of the problem of homophobia, it is still too early to see the solutions and results.

The effort, though, is overdue, and for football to match the liberality of the 21st century and to progress, this effort is necessary. Then there would be a game that more people can be proud about.

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