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Homosexuality: The sensitive secrets of football's taboo

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Before I truly begin this article, I would just like to start by saying that I realise how much of a sensitive subject this can be, and thus this article is not intended to offend or discriminate against anyone.

I am attempting to merely discuss the issues that surround homosexuality within football, and while I appreciate anyone’s personal opinion on the subject, abusive and/or discriminative comments will not be tolerated; they will be removed and reported.

I apologise for starting this article in such a serious and perhaps negative way, but it seems to be the way that homosexuality within football is treated today. It is certainly a taboo area with most people avoiding the subject, and anyone willing to be brave enough to talk about it needs to tread incredibly carefully else they be subjected to an attack.

It is absolutely ridiculous that in 2013 sexual orientation is still considered a concern not just within football, but within sport as a whole. So why is it such a precarious subject?

They have been many rumours of there being gay professional footballers, with the PFA having reportedly offered advice to eight players. But for some reason, players are thus far refusing to come out publicly. What is perhaps most bemusing about this is that sport appears to be the only ‘entertainment’ in which people are yet to come out happily and successfully.

For example, Freddy Mercury was acknowledged as bi-sexual, yet his behaviour and his partner publicly expressed his ‘gayness’; but fans continued to buy records which has seen him go down as perhaps the greatest rock musician of all time. Likewise, Boy George, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Elton John, Neil Patrick Harris, Matt Lucas… The list goes on, and they are all comfortable in their lives at the top of their professions.

Yet football has never been able to make that breakthrough. So what are the reasons that have prevented homosexual footballers coming out thus far? There are a variety of reasons that have been mentioned which all may contribute towards justifiably hiding their secret.

A major worry for a player coming out is that they may be ridiculed by homophobic abuse from the fans. There are lots of chants by fans at matches which are clearly offensive; ‘Paul Ince is a judas c*nt’ is a regular on the terraces at West Ham following that Manchester United picture (still being sung 24 years later), while ‘don’t leave your wife with John Terry’ is sung by many opposition fans across the country regarding his Wayne Bridge/Vanessa Perroncel ‘situation’.

Exactly where this crosses the line from banter to abuse is unclear, but however they may deny and ignore it, it must surely affect them in some way. Yet this ‘banter’ will only be handed out after something ‘bad’ is considered to have happened, but you can bet your life there will be some fans hurling homophobic abuse. Therefore, hearing abuse when you haven’t even done anything wrong seems unjustified, so why bother putting up with it?

Yet it wouldn’t be as simple as dealing with the fans, as coming out could in fact have a direct effect on your career. Footballers today have an increasing commercial value, and clubs associated with big stars in turn become bigger; which can cause higher investments and revenue and more money for the club.

If fans and companies become reluctant to associate themselves with a gay star, believing they will lose commercial interest and value, clubs themselves may become unwilling to keep gay players.

Furthermore, coming out may cause difficulties with teammates; players in the locker room and showering together may feel uncomfortable. I’m not saying that a gay player in the locker room would begin sexually assaulting, or simply be attracted to all of their colleagues, but when do you ever see men allowed in a women’s changing room, or vice versa?

This could cause tensions between the other players which could in turn force the gay player out as a negative influence at the club. You may believe that this is just speculation and this wouldn’t actually happen, but then why are clubs and players so reluctant to discuss the subject at all, when other serious subjects are regularly discussed?

Serious subjects such as racism and respecting the referee have been at the forefront of football for many years now, and campaigns such as ‘Kick It Out’ and ‘Respect’ have been pushed. So why aren’t clubs ready to truly help campaign for aiding homosexual players?

I realise that so far, I probably haven’t made a very strong case for encouraging gay players to come out, but we cannot simply claim that it will all be fine to do it. The first player to come out will probably face these problems, but it will become easier as more players follow their lead. Look at how racism has improved over the years, and you can see that sexual orientation could indeed follow the same pattern.

Yet it isn’t simply a case of convincing teammates and clubs that gay players should be accepted within the game; it in fact stretches even further. Other countries can have vastly different views regarding certain issues, and can be less accepting of such ideas.

Racism, despite its improvements, is still prominent in the game. Even if we move away from recent Premier League cases involving Anton Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, other countries have been accused of racist acts (for example, Russia were fined for their fans’ racist chants during Euro 2012). And this abuse will be parallel, if not worse, than any racism currently shown. Even the UN removed ‘sexual orientation’ from an anti-execution list in 2010 after 79 – yes 79! – countries voted to expel it.

In a nutshell, this suggests that countries should be allowed to execute homosexual people upon that reason alone. So how on earth could a player ever play abroad, or alongside foreign teammates, where beliefs are so powerfully against gays?

The point that other countries may not be so forgiving – which is a ridiculous word to use as a homosexual should not need to be forgiven for anything – is no more evident than in the case of Eudy Simelane. One of South Africa’s most famous female footballers, she was a lesbian who publicly campaigned for equal rights for homosexuals.

She was subjected to ‘corrective rape’ – trying to ‘cure’ lesbians of their sexual orientation – by a gang, beaten and stabbed 25 times. She was just 31-years-old. A horrific ending to the life of a gifted female footballer, and yet little was done.

FIFA haven’t helped the situation with their seemingly light-hearted approach to the matter of sexual orientation: when asked about gay fans travelling to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup, where homosexuality is illegal, FIFA President Sepp Blatter joked: "I’d say they (gay fans) should refrain from any sexual activities." Not what you’d expect from the leading face of world football when seeking help.

While the Simelane story is indeed extreme, it is not an isolated case with coming out being a bad decision. Marcus Urban and Thomas Berling are just a couple of the only footballers to come out during their careers, with both deteriorating soon after their announcements. But perhaps the most famous case is that of Justin Fashanu. 

Until recently when former Leeds United winger and American international Robbie Rogers came out as gay, Fashanu was the only professional footballer in history to come out while he was still in the midst of his playing career, but was faced with a fierce public backlash.

Disowned by his family and more clubs than years after coming out, Fashanu committed suicide following a sexual assault allegation, aged just 37. In his suicide note, he wrote: "I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family." The negative response he had received from his coming out led a talented footballer to take his own life.

It is Fashanu’s tragic story which is widely regarded as the main fear for other players who are too scared to come out. While we hear of these other stories, none have been at the same level, and in the same media spotlight, as Justin.

With technology rocketing social media and celebrities lives constantly under the spotlight, a Premier League player coming out would become a huge – and easily accessible – target.

As we saw in the aftermath of Fabrice Muamba’s on pitch cardiac arrest in March 2012, football is not important when it comes to a matter of life and death; and that is what players may begin dealing with should they come out.

Although they are relatively low key players, Anton Hysén and David Testo have both proved that being gay doesn’t need to have an effect on their playing careers, having been supported and treated purely upon their footballing skills. And there are other reasons to be positive for homosexual footballers.

John Amaechi, a former NBA star, is one of the most high-profile sportsmen to come out following their retirement where, no longer being in the constant media spotlight as a current player, he has had success with little to no difficulty.

But perhaps most significantly of all, former Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas became the first openly gay professional rugby player when he came out in December 2009 while still playing for Cardiff Blues.

Although it was at the end of his career, it was indeed a magnificent step forward for homosexuals within sport; a highly celebrated sportsman, who played 100 times for Wales, was applauded for his bravery at coming out. And he admitted his surprise at being so well accepted, with the truth beginning to come out three years prior to several teammates.

It shouldn’t need to be a surprise, but Thomas "felt everyone was protecting me" – it hadn’t affected how anyone treated him. And this has surely set the benchmark at how people will react in a world where attitudes are indeed changing and improving all the time.

To prove that this attitude will be there in football is to point to the England Women's national team – head coach Hope Powell, who became the first women to achieve the UEFA Pro Licence after a career in which she won 66 caps herself, is openly a lesbian.

A homosexual in a position of such power within English football; surely that shows that sexual orientation is not an issue that will be demeaning to a player’s career? And with the PFA promising full support to any players ready to come out, homosexuals, albeit with justifiable concern, have the opportunity to allay their fears and no longer feel the need to hide their sexual orientation.

It is 2013, and this evolving game in an ever changing world is ready to accept homosexuals for who they are. Of course, whoever takes that first leap of faith may put themselves in the firing line; purely positive reactions cannot be guaranteed.

But with the support they will receive, and the inevitable domino effect that this can have, gay players have the opportunity to finally come out and play in the modern game comfortably.

As Gareth Thomas said at the time of his coming out: "I don’t want to be known as a gay rugby player. I am a rugby player first and foremost. I am a man." This is a mantra that should not be forgotten.

For more information on what football is doing to combat anti-homosexual views, the English FA have set up an action plan called ‘Opening Doors and Joining in’; which is available for PDF download here: http://www.thefa.com/TheFA/WhatWeDo/Equality/Homophobia.

 

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This article has been written by a member of the GiveMeSport Writing Academy and does not represent the views of GiveMeSport.com or SportsNewMedia. The views and opinions expressed are solely that of the author credited at the top of this article. GiveMeSport.com and SportsNewMedia do not take any responsibility for the content of its contributors.

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