Football’s long road to inclusivity

Content Warning: Homophobia, Suicide

Justin Fashanu is the only player to have ever come out as gay whilst playing in the English Football League. The victim of constant tabloid speculation, fan abuse, and malicious remarks from teammates, Fashanu endured a fellow professional saying he would be reluctant to play against him “for a certain fear of AIDs.” In May 1998 Justin Fashanu was found in an abandoned Shoreditch lock-up, having taken his own life aged 37.

There has been a constant stream of media speculation as to why nobody has come out during their playing career since. The responses of many within the football sphere provide a telling response. In 2019’s Ask a Footballer, James Milner accused the press of being the answer to their own question, before posing a question of his own: “do people honestly think a player would be picked on or shunned because he was gay?” However, just a year prior Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud said he thought homosexuality “impossible to display in football.” One look at any Premier League club’s Twitter mentions or comments during the Rainbow Laces Campaign should give you an idea who is closer to the truth.

Andre Gray, who played in the Premier League as recently as last July, not only tweeted as a 20-year-old “Is it me or are there gays everywhere? #burn #die #makesmesick,” but that mothers should be wary of how they dress their children, lest they end up a “#f**t” and additionally branded another Twitter user a “gayboy” for the crime of having GCSEs. Malky Mackay, former Premier League manager and present performance director of the SFA, called another club’s employee ‘a gay snake’. Both men have since apologised profusely, and I do believe it is possible to correct these attitudes.

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However, I also know it’s a lot easier to stop saying these things than it is to forget hearing them. I appreciate that Gray was young and ignorant when he made those comments, but how many players have given up the game in the face of these environments? Football fans are a brutal bunch, and the changing room must be a sanctuary in the face of the crowds. How on earth could a player feel truly safe and accepted in a changing room with those men?

Doubtless, fans play a huge part too. I’ve been to Wimbledon, where you’ll be bounced out for leaving your seat at the wrong time. I’ve been to Twickenham, where someone called me “uncouth” for laughing at a player’s howler. I’ve been to plenty of football stadiums, where there is an understanding that this is a place to completely lose yourself in a frenzy of emotion, where every bit of your emotional state is tied to the drama unfolding before you. I know what I like best.

It’s a sacred space where generations of working-class men have gathered to leave every personal worry at the turnstile, everything else in your life be damned until the final whistle. The result is a primal thing. You’re pledged for life to whatever colours you inherit from your family, and for the next 90 minutes you hold an earnest conviction that all of that lot from six miles up the road are your mortal, undying enemies.

That may be the beauty of it, but there is a line, and it is crossed every game. For whatever social progress we might expect to have carried over to the terraces, a plane flew over an empty Etihad Stadium with the banner “WHITE LIVES MATTER BURNLEY” only weeks after George Floyd’s murder. Who on earth would volunteer to be the one to find out how these sorts respond to the Premier League’s first LGBTQ+ footballer?

I myself went to an all-male school, in a working-class area of Greater Manchester. Football is one of few ways for people from my background to make it to the top. I played football and rugby and took part in all the standard teenage boy activities. That’s why peers didn’t think twice to gossip to me about the lad in our class who “takes it up the ae.” I didn’t breathe a word of my bisexuality to either set of teammates, because you remember a comment like that with a thousand times the intensity of every token anti-homophobia poster in the corridor.

The majority of current footballers were past their formative years when Section 28 was repealed. A large proportion of fans grew up under the Prime Minister who created it and rubbished the idea that children should be taught that they have “an inalienable right to be gay.” I long for the optimism of anyone who thinks this would leave you expecting acceptance everywhere you go.

Even in the last decade, surveys of fans found that 82 per cent of Scottish football match-goers had witnessed anti-LGBTQ+ abuse, and 7 per cent of English fans felt there was “no place for gays in football.” Anyone who wonders why no player has come out during his career has never known the vision-blurring, white hot sting of shame that comes from knowing you’re still not fully welcome in the game you love.

Image: Marco Verch via Flickr