Shooting Straight – dangerous in the box?

If you were offered a job with an internationally famous company, capable of drawing the best from around the world and paying accordingly, would you take it? If you knew that becoming one of this firm’s 4000 employees meant respect from your peers in other firms, and an opportunity to have your name known everywhere, simply for doing your job well, would you sign on the dotted line? And if you then found out that this company, out of those four thousand employees, claimed to have not one single homosexual member of staff…would you still say yes?

Because there are currently four thousand professional footballers in England, and not a single one of them is even the tiniest bit queer. In fairness, the clubs that comprise the Premier League do have gay, lesbian and even bisexual staff. Manchester City FC have joined the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme, which is at least a start. Manchester United do tick the “sexual orientation” box, although you have to go digging very deep to find the document that says so. And the Football Association’s commitment to “Kick Homophobia Out Of Football” does
exist, although it doesn’t seem to kick very hard.

This is despite – possibly because of – the effective exile and subsequent suicide of the only prominent English footballer to have ever come out – Justin Fashanu. You may remember him on the front cover of July 1991’s Gay Times, or from the headlines in the Sun and the News of the World in 1990, giving the latter the golden opportunity to run the banner headline “I’M GAY”. His own brother and Gladiators host John Fashanu leapt into print not long afterwards; not to support his brother’s brave move but to condemn him as an outcast. Understandably, with brickbats flying from all
sides, Justin moved to the USA and tried to make a living as a manager. But unproven allegations of sexual assault on a minor led to a return to the UK, a sauna trip, and suicide in a Shoreditch garage. His suicide note hoped that “the  Jesus I love welcomes me, I will at last find peace”.

Has the attitude of Fashanu’s fellow professionals changed since these events? Well, the Independent claims to have found out in 2006. According to their survey , 55% of players believed soccer to be a homophobic industry, and only one in five claimed to have any gay friends. But the rest of the survey talked about racism, a possible two-week
winter break and favoured playing formations. This doesn’t sound very in-depth to me. At least BBC Five Live tried to hit the mark when it sent all twenty Premier League managers a questionnaire about sexuality in 2005.

It’s just a pity none of them found the time to answer it.

So if that’s the attitude of the FA, the teams and the players, none of which is particularly enlightening, what is the opinion of the fans? I was joking with some friends about this recently – all of them identifying as straight – and while this is no more scientific than the Independent’s poll seems to be, I found their attitudes fascinating. There were bloke-ish jokes about specific players; some culled from tabloid accusations, others from simple name association. Francisco Arce of Paraguay was wise never to play in England, for example, regardless of his sexuality. But the general opinion was that there must be gays in football – but “there aren’t any in my team.” I had a word with one of them a few days later, knowing he was the biggest football nut in the group, and asked him about racism and homophobia on the terraces.

“Up until recently you only saw white faces in the stands. Black people always watched football, just not typically in the stadium. There’s still a bigger percentage of black players than black fans. There’s hardly any Asian supporters of any kind, even at clubs like Leicester and Birmingham,
where you get a lot of Asian cricketers coming through. There’s only a few Asian players in the top flight, and  they’re all from Korea and China, not India and Pakistan. In fact the Pakistani Football Federation are trying to get British Pakistanis to play here and then represent Pakistan internationally, but it hasn’t happened.”

And what about non-straight fans on the terraces, I asked,
or isn’t that a fair question?

“Well, going to the match is a very macho thing. You boo the ref and call players on both sides ‘donkeys’. People don’t act out at the football, so it’s hard to tell. I’m completely straight, and I’m reserved normally, but I get loud and a bit abusive at the football. Gay cricketers and rugby players might be ok – they like character in their players. So does football, but even if all you do is use moisturiser or have a funny haircut, you get laughed at.”

Or, if you happen to be 2 meters tall, you get “freak” bellowed at you by both sets of fans. This happened, constantly, to Liverpool’s Peter Crouch most of the way through his career. His skill is undeniable, as you do not
make 26 England appearances by whistling the national anthem. He claimed, in an interview with the Times in 2006, that “the stick doesn’t bother me”. But it bothered his father, who at one point when his son was playing against Gillingham in the Championship saw him take so much “stick” that he had to leave the stands or risk hitting someone.

I don’t want to suggest that football stands are full of knuckle-dragging idiots. But I feel that I must close on a letter published in “London Today” on Friday 4th April. I quote it as it was published.

“To Loretta, who said her nine-year-old son got abuse on
the train for wearing his Spurs shirt: it’s a shame you feel
your son was abused but if he can’t handle team rivalry he
shouldn’t wear the strip. And if you can’t protect him, don’t
blame innocent passers-by.”

Dan Howells