It's often referred to as one of the last gay taboos in Britain - an out gay professional footballer. But why does a large proportion of the gay (and straight) media, as well as a large section of society in general, seem to be obsessed with the prospect of an out pro footballer? Why do some of us think that having an out and proud gay or bisexual footballer matters?
Many of us will already know the story of Justin Fashanu. As Britain's first £1million black footballer he had the sporting world at his feet when he transferred to Nottingham Forest in 1981. Fashanu didn't come out publicly until 1990 but his sexuality was no secret to those who knew him, including his manager at Nottingham Forest Brian Clough. In his biography Clough recounted a particularly frustrated exchanged he had with the player soon after his transfer to Forest:
"'Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?' I asked him. 'A baker's, I suppose'. 'Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?' 'A butcher's'. 'So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs' club?"'
Taken from 'Clough: The Autobiography' By Brian Clough
It's not obvious from Clough's telling of the exchange whether or not he held particularly strong views about homosexuality but what is apparent is that whatever his views on being gay were, he wasn't making it particularly easy for Fashanu to come out. Of course this was over 20 years ago and indeed Fashanu did not come out for another nine years, after being approached by The Sun newspaper. It's not clear whether the stresses of hiding his sexuality affected his playing abilities, but the fact that Clough barred Fashanu from training with the side once he found out he was gay gives us a fair idea that it might have played a role. Common sense would suggest that someone who can be themselves at work without fear of rejection or abuse would be happier and more productive.
Justin Fashanu had a very chaotic career in football throughout the 1980s, with numerous transfers and a notable knee injury that almost ended his career. In 1998 at the age of 37, Justin Fashanu was found hanging in a lock up in Shoreditch - he had taken his own life following sexual assault allegations in America that he felt he would not be able to successfully defend. In his suicide note he stated that the sex was consensual.
It would be far too lazy and irresponsible to link Fashanu's struggles around coming out in the world of football with his suicide. However, to the gossip-hungry tabloid fan it's easy to pick out the words 'Gay', 'Footballer' and 'Suicide' to create a climate of fear that has remained with us, even up until today.
In 1991 Gay Times featured Justin Fashanu on its cover (right). How strange it seems to see an out pro footballer on the cover of a gay magazine in 1991, knowing now that in the 22 years that have followed we haven't seen another.
"But is this idea of an intolerant, caveman attitude to homosexuality in football merely an invention of our fear?"
Chris is a self-confessed football fanatic. As well as playing for gay-friendly team Nottingham Ball Bois twice a week he also attends matches at both Nottingham and Derby with gay friends. Chris thinks that we do need out gay players but the clubs need to do more to impose FA regulations. "Some people seem to think going to a football game means they can leave any decency they have at the gates and scream whatever they like at the opposing team", he says. "The clubs are getting better at imposing the FA regulations but often abuse is just ignored. Racial abuse has had to be dealt with; players can't hide the colour of their skin. If some players were openly gay the clubs would have to act in the same way when homophobic abuse occurs."
One of the biggest factors that make the whole idea of an out gay footballer in 2013 so interesting is the unknown reaction that person would receive - from fans, team mates and the media. There's no question that society has moved on in its acceptance of gay people since Justin Fashanu was 'encouraged' to come out by The Sun newspaper but how big has that movement in Britain really been? Being gay is still seen as a subject worthy of a tabloid story, gay teens are still committing suicide because they are getting bullied at school and marriage equality is only now being debated. Are we just foolish to think that a sport that still has to encourage clubs to combat racist abuse from fans will welcome a gay player with applause and a pat on the back?
"The fact is that until another player does come out, we will never know what the reaction will be. All we can do in the meantime is to guess."
No matter how positive the reaction from fans will be when a player does take that brave step, it's naive to think that verbal abuse, of any nature, will be completely eradicated from the sport. All players face taunts and insults - for being black, for missing penalties or for simply being unpopular. There has to be a certain amount of 'taking it on the chin' and to think otherwise would be too idealistic. We all remember what we were told at school about name calling - sticks and stones make break my bones but words will never hurt me. But when that name calling crosses the line and becomes damaging then something has to be done. When fans shout to David Beckham that they hope his kids get cancer then something has to be done. When fans throw bananas on the pitch at black players then something has to be done. Footballers are employees of the club they are playing for and in any other job we would look to our employees to provide us with a safe working environment. The FA can't second guess the reaction to gay footballers but they can be proactive in setting up their stall now.
The Football v Homophobia campaign is 'an international initiative opposing homophobia in football at all levels - from grassroots to professional clubs.' This year the campaign aimed to recruit as many teams (league and non-league) as possible, asking them to pledge their support for tackling homophobia in football. The scheme is heavily supported by the FA on their official website and yet three months after the campaign started only 55 teams have so far signed up. Some of the biggest teams in the country do not yet appear on the '150 Leaderboard' - you can see who has made the pledge and who hasn't by visiting the FA's website.
I find it disappointing that so many top flight clubs have yet to make their position known on homophobia in football. Surely it's a no-brainer; they should all be against it. They shouldn't even need to sign a pledge stating their position, but the fact that there is one and they haven't speaks volumes. Campaigns like Football v Homophobia are so important because they shine the spotlight on clubs and highlight the attitudes that exist with the culture of football at all levels. I think that supporters' associations have the same duty to stand up against homophobia (and racism in sport) and until we see a widespread climate of support it would be pretty naive to think that a player would ever feel comfortable coming out - and who could blame them?
Chris believes that we all have a responsibility to create a more inclusive game and that it's not just up to the FA. "Some people will say that those who shout insults aren't really football fans but will still sit by and allow them to keep chanting vile things without reporting them. It seems bizarre that in almost any other sport it doesn't seem to be an issue. We have openly gay athletes, rugby players and boxers."
The question of who should shoulder the responsibility is an interesting one. The clubs, the FA, the players, the fans and the government all have a part to play but it's impossible for things to change unless everyone is on board.
When we look at the political changes that have come about in regards to gay equality (equal age of consent, section 28 being abolished) it's easy to applaud our forward thinking nation but these changes in law do not always make the transition into everyday life and communities so smoothly or as timely.
"Sometimes laws can change a lot quicker than attitudes."
When American soccer star Robbie Rogers (left) came out while at the same time retiring from the sport in 2013, he stated that it would be "impossible" for a footballer to come out and continue to play.
He suggested that the inevitable circus that would follow would be too distracting which is why he made the decision to take time away from football after coming out; time to spend with his family and friends. Since his announcement Rogers has hinted heavily that a return to the game may be on the cards. After training with LA Galaxy he said, "It feels normal to be back. I've grown up playing soccer my whole life. I've always been on a soccer field, so I feel at home on a soccer field."
Maybe the reception Rogers has received from fans and peers since coming out hasn't been as negative as he expected it would be. A promising sign maybe.
The big question is whether or not we actually 'need' a footballer to come out. There's no doubt that taking that step is a very personal one and I think it would be wrong to pressure anyone to come out for any other reason than it being the right thing for them. However, this doesn't mean that I think society (and the gay community in particular) would not benefit. Of course they would. We know the old fashioned belief that gay people can't and don't wish to play sport is complete rubbish, but what we don't know is how many gay people play particular sports at a professional level. My point isn't that there should be a representation of gay people in each sport but if there is then great. My point is that if we KNOW there are at least eight gay footballers currently playing top flight football who are not comfortable coming out through fear of what the reactions would be, that is unacceptable. Anyone who has come out knows what this fear is like. Instead of worrying about the media response we may have worried about our friends' response. We haven't had to worry about the fans' response but we agonised over what our colleagues may say.
"The simple fact that people are still scared to come out at work (be that in the world of sport, a building site or an office) shows that as a society we are not doing enough to provide the reassurance that is needed."
A lot of people find that the fears they have around coming out never actually materialise and that things are a lot easier than they assumed they would be. Maybe this will be the case in football too but surely there’s no harm in acting now to reduce this fear by being proactive by adopting an anti-homophobic stance.
It would be great for one of those eight players to bite that bullet and stand up to be counted. Fear can cripple us and is very often much worse than the thing we fear. The difference with fear of this nature is that we don't yet know the outcome and so we don't yet know if the fear is warranted. One thing is for sure, whoever decides to step up and step out will have the respect and appreciation of millions of people from around the world. Many will think that this is no big deal and to them it might not be, which is fine. But it is a big deal to many others and that's why sometimes some of us seem to be obsessed with gay footballers. If a gay player can't come out then how is an out gay youngster ever going to break into the sport?
"I realised I was gay when I was 14 or 15. I was like, 'I want to play football. But there are no gay footballers. What am I going to do?"
Robbie Rogers (2013)