Coming out – will professional football ever come to terms with homosexuality?
If one in ten people are gay, where are all the gay football players? It is a question that is often discussed, yet apart from the odd whisper, hurtful rumour and malicious chant from the opposition terrace, still remains largely unanswered.
Only last month Bayern Munich’s Mario Gomez urged players in the Bundesliga to come out. The 25-year-old who has not said whether he is gay himself, told a German magazine that being honest about their sexuality could improve a gay players’ performance.
“They would play as if they had been liberated,” Said Gomez. “Being gay should no longer be a taboo topic.”
The striker voted German player of the year in 2007, added that there were plenty of role models in the rest of German society.
“We’ve got a gay Vice-chancellor (Guido Westerwelle) and the Mayor of Berlin (Klaus Wowereit) is gay, so professional footballers should own up to their preference.”
Yet while other sportsmen have bravely come out of the closet – basketball’s John Amaechi, Welsh rugby union star Gareth Thomas, and most recently England cricketer, Steven Davies. Not since Justin Fashanu twenty years ago has a premiership footballer openly acknowledged he is gay.
Though it is estimated that 10% of the 4000 professional players in England and Wales are likely to be homosexual, football is still a long way from seeing this claims Chris BasiurskiÃÂ of the Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN).
The chairman of the GFSN calls football one of the ‘last bastions of homophobia’ and advises that it is not necessarily a footballers job to be a ‘social pioneer,’ and gay players would therefore need a lot of support in going public.
“I am one of the lucky ones; I play in the GFSN national league the world’s only national football league for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBT).
“The League exists to provide the chance for people to play in a safe and relaxed atmosphere but is also about reintroducing football to people who may have felt alienated from the game because of their sexuality.”
BasiurskiÃÂ suggests there are two schools of thought on the matter of whether our leading professional players should come out. One argues that anything to do with a player’s personal life is a distraction from the game and that a footballer’s primary obligation is towards his club, team, and fans.
“We have seen from the recent examples of Wayne Rooney and John Terry that off-the-field problems can have a dramatic impact on a player’s form,” says Basirurski.
“A player coming out would create huge headlines around the world and would bring enormous media pressure, not to mention pressure from the terraces and fellow professionals.”
Equally the burden of a player hiding his sexuality may prove more damaging, and the release of having opened up to the world could actually make someone a better player, adds the Chairman.
“I know that when I came out I was much happier, more focused and excited by the possibilities that I knew would open up to me.”
Despite this, the apparent risk to a gay player coming out still appears to deter footballers from parting company with the safety of the closet.
David Allison of OutRage says the fate of Justin Fashanu nearly twenty years ago may have dissuaded many players from revealing their secret.
Britain’s First million-pound black footballer, Fashanu ended his life in a disused Shoreditch garage on the 3rd May 1998. A man of many firsts, he was the first openly gay professional footballer in the country, a label he struggled with throughout his career and indeed his life.
With the “twin sword of being both gay and black hanging over his head,” Justin Fashanu was eventually ostracised by his fellow professionals, and pilloried by both the black community and his family, who saw him as a ‘race traitor’ and ‘outcast’ explains David Allison.
“His tragedy was whereas most gay footballers will have friends and family they can rely on, his friends and family disowned him. Which then left him completely out in the cold and as a consequence he sadly paid the ultimate price.
“I think this has lingered hard and long in the minds of all footballers. But gay players especially know that though social circumstances have changed, circumstances in the game haven’t.”
Despite this Allison is vehement that hiding behind closed doors is not the way forward for gay players.
“To tell people to stay in the closet is totally negative; I mean how long can this situation continue where people are going to be persuaded to keep their sexuality quiet? If a sufficient number of people come out it’s not going to harm them, rather the opposite, it would encourage others to do the same.
“I have no doubt that many gay football players know each other, but there will be plenty of others who are looking around for people they can talk to, relax with and get moral support from. By advising them to stay in the closet you are sending a wholly harmful message which is likely to drive the more reticent ones even further into the closet, and then you are not doing anybody any good.”
Liam Jarnecki, chairman of the UK’s first gay football club – Stonewall FC, explains that footballer’s would have to be cautious in exposing their sexuality under a media spotlight.
“It would be seized on as an invitation to open up your private life to public scrutiny. Which for a guy in his twenties with a stack of money, time, and opportunities to try things in life, not least sexually, may not stand up to such scrutiny.
“These are footballers, not politicians, yet they are still club ambassadors and they will be considering the media intensity on them which could then bring pressure to the whole club,” argues Jarnecki.
The Stonewall Chairman calls the death of Justin Fashanu a ‘damning indictment’ of how difficult it would be to come-out in the professional game. He suggests that the lack of any openly homosexual player since only goes to highlight the distance the game must travel before it can ever be accepting of a gay footballer.
Fortunately the success of gay football clubs like Stonewall FC, show that football’s preconceptions of gay players may be beginning to change.
“Our leagues, the Middlesex League and the West End League are both very supportive, and for most of our opposition homosexuality is never an issue that’s raised.”
“However there are still incidents. Prejudice and abuse always takes place, but it is taken in context. You can generally tell the difference between a comic heckle and a snarling threat and we are confident that if there was ever a really serious problem that the league, including the other clubs, would support us and make sure we were ok.”
Currently the British, European, World and Gay Olympic Champions, Stonewall FC have set a high standard when it comes to dispelling prejudicial and homophobic attitudes.
“It’s taken us 20 years to get to this point and holding any football club together is never easy. We have a history and a clear mission, to ensure all gay men can access a game of football at the appropriate level for their ability. We were the first gay club and that’s part of why our standard is the highest of all – we’re not called Stonewall because of a penalty claim,” says the chairman.
One of Stonewall’s founding members, Aslie Pitter, has just been awarded an MBE for his services in tackling homophobia in football.
Joining the club at its formation in 1991, the 50-year-old explains how it was ‘nerve-racking’ being one of the first openly gay teams to start playing Sunday league football. “Being black and being gay I thought I might come in for a lot of stick,” he adds.
Aslie, now second team coach at Stonewall, remains cynical about whether football is ready to accept a gay professional player.
He says though teams are generally more accepting, there is still an undercurrent of homophobia and the abuse has never fully subsided.
“It has got more subtle and the majority of our games pass without incident, but you can never relax because suddenly you get a rattled opponent who starts calling you a ‘batty man’.”
It is unfortunately this aspect of the game that still holds football back. Though great in-roads have been made in targeting both racism and hooliganism, homophobia still indeed remains the final taboo.
Coming out as gay is an incredibly personal thing for anybody to do. Yet a footballer would have to confront the added pressure of both the media, and probably more daunting the chants of 45,000 hostile away fans.
The GFSN’s Chris Basirurski is in agreement, he believes that we all need to work together to create an atmosphere in football where a player who chooses to come out can do so safely without being destroyed by merciless fans, and the press.
“I long for the day when an openly gay British football player can put on his shirt and be welcomed by the fans in the same way as any other player.”
Sadly though unless a player is ousted in the media – ‘a worst case scenario’ – we could still be a long way off from seeing a football player publicly come out in this country.