Homophobia in football
Football rivalries run deep, and none is stronger than the local derby. For those fanatical supporters these games become life and death, a week of build up, ‘unfinished business’ and an alcohol fuelled sense of machismo.
From Glasgow, through Manchester, the Welsh valleys to North London; a local derby straddles the fine line between passion and violence, legend and infamy.
A hostile environment bred on the terraces, can easily transcend to pitch level. Likewise a player’s actions may not only affect his career, but the attitude and collective intelligence of 40,000 home fans.
“Sol, Sol, wherever you may be; you’re on the verge of lunacy; we don’t care if you’re hanging from a tree, cos you’re a judas cunt with HIV,” chanted Tottenham supporters in 2008.
Seven years after Sol Campbell left White Hart Lane to join rivals Arsenal. Spurs fans still couldn’t forgive the man they dubbed ‘Judas’. The former England captain – who is not gay – was subjected to a torrent of homophobic abuse that went well beyond the usual good humoured terrace banter.
For years, Tottenham and the Football Association (FA) did nothing, they allowed Campbell to be abused and they let fans get away with their homophobia. But the hatred and persecution that followed Campbell finally came to head on Sunday 28th September at Fratton Park, when Tottenham played the defender’s new team Portsmouth.
Hundreds of Spurs fans joined in with the anti-gay chants. But this time, they weren’t ignored as usual. There was widespread revulsion, and not just from Campbell, but his manager at the time Harry Redknapp and the Portsmouth supporters.
“I felt totally victimised and helpless by the abuse I received on this day. It had an effect on me personally and I do not want it to continue. I support the police in their action,” read Sol Campbell’s witness statement to a court in 2009.
While cases of racist chanting had been prosecuted before, this was the first time homophobic abuse had been brought to the courts. A total of eleven fans were arrested for the abuse, three of which were under the age of 18.
At one trial, Ian Trow, 42, of Milton Keynes, and a boy of only 14 were convicted by Portsmouth magistrateÃÂs court, and banned from attending a football match for three years. Georgette Holbrook, chairwoman of the panel, called the language used by the defendants as ‘shocking and disgusting.’
Nick Hawkins, Hampshire Chief Crown Prosecutor and CPS national lead on football issues, said at the time: “I am pleased we have secured convictions and admissions of guilt from all 11 people we charged in connection with this unsavoury incident.”
“The magistrates decision shows ordinary people applying common sense are disgusted with the kind of things that went on at Fratton Park last September, and reflect the views of ordinary football fans across England and Wales.”ÃÂ According to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), positive action will be taken against all hate crimes and homophobic chanting. With punishments ranging from football banning orders such as those prosecuted at Fratton Park, to conditional and simple cautions.
Unfortunately the precedent set by the case appears to have had little impact on those who continually issue homophobic abuse at football matches.
A report in 2009, compiled by the Gay rights and Lobbying group Stonewall, showed that Seven in ten fans who attended matches had heard anti-gay language and chants. This is despite nine in ten fans knowing that anti-gay abuse on the terraces is against the rules of the ground, and/or against the law.
“I have heard the general stuff. Puff, Queer, Fag,” says Jack Rodgers, 26, a Halifax Town supporter from West Yorkshire.
“They were aimed at opposition players, and occasionally players on their own team; usually in response to a lack of physicality, pulling out of challenges, feigning or exaggerating injury and sometimes for just wearing gloves.”
Jack, who previously held a season ticket at Bradford City, says that such abuse makes him ‘uncomfortable’ and often he tries to distance himself from those involved.
With a second child due to arrive shortly, the young father says he would be reluctant to take his children to a game while the level of abuse remained the same.
“This kind of behaviour goes completely against the way I was brought up. As a father it wouldn’t necessarily put me off taking them to (Non-league) Halifax as I can move away from any abusive supporters. But if it was an all-seater and full, then I would probably think twice about taking the kids if it became a frequent problem.”
Jack is not alone in his concern. Derek, 53, a local referee for the past 35 years, says the anti-gay abuse from both players and spectators is ‘terrible’.
“I have to remind players that their comments could be classed as abuse.” said the Aston Villa fan.
The Stonewall research, which included a YouGov survey of 2,005 football fans, shows that anti-gay abuse is still a common sight at matches and often goes unchallenged.
54% of the fans questioned thought that the FA and Premier League should do more to tackle the problem, while 49% felt football clubs themselves should take a stand against homophobia.
Anti-gay abuse deters gay people from playing football and creates a culture of fear where gay players feel it is unsafe to come out, explains Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall.
“The research also demonstrates that many others – including women supporters and those with families – are deterred from attending games.”
According to supporters the failure to challenge anti-gay abuse on the terraces has left many unaware as to what language and chants are inappropriate or against the rules of the ground.
Jamie Rossi-Stephenson, an Everton fan who lives in Manchester says that he was unaware of any measures to tackle homophobia, either professionally or at amateur level.
“I think there needs to be an open discussion.” said the 26-year-old who once played for Huddersfield Town. “The authorities need to identify those responsible and give names and faces to the issue.”
Sadly while football had a demonstrable success in challenging the problems of racism and hooliganism, anti-gay abuse still appears to be caused by the prejudicial and stereotypical views held by some supporters.
“I think that homosexuality is a vulgar, unnatural practice and I am not surprised that they come under verbal abuse. I do not think that homosexuality is something to be proud of.” Spits Adam, 56, a Nottingham Forest Supporter.
Though this kind of vitriol is thankfully in the minority, only three in ten fans think that football clubs and the FA are doing enough to prevent abuse and discrimination.
The Football Association’s Funke Awoderu admits the FA need to do more to increase awareness that homophobia will not be tolerated at matches.
Creating a safe environment where fans are educated, and understand the consequences of homophobia is one of the primary issue’s of the FA, said Awoderu at Kick-it-out’s football forum in Manchester.
“For me the biggest problem is one of visibility. Without visibility it is going to be slow, but there is no reason why we can’t have confidence measures and activities. We are working closely with our partners the PFA, and have reached the point where we want to make a change and get the right outcomes.”
“We need to start looking at positive action programs, we want to be able to put on specific Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual (LGBT) coaching courses, and refereeing courses. If we are to affect change, we need to affect change across all areas of football, and to do that we need to engage the LGBT community.”
With one in twelve football fans more likely to buy a ticket from clubs if anti-gay abuse was tackled, and four in ten LGBT fans likely to buy tickets for the same reason. Some supporters believe that the existing rules need to be more harshly enforced.
“Certainly from the FA’s perspective their needs to be more training for stewards. They have a multitude of tasks and they are the frontline. In specific areas they need to understand the gravity of the issue of what they need to do, and what kind of support is required from the clubs.” says the FA equalities Manager.
“I am looking to rekindle my relationship with the CPS, to understand what their take is on this and start talking about prosecution,” she adds.
Stonewall have called for tougher sanctions against fans who perpetrate anti-gay abuse and violence at football matches, and though 90% of fans are aware that it is against the rules of the ground, worryingly in almost all cases discrimination and chants go unchallenged.
With the final run-in to the season now approaching, tension amongst fans is likely to run high. Yet football has come a long way since the dark days when racism and hooliganism were rife, and though Anti-gay abuse may be a rising concern, it is one that can be defeated.
Funke Awoderu therefore suggests that rather than just addressing the problems, we should identify and celebrate the achievements.
“ItÃÂs so easy just to think negatively and not recognise when there is good work, good clubs and good role models. However there are also LGBT groups out there doing great work, and that should be commended.”
By Adam Yare