Opinion: Football continues to perpetuate systemic homophobia

The biggest sport in the world still can't get its head around the existence of gay men.

Opinion: Football continues to perpetuate systemic homophobia

In a world where most western countries are celebrating and championing diversity, it seems slightly incongruous that professional sport – and football in particular – seems to be almost devoid of gay men.

There is some debate on the statistics of what proportion of men are gay – trailblazers such as Freud and Kinsey were probably overstating it a bit, but recent research suggests that somewhere around 2% of men identify as gay.

How do those statistics stack up in terms of footballers?

Let’s take the UK Premier League. There are 20 clubs, each with a squad of 25 players. If the Premier League players were reflective of the UK population, then of those 500 players you would expect to see about 10 openly gay players among them. But there’s not currently any. Not one. In fact in the entire history of the Premier League – it was founded in 1992 – there have only been three players who have talked publicly about their sexuality as gay men – Justin Fashanu came out towards the end of his career, Thomas Hitzlsperger went public after he had retired, and Robbie Rogers announced he was gay after he had left his Premier League career behind him.

You could perhaps argue that if there are elite footballers that are gay, they may be staying closeted due to the intense public scrutiny that the players are under, or because of a fear of losing advertising sponsorships, or worries of somehow damaging their career.

But this isn’t a phenomenon that’s restricted to the top level of English football. There are about 5,000 or so professional footballers in the UK. According to Amal Fashanu, of the Justin Fashanu Foundation, there are currently no openly gay or bisexual male professional footballers in the UK.

A study that has recently been published in Australia might give us some insight into what’s going on. In Australia today, 87% of young gay guys who play sport feel forced to hide their sexuality. The study found that the main reason that young gay guys hide their sexuality is because they fear being ostracised by their teammates, and because homophobic language is regularly heard around their club. It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that we are forcing young gay guys to give up on team sport. It’s probably not a conscious thing, but sports clubs still seem to be creating an environment where young gay guys don’t feel welcome.

One consequence of the negative sports experience that many young gay guys have is that gay guys are likely to be underrepresented at the elite levels of sport. For example, in order for a gay guy to become a professional footballer in the UK, he’d not only have to be a very talented footballer, he’d also have to be an incredibly resilient person – just in order to have persevered through the systemic homophobia he would have encountered at every step of the way.

But, by all accounts, there are currently a number of gay guys playing football in the Premier League.

“I would go on record saying that there is probably one gay or bi-person in every football team…” said Troy Deeney – the captain of Watford Football Club – speaking on a BBC podcast. “They’re there, they are 100 per cent there.”

Deeney believes that one of the main factors holding back gay footballers from speaking publicly about their sexuality is the pressure of all the attention that would come with that.

“I think people that are gay or from that community definitely are very worried about having to shoulder the responsibility of being the first…” said Deeney. “I think once the first comes out, there would be loads.”

It’s a perspective backed up by Eniola Aluko. Aluko represented England in the women’s national football team, and is now the director of women’s football at Aston Villa.

Speaking at a recent parliamentary committee hearing, Aluko confirmed to the committee that there were a number of Premier League footballers currently playing who had told their teammates that they were gay but didn’t feel able to discuss their sexuality publicly – because of the homophobic backlash that they’re likely to face.

“The issue really now is that fear of what fans will do and are going to say, but I don’t think that is as legitimate a fear as it used to be because we’re living in a world now where being gay is something that is widely accepted…” said Aluko.

What’s not clear is what steps that the various football authorities are taking to make gay footballers feel safe at every level of the game. In the UK, people seem to be saying the right things, but why is change so slow?

Which brings us to the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

In Qatar, it is illegal to be gay. The punishment is up to seven years imprisonment.

I guess you could assume that the Qatari authorities wouldn’t want the controversy of arresting a gay footballer who was in the country to compete in the World Cup, but that’s kind of missing the point.

By accepting that the world’s biggest football event – the pinnacle of the sport that all players aspire to – can be held in a country where homosexuality is illegal, we’re accepting that respect for gay footballers is something that we’re prepared to compromise on.

No matter how many times football officials talk about diversity and LGBTQ Pride and stamping out homophobia and discrimination, it means nothing if the country selected to host the World Cup doesn’t recognise the humanity of gay footballers. Gay footballers – and, by extension, all gay men – are clearly secondary to a lucrative sponsorship deal.

We know that the gay men who have made it to the elite level of football are incredibly resilient – they’ll probably be okay. But what about the young kids, growing up, struggling with their sexuality – if there is no room for them at the highest levels of football, what other areas of life will also be closed or unwelcoming?

Role models matter. Professional sportspeople being able to be open about their sexuality matters. Helping young gay kids work out that it’s okay to be yourself saves lives.