Football In The Closet

Following former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger's annoucement that he is gay, we revisit Tim Adam's excellent feature on whether we're any closer to kicking homophobia out of our national game

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It’s an odd thing, manliness. The more you assert it, the more it seems threatened. Valerius Geist PhD, biologist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary, is a man who appears to have chosen his profession for the opportunities it offers for the chest-thumping outdoorsman. He studied bison and elk in the tundra and lived for long months with a pack of wolves near Vancouver.

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There is a small irony in the fact, therefore, that Professor Valerius Geist has become most notable in scientific literature for the following passage from his memoirs. Geist had been studying the behaviour of the bighorn bam, which, as its name suggests, appeared to be one of the more conventionally masculine of animals; the wilderness-loving professor clearly felt he was in safe manly territory. However, Geist’s close observation of the habits of the bighorn ram became increasingly problematic:

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“I still cringe at the memory of seeing old D-ram mount S-ram repeatedly,” he recalled. “True to form and incapable of absorbing this realisation, I called these actions of the rams ‘aggressosexual behaviours’, for to state that the males had formed homosexual bonds was beyond me. To conceive of these magnificent beasts as queers – oh, God! I never published that drivel and am glad of it… Eventually though, I called a spade a spade and admitted to myself that the bighorn ram lives in an essentially homosexual society…”

In recent years, there has been a good deal of study of the way that biologists have systematically refused to “see” the behaviour they are documenting because of the way it threatens their ideas of natural order. Another scientist, whose attention was drawn to gay sex between ostriches, noted it as “a nuisance” that “just goes on and on”. A lepidopterist on the trail of Mazarine Blue butterflies in Morocco in 1987 reluctantly reported among the winged population “the lurid details of declining moral standards and of horrific sexual offences, which are all too often packed into our national newspapers…”

It is probably worth bearing these studies in mind when you read about the subject of gay footballers, and their apparent absence from the professional game. The “last taboo” of the national sport generally comes with an underlying assumption that homosexuality is extremely rare among top-level sportsmen. The old mythology of it being a real man’s game runs deep. The executives of the Football Association, when not wallowing in the fountains of six-star hotels, have lately made a small effort to push the issue of homophobia into the game’s rhetoric, but you could hardly say it had, in their management-speak, gained traction.

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Attempts to recruit current players to front an educational video on the subject foundered; the advert that was eventually made, which featured a homophobic thug in a suit yelling gay-bashing abuse at colleagues and shopkeepers, was withdrawn as inappropriate; it later surfaced on the internet. Messages on the subject have been at best mixed. As Gordon Taylor, chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, observed of the absence of positive role models for young gay footballers: “Let’s put it this way – it is not at the top of our agenda”.

Denial comes in many forms but there can be few more stubborn examples of the trait than John Fashanu, whose late brother Justin remains the only British gay footballer to have come out. Speaking on the 20th anniversary of his brother’s revelation of his sexuality, John Fashanu still didn’t quite get it. “I don’t believe he was gay,” he maintained to the alpha males at talkSPORT. “Number two, I don’t believe he had affairs with MPs – it was just nonsense. Showbiz,” he said. It wasn’t that John Fashanu had a particular difficulty with the idea of it. He wasn’t homophobic – homophobes never are. “If you had a brother who came out and said, ‘Hey, listen, I’m gay,’ we’d welcome you,” he elaborated. ”We’d say, ‘No problem.’ But if you had someone who came out and said, ‘I’m a spaceman,’ when he’s not a spaceman, then that’s a bit silly.”

Despite his brother’s suicide, Fashanu has no interest in furthering the cause of closeted gay footballers. He approaches the subject, still, much as he used to approach opposition centre-backs – elbows first. “It’s a macho man’s game and I think there are reasons why we haven’t had any gay footballers come out,” he suggested. “I’m not saying there aren’t some there, but I can tell you, in 20 years of playing all my matches, I have never come across a gay footballer.”

The strange thing is, hardly anyone in English professional football ever has. Fashanu’s faith in the game’s innate heterosexuality – despite his brother’s tragedy – is deeply embedded in football culture. Even enlightened souls like the former Chelsea and Everton winger Pat Nevin, who used to counter “banter” about his own red-blooded masculinity (because of his interest in theatre and the arts) with the comment “I’m not, and I don’t care if you think I am,” says that though “you hate to see homophobia out there, and don't want to hear it or have it in the clubs, if there are any gay players, they should just come out. That may sound heartless, and I am sure if you are gay there are all sorts of fears and worries, but I do think football can probably cope with it."

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That “if there are any gay players” seems quite instructive in that it tacitly supports the idea that football is an almost universally straight sport. Anecdotally, a lot of people involved in the game suggest that, by the time you reach the Premier League, it has become a kind of self-selecting process: gay players would not necessarily make it to that level for fear of the repercussions of being outed. Most of the studies done among elite sportsmen, in fact, suggest that the opposite is true; homosexuality is more likely over-represented among high-performing sportsmen. Football is not alone in its protective straightness. The most significant study of high-level male athletes, conducted in American college sports over a period of years, suggested that, while eight per cent anonymously identified themselves as gay, nearly a third had experienced “at least a couple of homosexual orgasms” and two thirds said they would consider letting another man give them oral sex. 

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Dr Valerius Geist would have understood but no doubt been troubled by the observations of one “human ethnographer” who studied the behaviour of Canadian ice-hockey players; when they were not spending their time denouncing the perceived weaknesses of their fellow players as “gay” and “fag” behavior, they were acting out a good many “aggressosexual” traits, not confined to the standard “towel-whipping and butt-slapping of all locker rooms”, but also “grabbing each other’s testicles” in the manner of Vinnie Jones on the young Paul Gascoigne.

How to explain such behaviour? That particular study concluded that “the better the athlete is – and the more masculine the sport he plays – the less homosexual suspicion there is about him.” These alpha males are therefore allowed to display trangressive behaviour - witness the curious goalscoring rituals of Premiership players – without fear of censure. Those watching these less-than-orthodox male bondings, from further down the masculinity ladder, are troubled by them – so the theory goes – in much the same way that Valerius Geist was troubled watching his rams. Spectators not only refuse to see the behaviour of the athletes they idolise, they are both excited and disturbed by their homoerotocism and therefore become more violently homophobic in language and gesture. Anyone who has sat in a football ground has witnessed this behaviour in some of the less evolved male stereotypes around them, and wondered.

Of course, it is for this reason above all – of becoming a target of hate for thousands of young men each Saturday afternoon – that top players have traditionally been thought to fear coming out. They know the story of Justin Fashanu. They may have seen the terrible abuse directed at Sol Campbell, after he left Spurs and rumours spread about his sexuality, rumours that he vehemently denied. Campbell, bizarrely, was further blamed in some quarters for not simply shrugging off the vitriol (as black players used to be expected to do with racist chanting) rather than reacting as he did with hurt and outrage. (But then how easy is it to shrug off a few hundred people yelling “songs” like these at you: "Sol, Sol, wherever you may be, Not long now until lunacy, We won't give a fuck if you are hanging from a tree, You are a Judas cunt with HIV"?)

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Campbell would no doubt go along with Philipp Lahm, the captain of the German national side, whose avowed heterosexuality has also been questioned on the blog sites and the terraces, and who observed, with understatement, “The football stadium is rarely politically correct. Football is like gladiatorial combat. I do not think that society is at the point where it can accept gay professional footballers, as is already possible in other areas.”

Eric Anderson, author of In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity, would beg to differ on this point, and makes a strong argument that society – and that most conservative aspect of it, organized sport - may be moving toward greater tolerance. Anderson was the first and still the only college sports coach to come out as gay in America. As a result he watched his own players “tarnished” by association and more than once beaten up by opposition teams. He has subsequently run a kind of hotline for elite players in any sport who want to talk about their sexuality, and has collected their stories from the front line. Many of the stories are full of predictable fear and prejudice but Anderson is still not without hope. The confessionals have a familiar kind of trajectory. One gifted, gay and closeted young American footballer called Anderson to explain: “I have to call the other guys ‘fags’, especially other athletes. I mean, if I don’t, then the guys on my team might think I am gay.”

Billy Bean, one of only two national league baseball players to come out, and then only in retirement, recalled how the word he heard most often from high-school coaches was “faggot”. He and his team-mates were constantly told they ran like a faggot, or played like one. “How did faggots run?” he wondered. “Clearly, it wasn’t a good thing. It was probably the worst thing imaginable. It equalled weakness and timidity, probably everything a budding, insecure jock wanted to avoid.”

Those insecure jocks are still not hard to find in sport anywhere. The Olympic Dream Team basketball player Tim Hardaway declared bluntly, “I hate gay people,” in response to the 2007 coming-out story of retired NBA player John Amaechi, now a diversity amabassador for the London Olympics; Sepp Blatter the ludicrous Fifa president when asked if gay football fans would be able to visit Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal, for the 2022 World Cup, smirked and suggested they would just have to keep their hands off each other for the duration of the tournament. For all these entrenched attitudes, though, there is good evidence that the next generation of sportsmen, even Premier League footballers, might see things somewhat differently. Another anonymous survey suggested that, even in that bastion of aggressive masculinity, the National Football League, more than three quarters of players said they would have no problem at all with a gay teammate and nearly two thirds said they would be happy to share a locker or a bedroom with that player. In a similar study of British footballers more than 70 per cent of ??Premier League players said they would have no issue if a teammate came out. Strangely, the figure dropped the lower down the divisions you went, as if the Premier League, with all its worldly millionaires, could afford to be a more tolerant place, and prided itself on the fact. (A few respondents were seemingly less sensitive to the issues. One League Two player, affronted even by being asked, ticked and underlined the "No" box next to the question: “Do you have any friends who are gay?” and also added in caps: "I've never been in any teams with any gays.") 

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In practice, though, persecution no longer seems likely to be the most likely consequence of honesty for gay team-players. Of the 40 or so American athletes interviewed by Anderson who had come out to their teammates, only one said his life had been subsequently made difficult. Corey Johnson, co-captain of his Massachusetts high-school football team, announced his secret in 1999 in a locker-room speech that made headlines in <The New York Times>. That speech ended with a direct address to what always seems the alpha male’s biggest fear, the showers: “Guys, I didn’t come on to you in the locker room last year. I’m not going to do it this year. Who says you guys are good enough, anyway?” Johnson’s teammates reportedly took his sexuality in their stride; they asked him questions about what kind of guys he liked and where the nearest gay bar was. On the away bus, they struck up with “songs for Corey”: “YMCA” and “It’s Raining Men”.

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The sociologists have an explanation for this surprisingly easy acceptance, too: once a team-member comes out, the licence for locker-room homophobia is effectively revoked, the pressure to prove that you are not the “fag” is released, and everyone is grateful for the opportunity to be less of a caricature. The team sportsmen who have come out would seem to endorse that: former Welsh rugby captain Gareth Thomas, whose life story is being touted as film project, has been moved by the near-unanimous support of teammates and the wider public. Ian Roberts, an Australian rugby league prop forward, was perhaps more courageous still in coming out while at the peak of his powers rather than as his career was ending, and described the fact as “his greatest achievement in the game”. Anton Hysén, son of former Liverpool hard-man Glenn, was only 20 when he became the only professional footballer in the world to have come out since Justin Fashanu, and likewise says he has known nothing but support from his teammates.

Doug Edward plays for Stonewall FC, Britain’s first gay football club, who compete in the Premier Division of the Middlesex County League. Stonewall FC was founded in 1991, the year after Justin Fashanu came out, by a gay footballer called Aslie Pitter, who was fed up of listening to homophobic “banter” in non-League dressing rooms. Doug Edward has played for Stonewall’s first team for half of those years. His story is typical of his teammates’. Edward had been a county youth player before he drifted out of the game after coming out. He didn’t play at all for three years but then he heard about Stonewall FC and went down to a five-a-side to see them train. On the way, he recalls: “I kind of thought this is going to be horrendous… Even as a gay man you already have preconceived ideas about gay football.”

He found that all his expectations were wide of the mark; in the years since, as Stonewall has moved between the First Division and Premier League in Middlesex, and been gay world champions for three “World Cups” in a row, Edward has, like any other part-time footballer, lived for Saturday afternoons. He has long ceased bothering what opposition teams make of Stonewall, and they have been a fixture in their divisions for so long now, that nobody bothers much. “You maybe get bad responses from individual players, we have one or two teams that just can’t seem to get over it. You know, you’ll be taking a free kick and it will be, ‘You’re going to hell, you’ll burn in hell,’ continuously through the game. As a team, though, it plays into our hands. You don’t think we are going to try 20 per cent harder listening to that? We had a guy say something homophobic to us in Spanish once, and the referee happened to speak Spanish and red-carded him.” 

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Edward and his teammates were invited to Downing Street earlier this year by the prime minister, who seems to have a commitment to trying to break down this particular barrier. “He thanked us for what we had achieved,” Edward says. Representatives from the FA are also close to the club. The former Luton and Chelsea defender Paul Elliott, who has worked hard with the Kick it Out campaign on race issues, addressed their 20th-anniversary celebrations, and “spoke very passionately”; Sir Trevor Brooking is also a great supported of the club.

What gay football really needs though is a “Gareth Thomas” figure, I suggest to Edward at one point.

“Well,” he says, “we had one but he hung himself. You almost think Justin Fashanu was a generation too soon. I really think it could work now. I’d love, for example, to get a player with the profile of say Cristiano Ronaldo down to Stonewall FC… But you are talking about high-stakes sponsorship issues, pressure from managers, all that… We do, of course, get a lot of rumours.”

What does he think still prevents that first courageous individual?

“Well, I guess there is still the prospect of 75,000 potentially chanting abuse. At Stonewall, we go and talk at schools and colleges and stuff. It takes a fair amount of courage from our guys, and you do wonder what it’s going to be like. My main fear is generally that, when I join in a school’s game, I am going to be rubbish. But it usually works out OK. If, when I was 15 or 16, I had seen that, it would have given me so much courage. It’s a tiny thing, one games lesson, but even that could change people’s lives.”

One of the more chilling aspects of Gary Speed’s alleged suicide in 2012 was, Edward notes, the immediate assumption in some quarters that he was perhaps gay. “Nobody, of course, knows the truth, but for people just to immediately think that would justify it; to link the two shows we have a long way to go still.”

It was, almost beginning with Gary Speed, a curiously emotional season for football fans. There was the spontaneous unity of shock and sympathy not only around the Welshman’s tragedy but also in response to other life and death events, the on-field drama of Fabrice Muamba, the battle with cancer faced by Aston Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov.

In all these cases a genuine sense of solidarity has not only gone beyond traditional tribal loyalties, but also seems to have surprised both the football authorities and the media. Football supporters haven’t always been relied upon to act with sensitivity in response to such events but somehow, this season, they seem to have led the way; watching the events unfold on the pitch as Bolton’s Muamba fought for his life, you were struck by a curious thought. Here was a Premier League football crowd and a group of overpaid players, and they were all behaving like grown-ups – no one was having to be told how to respond, they all knew instinctively. And prided themselves on the fact.

The FA has lately prosecuted players including Newcastle’s Nile Ranger and Manchester United’s Federico Macheda for using “gay slurs” in tweeted messages (Ranger was responding to a friend who beat him in a video game). They were fined respectively £8,000 and £15,000. You could approach the problems of homophobia in this way – zero tolerance – and it might have some effect, but real change isn’t going to come from the authorities. It is going to come from football catching up with the rest of society. As Joey Barton, football’s tweeter in chief observed, “Certain managers will discriminate,” and “these archaic figures think if they had a gay footballer there would be all kinds of shenanigans in the dressing room.” Barton has become adept at catching zeitgeists. That this attitude suddenly seems archaic at all is a sign that football fans and footballers might be ready to finally grow up and take this issue into their own hands. As Professor Valerius Geist knows all too well, even the most predictable of animals can always be full of surprises.

This article originally appeared in Esquire in July 2012.

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