It was 1998 and the news that Justin Fashanu had been found dead in a grubby corner of East London was still fresh. Football fans, typically, had greeted this sad event with light-hearted quips about the habits of the former England Under-21 striker. It wasn’t long before Justin Fashanu jokes were doing the rounds. This should have been a tipping point in the way sport deals with the subject of sexual orientation.
About the same time, I was interviewing a football manager and the subject of Fashanu came up. He asked me, “what would you do if your son turned out to be gay,” I was asked. I replied that I would deal with it and that it would not be an issue. His response was quite the opposite: “I would beat it out of him…it’s an illness.” This was 1998.
Has it really changed in football? I don’t think so. On the surface, clubs hold various “days” where they open their arms and demonstrate inclusion. But is it genuine? Again, I believe it’s mostly lip service.
Only a couple of years ago, I suggested that a local club hold a day where the gay community would be made to feel welcome. The club had hosted ladies days, forces days, youth days, but when the subject of “diversity day”, or more specifically, “gay day”, came up, everyone started to squirm in their chairs, all except a broad-minded young woman, who herself was struggling to be accepted by a male-dominated club. It could have been any one of dozens of clubs.
Acceptance of groups that fly in the face of convention is as much a generational thing as it is a reflection of a person’s upbringing, religion or political leaning. When you hear people, such as that football manager, say: “It’s unnatural, it’s not in the Bible”, I would counter that and ask when did you last live by the good book? It’s a flag of convenience.
Although it’s a dirty phrase to use, the masses that follow football remain the young “working class” with a growing “middle class” filling the gap left by the lower-income groups that have long deserted the game for the convenience of Sky Sports and the tap room. The traditional football audience remains the red top reading, lager-gulping, apolitical male. The football crowd is still a huge vat of testosterone where mock machismo rules – hence the bare-chested, football-shirt wearing fans who refuse to flinch as the winter winds bite deep into the grandstands. In this environment, nobody would dare admit to being simpatico with the gay community, although splinter groups like “Gay Gooners” suggest that something is moving.
How does this manifest itself in the dressing rooms? Pretty much the same, I would suggest. Footballers are a product of the “lad culture” and are generally very tribal. Those that don’t buy-in to this are generally seen as outsiders. I once knew a player who was unlike the rest of his squad. You could talk to him. He read the Guardian (no, it wasn’t Graeme Le Saux) and he liked a glass of wine. The rest of the squad thought he was “a faggot”. He may have been gay, he certainly didn’t join in the sexist and homophobic banter that proliferated the team coach. He was a nice guy.
Nobody will ever admit to being homophobic – “some of my best friends are gay”, and all that. But that will not stop the jibes about “standing with your back to the dressing room wall” or “don’t bend over in the shower”. You won’t hear many chants at a football ground, but you will hear comments in the stands – Wembley 2012 and the vile abuse aimed at former Liverpool players demonstrated that to me – just as you will hear, “that black bastard Benteke” rather than the bananas on the pitch and monkey noises that once welcomed John Barnes and Paul Canoville respectively. The subject is out in the open, but prejudice prevails, and I dare say, it always will.