When Will Soccer Stand Up Against Homophobia?

Photo: Angela SharpeIn a recent interview, German national team captain Philipp Lahm said that “An openly gay footballer would be exposed to abusive elements. For someone who does [come out], it would be very difficult.”

Sadly, it is hard to argue with Lahm’s conclusion, though it should be noted that there is now an openly gay footballer – Anton Hysén, son of former Liverpool player Glenn Hysén (who coaches Anton’s fourth division Swedish team, Utsiktens BK). Anton came out in March in the Swedish soccer magazine Offside.

Anton is as far as I know the first professional player to openly come out since Justin Fashanu in England two decades ago, and he spoke about the challenges he thought his decision would bring:

I want to prove that there is no big deal if I’m a footballer and also gay. If I perform as a footballer, then I do not think it matters if I like men or women…There will always be people who can’t tolerate gay people, just like there are people who can’t tolerate immigrants. A club might be interested in me and then the coach might change his mind if he finds out I’m gay, but that is his problem not mine.

That’s brave of Anton, but obviously still points to the problematic situation facing players who might want to no longer have to hide their sexuality without damaging their professional prospects. And of course, the spotlight on a player higher up in football’s pyramid would be even harsher.

Tragically, it is still generally presumed in elite soccer circles that coming out would result in prejudice that could even impact on a player’s career on the field, nevermind the abuse players may fear from the terraces or gutter press. Justin Fashanu, a couple of decades ago in England, epitomised all those issues as the world’s first openly gay footballer, disowned by his own brother, eventually committing suicide partly as a result of the homophobia he encountered.

Times are, however, a-changin’ in professional sport. Even a decade ago it would be hard to imagine a Football vs Homophobia day in England being preceded by Justin Fashanu’s induction to the Norwich City Hall of Fame with a banner sponsored by the Justin Campaign, an organisation set-up in Fashanu’s name to fight homophobia in sport.

That said, English football and world soccer in general still lags behind other sports in taking pro-active strides to make its space feel comfortable for gay players. In baseball, the San Francisco Giants recently released a video in support of Its Get Better, aimed at LGBT youth. In rugby, Welsh player Gareth Thomas famously came out last year with very little noticeable negative reaction.

Just as importantly, recently retired England rugby international Ben Cohen – a gay icon but straight and married with kids – has launched a foundation, StandUp, to fight bullying, in particular homophobic bullying, that has attracted international support.

In the NBA, of course, mixed messages are coming out seemingly monthly.

Efforts to fight homophobia in soccer certainly do exist: the Justin Campaign has been a key part of that, receiving considerable support from Brighton and Hove Albion. The English Football Association, in a seemingly well-meaning but misguided manner, bungled the release of an anti-homophobia video just last year.

In the US, the Columbus Crew are organising a tournament for gay and allied players that is welcome. But there has been little done that I know of by MLS or US Soccer on the men’s or women’s sides of the game – which brings us to the difficult question of the culture of the sport beyond just sexuality, but into gender as well. As Jennifer Doyle put it: “Homophobia animates hostility towards the women’s game – so much so, it is indeed hard to tell the difference between it and simple sexism. (For women in many parts of the world – including England – just playing soccer is enough to make you a “dyke” and target of homophobic abuse.)”

It will take work by clubs, governing bodies, fans, gay and straight players to help fight homophobia and discuss these issues in the public sphere, something that could help soccer not only move towards a culture accepting of openly gay professional players but that would also have a positive influence at amateur and youth levels for LGBT youth involved in the sport, and for all who want to enjoy soccer without a side-dish of discrimination.

Who will take the next steps to stand up against homophobia?

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