Sitting in the Championship play-off places, the next month will be pivotal for Brighton and Hove Albion football club.
A club that former Chelsea player Gus Poyet lifted to Championship promotion in 2011 are just five wins away from joining the Premier League big-time.
With a new 30,000 seater stadium, an attractive playing style and the highest pie sales in the country (and second best pie – after Arsenal), Brighton look to be on the up.
Could life get any better? Well one group of Brighton supporters think it could.
While Poyet and the boys will be 110% committed to what happens on the pitch, their biggest supporters club – Brighton & Hove Albion Supporters’ Club – is highlighting another battle.
The battle to rid homophobic language from the terraces.
Together with The Gay Football Supporters’ Network (GFSN), the BHASC have been monitoring the homophobic language used against their fans over the 2012/13 season. Their report published in April found Brighton fans were subjected to homophobic abuse by at least 72% of their opponents.
These chants ranged from ‘We can see you holding hands,’ to ‘Do you take it up the a***?’ and ‘You’re just a town full of fag***s.’
Banter or abuse?
While the fight against racism has intensified over the last few years, the battle against homophobia (or more accurately homophobic language) has been far quieter.
“The subject isn’t comfortable. If you took out any word that refers to gay and insert the word that refers to colour, all of a sudden you realise that it’s not actually banter,” secretary of the BHASC Sarah Watts told Al Jazeera.
Brighton – a city known for its large lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community – has been on the receiving end of homophobic chants for years.
“The reason we put this report together was because not enough was being done. Our letters to clubs weren’t really getting us anywhere. We don’t want to cure the world’s ills, we just want people to talk about the issue,” Watts told me.
But in a Football League which lacks an openly gay footballer, manager or coach – talking about the issue is not just the answer, but the problem.
In fact, while speaking to Brighton’s Chief Executive Paul Barber in his modern office overlooking the AMEX pitch, it turns out the issues raised from the report are extremely complex.
“The emails I’ve received since the report have varied. I’ve had people saying ‘I’m gay and I’m offended,’ ‘I’m gay and not bothered by it’, and others who worry it makes Brighton more of a target,” Barber told Al Jazeera.
Almost every question I asked Barber was riddled with complexity. Is all homophobic language unacceptable, is it harmless fun, are people overreacting, are people underreacting, how do you stop anti-social behaviour?
Opinions are sure to vary but this hasn’t stopped Brighton and the FA taking a stance against the use of homophobic language. The FA send letters to every team in the league reminding them that homophobic abuse is an offence.
But despite these endeavours the BHASC have found some clubs and their stewards do not take sufficient action against perpetrators.
“Brighton can’t make demands of other clubs but the Sussex police are doing a good job at targeting fans at the AMEX… Quite often our letters to clubs get ignored. And some clubs have bad stewards that don’t respond to the abuse”, says Watts.
When I ask Barber if the message could best be made by the Brighton players, he is cautious.
“Footballers have not tended to come out and openly say they are gay. They might be the last bastions of society to feel they can do that. There is a pressure on footballers to lead campaigns, but whether they are gay or not it is hard for a young man to take the weight of that responsibility.”
It is an understandable but frustrating answer. With fans worrying Brighton will become a target and footballers fearful of speaking out – the battle against homophobic language is far trickier than Brighton’s current Premier League bid.
Sarah Watts is right, the issue needs to be spoken about. It needs to be discussed and debated – by fans, players and the football authorities. Even if the conclusion is that nothing more can be done or the language is doing no harm.
Brighton’s issue should be publicised. Because if we accept homophobic chants against them in the Championship, will we accept chants against them at a Premier League club? And if we do what kind of message are we sending to the rest of the world when these words are broadcast?
Both Barber and Watts believe education is the solution. But punishment might have its place too.
Blackburn player Colin Kazim-Richards was investigated for allegedly making a homophobic gesture towards Brighton fans during a match in February. The punishment doled out to players and fans found guilty of these actions will send a strong message.
Barber is eager to point out that most football supporters are good people who just love the game – that trouble is usually generated from a small pocket of fans.
“We should balance raising awareness and creating a sense that everyone is doing it. I have watched dozens of football matches and the amount of vile abuse has been minimal – but if you read the papers you would think it was inherent and prevalent all the time.”
Indeed we should. But progress doesn’t come from looking at the positives. Progress comes from open discussion.
And when it comes to sexuality and football – this is easier said than done.
Joanna Tilley is a freelance journalist working for Al Jazeera English. Follow her @JoannaTilley