English football still in the closet

NBA's Jason Collins has reignited the debate on homosexuality in sport, but it's a different story in English football.

    English football still in the closet
    Dark days: A report co-ordinated by the Gay Football Supporters Network and Brighton Hove Albion Supporters Club, found that Brighton fans suffered homophobic abuse from 72 per cent of opposing supporters in the 2012-13 Championship season [GALLO/GETTY]

    The recent revelation of NBA veteran Jason Collins cast the spotlight on homosexuality in sport.

    Collins became the first active player in any American major team sport to announce he was gay when he came out in Sports Illustrated in early May.

    His disclosure came only two months after fellow American and former MLS footballer Robbie Rogers revealed his homosexuality.

    The former Leeds United player’s blog caused waves within the football community back in February as journalists, fans and most significantly colleagues rushed to Twitter and Facebook to express their support.

    Chris Basiurski, Chairman of the Gay Football Supporters Network in the UK, a campaign and social network for football fans within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender community, believes there’s a long way to go before we can start patting each other on the back.

    In Roger’s moving post, he also retired from the game aged only 25, a fact Basiurski believes speaks volumes about the current climate in football.

    "What he [Rogers] is showing is that we haven’t yet got the atmosphere in football where people can come out if they want to and that is the number one mission of the campaign side of the GFSN", he explained to Al Jazeera.

    "We want to create an atmosphere in all levels of football where people can feel comfortable to come out and he is amply demonstrating that we are just not there yet, we’re no way near there."

    Whilst only Rogers himself will know all the reasons behind his retirement, one fact cannot be ignored – the English Premier League and the English Football League still lack an openly gay player or manager.

    The last player to come out was former Norwich forward Justin Fashanu in 1990, tragically he committed suicide eight years later aged only 37.

    Other sports in the UK have seen players openly discuss their homosexuality since Fashanu, most notably former Wales rugby captain Gareth Thomas in 2009, but gay figures are only notable in football by their absence.

    The reaction of the football community to Rogers’ confession does mark progress but on the terraces there is evidence for the contrary.

    A report co-ordinated by the GFSN and Brighton Hove Albion Supporters Club, showed Brighton fans suffered homophobic abuse from 72 per cent of opposing supporters in the 2012-13 Championship season.

    A far-cry from the welcoming embrace Robbie Rogers was greeted with.

    Clear cut

    When it comes to an issue like racism, the differences between ‘banter’ on the terraces and abuse are clear cut – derogatory statements about a person’s race are not acceptable.

    However, when it comes to comments referring to someone’s sexuality, why do some find the line harder to define?

    Basiurski believes answering this question will help to eradicate homophobia from the game.

    "I don't think the football authorities, the game in general and perhaps the public at large understand the word homophobia ... is chanting 'Does your boyfriend know you're here' homophobic or not?"

    Chris Basiurski, Chair
    Gay Football Supporters Network

    "I don’t think the football authorities, the game in general and perhaps the public at large understand the word homophobia. I think the report really highlights that in a big way, is chanting ‘Does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ homophobic or not?

    "My view is that any chant relating to someone’s sexuality should be banned, because to allow banter is to say you’re allowed to be homophobic as long as you avoid certain words and it only escalates from there."

    As a Manchester United fan since the age of four, Basiurski is no stranger to hearing offensive chants on the terraces and explained that while he’s "thick skinned" it’s the next generation of football fans that have his concern.

    "I’m not just worried about young gay fans", he says.

    "It’s also the others who sing along to the chants and go home thinking it’s ok to laugh at gay people, because then they take it to the playground and the street corners and that’s worrying."

    As well as campaigning, the GFSN offer a national social network and football league for players of any gender or sexuality to take part.

    The GFSN are not without high profile supporters, Manchester City sponsored the seventh annual GFSN Cup final this year holding the game at their reserve team’s ground.

    No FA support

    With such a positive organisation offering an outlet for advice and education on homophobia it’s surprising to learn they don’t receive any funding from the Football Association.

    "We don’t operate on anything other than the good will of our members", Basiurski informs.

    "All of our time is given for free and we get by on a very small budget…We generally fund it out of our own pockets."

    It would be unfair to say the FA doesn’t offer any financial backing to related causes: the governing body funds anti-discrimination organisation Kick It Out which fights against homophobia.

    But while the GFSN chairman praises Kick It Out he explains that nowhere near as many resources are spent on tackling homophobia in comparison to racism and without a strong emphasis on education within the game, progress will flat-line.

    It’s hard to disagree. How can standards of behaviour both on the stands and amongst professionals improve without money and resources spent on educating and informing?

    Why is racism worthy of greater attention in comparison to homophobia?

    Basiurski concludes: "We’re trying to get football to help society improve. Football is a really good medium for social change. The question is, is it going to be behind the issue or is it going to shy away? Unfortunately it probably doesn’t think it needs to be involved at all and that is the main problem."

    It is time for football to take a stance and make the beautiful game a positive environment for gay players and fans.

    As the current football season comes to a close - next season offers a chance for a fresh start.

    To learn more about the GFSN visit gfsn.org.uk

    Alexander Matthews is a freelance journalist with experience working in sports and covering football for regional newspapers in the South East of England. His website is: alexanderjamesmatthews.wordpress.com. You can follow Alexander on twitter @ajmatthews89

    Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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