Football v Homophobia

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As the world game, football is a reflection of our global society. It has the power to transcend political, religious, cultural and social barriers. But that also means there is still work to do when it comes to representation, equality and inclusion. 

For gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and non-binary people, being your true self isn’t always easy - and in the football world, it can be even harder.


James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the human connection behind the beautiful game.

As the world game, football is a reflection of our global society. It has the power to transcend political, religious, cultural and social barriers. But that also means there is still work to do when it comes to representation, equality and inclusion.

For gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and non-binary people, being your true self isn’t always easy - and in the football world, it can be even harder.


James Bridget: It’s actually been a while since I’ve been to a game. I actually haven’t been to a game since I came out.

James: This is James Bridget Gordon. Their local club is Chicago Fire in MLS.

James Bridget: My name’s James Bridget Gordon. I’m a freelance soccer writer and I’m based in Chicago. I’m also nonbinary and I go by they/them pronouns.

Last time I went I was, you know, at the very beginning of thinking about by gender identity. And it was around that time when I was very aware of how hostile some of these spaces can be for people who don’t fit in the gender binary.

So I remember, like, fans singing about a particular goalkeepers mother. You know, the song speculating about this players’ mother's genitals, and that made me really uncomfortable. And this was well before I even really realised who I was. And there were also times where I would try to use the public restroom in the stadium and felt like - I dunno, like I felt like I wish I would ask someone to go with me because there were times I felt really uncomfortable and like, under threat. You know, at the time I didn’t know how to contextualise how i was feeling. All I felt was just that this is maybe not a safe place for me to be.

I think you have to be in a certain mindset to be able to go to soccer games in the US and be openly queer. I think there’s a way you can make it work, but I think you have to be in a particular mind set and I think you have to be ready to fight for yourself, you know, figuratively and possibly literally. That’s not a fight I want to pick right now. You know, it’s better for me at the moment to just kind of, you know, watch games at home.

James: Personally, as a bisexual, like, I can’t even relate to that because it’s so easy for me to hide a part of myself. But you know, I’ve gone to so many games where it’s not always necessarily what people say. But it is kind of a mentality within things like supporter groups because a lot of them just tend to be, you know, boys clubs. And there is that kind of pack mentality that goes along with it and it’s that kind of negative energy that kind of hangs around. And it just creates this atmosphere that on some level makes me feel like, you know, that I’m not accepted, even if it's not specifically stated.

James Bridget: Yeah, it just kinda hangs in the air like that. I’m sure smarter people than me have written Phd thesis dissertations on, you know, talks of masculinity and football supporter culture. But it’s real, you know, it just seeps into the air. You know, even if it doesn’t directly affect you, even if you have straight passing privilege and cis passing privilege and you know, you can kind of hide in plain sight or you know, whatever. It’s, you know it’s still there and even if it’s not explicitly stated it can be really suffocating and really difficult to get out from.

James: In recent years, competitions and governing bodies have become more vocal in their stance against against discrimination. For example, MLS have their Don’t Cross The Line campaign….


James: But while these initiatives are positive they don’t always cut through.

James: How much are those kind of campaigns actually helping on a practical level? Because if you still feel threatened and people like you still feel threatened, that is obviously an ongoing issue.

James Bridget: Not a whole lot. Those top level sort of initiatives like Don’t Cross The Line, on balance, they end up not doing a whole lot on the practical level. I think they - it’s good PR - and I don’t say that disparagingly, like good PR can be useful and I think it’s good to send that message. But I think for the most part, these campaigns are less about creating a safe place for LGBT fans and more about brand activation and about you know, making MLS advertiser friendly rather than LGBT fan friendly.

James: But there are some initiatives that exist solely to tackle LGBT discrimination, at all levels of the game.


Lou: My name’s Lou Englefield and I’m the Campaign Director of the international Football V Homophobia campaign.

The Football V Homophobia campaign was launched in 2010. It was set up by a group of activists in Brighton called The Justin Campaign and they were a small group of activists that were motivated by the story of Justin Fashanu, the first gay footballer who came out in professional football in the UK. He was also the UK’s first million pound black footballer as well. So they felt that there was a need for a designated campaign in the UK.

The campaign grew really quickly, it was really popular with clubs. So in 2012 they wanted a bit of help. And so Pride Sports, the UK’s LGBT sports development and equalities organisation got involved in the campaign. Then we sort of took it over the following season and we’ve been running it since then. And our mission is to create an environment in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people feel that they have a place in football, that they’re valued in football, that they can be visible in football and you know, reap the same benefits as everybody else.

James: So. how do you see, kind of generally speaking, how do you see the current state of the football landscape, in regards to fighting discrimination and the promotion and acceptance of the LGBT community?

Lou: I would say that LGBT inclusion is starting to get on the agenda. People tend to think, when we’re talking about LGBT inclusion in football, that we’re only talking about gay men. Whilst we can say that things may have moved forward in recent years around the acceptance of gay men, I would say that we’re still a long way to go around the acceptance of trans people. There’s a whole issue for trans people around, for example, things just like playing, you know. And regulation around competition and so some real physical barriers there for trans people, that aren’t just about transphobia, aren’t just about things like name calling and discrimination that we see in other areas of the game affecting other aspects of the community. You know, some physical barriers there as well.


James: Tackling LGBT discrimination means working from the ground up and getting at the core of the problems that have long been ingrained in football culture.

Lou: You know, there’s very much a hierarchy in football around masculinity, around the value of men, around the particular value of a particular type of man as well. And so that comes out in some aspects of chanting at football grounds. And it also comes out in the way that footballers are stereotyped, around the way that clubs like Brighton are stereotyped. You know so really, what we need to do if we want to tackle homophobia, then we need to tackle some of those issues.

James Bridget: There’s an insecurity in masculinity that is just not present among women and femme identified folks and nonbinary people. And that gets amped up to eleven when it comes to sports.

Lou: The relationship between homophobia and sexism really needs to be looked at. You know, that’s really where homophobia in football comes from, in my opinion. So, I think we need to challenge both of those things, you know, in tandem and not let any of those things pass.
James: At the centre of the movement are LGBT fan groups, which are becoming more and more common. And some of them are even working in partnership with their clubs. This is where real change can start to happen, creating safe and inclusive environments for fans and establishing a culture of acceptance.

Lou: I think LGBT fan groups, certainly in the UK, hold their clubs to account to a certain degree. And there are some great examples of clubs working with their LGBT fan groups. So for example, Proud Lilywhites from Spurs. You know, Spurs have really engaged with their LGBT supporters.

James Bridget: It’s about creating a culture of inclusiveness and acceptance but it’s also about, you know, making sure there are consequences for not embracing those values and for creating hostile environments.

Some MLS teams are a lot better at creating a welcoming environment for LGBT fans, and I’m thinking specifically about the Seattle Sounders. So you have the organisation that really does walk the walk when it comes to making LGBT fans feel inclusive. But then there’s also like this sort of grassroots work going on, like fans looking out for each other to make sure that LGBT fans feel welcome and safe at games. And you know, for the Sounders in particular, there’s a group called Pride of the Sound, an all LGBT supporters group for Sounders fans.

And I think in order to make Major League Soccer games safe and inclusive spaces for LGBT fans, you kind of need both. Like, you need the organisation, the front office to be onside with that and willing and able to lay the groundwork, to let those important conversations happen and also to make that space and put in those protections. And then also, you need that to happen at the ground level among fans and you need to let them create a culture that enables that kind of space to happen. So it’s sort of like, they both need to happen and ideally, like they’ll work in partnership with each other. You can’t do it all with one and you can’t do it all with the other, you need both working in concert.

James: I think, yeah, there’s a lot to be said for supporter groups setting the tone for what’s accepted and what’s not.

James Bridget: This is what, you know, what people talk about when we say that representation matters. It’s not just about hitting a quota and it’s not, you know paying lip service. It’s, if different kinds of people are present and are able to be present in a space, like that is what helps shift the culture. Like, it’s not - if your plan is just to appeal to the logic and rationality of straight man, of straight white men, you’re not gonna get anywhere. The way you change a culture is by, you know, broadening the kind of voices that are able to talk and are able to give input. And so, you know, just going up to those supporters groups of all straight men and you know, trying to bait them into being more accepting, that’s not going to work. But if you can stake out space for more LGBT folks, for women and for femme identified people, for you know, non-white people to be part of this community, that is what changes the culture.


James: Changing fan culture is only one part of the problem. LGBT players face similar challenges. The women's game is certainly leading the way, but it’s not without its own issues. As for men’s football, there is no doubt that more openly queer players would go a long way to challenging those stigmas and stereotypes in the sport. But again, it’s about establishing an environment where they feel comfortable to be themselves.

Lou: There’s a real pressure there around being different and not wanting to stand out. Wanting to be the same as everybody else. Because if you stand out, what does that mean? What does that mean to your team mates? If you’re not like them, are you going to get the service on the pitch? What’s it going to be like in terms of transfers, your future career, will other clubs want you? You know, there are a whole load of very, very complicated issues around players coming out.

The work that we really need to be focusing on next, or in tandem with the work around fans is around football environments where professional footballers, young footballers are growing and developing and the kind of things that they hear and their kind of experiences within the game.


James: The fight for inclusion and equality is far from over, but progress is slowly being made. And if football has one advantage, it’s the capacity to unify and strengthen communities.

James Bridget: I would hope that football can serve as a refuge for LGBT people going forward. I mean, in some ways it has served as that for other marginalised groups. I was really hardened in the past couple of years about how football has really reached out to refugees, for example, like you saw in the Premier League and in La Liga and the Bundesliga. So, you know I think football has the power and the infrastructure to be a refuge for marginalised people and vulnerable people.

Lou: And you know, we will always need people to fight out corners because minority groups always need people to advocate on their behalf.
What I would like to see is some leadership. I would like to see some strategy. You know, LGBT inclusion in my case but you know, all inclusion needs to be embedded. And in strategy, you know clubs, governing bodies, they need to be strategic about it. They need to look at all areas of their operation - how each of those areas could be LGBT inclusive. Then we would see real change. So not just, you know a piecemeal, not just bits and pieces here and there. But you know, a real kind of embedded whole business approach to the issue, I think would see some real change.


James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. Many thanks to Lou Englefield and James Bridget Gordon.

And music featured in this episode comes from Podington Bear and Lee Rosevear under creative commons.

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