The Right Behind Gay Footballers Campaign

Today I stumbled upon an article discussing Stonewall’s campaign to change the perceived attitude of homophobia in the footballing fraternity that is widely seen to be lagging behind other sports in which homophobia is rife. It made me step back and ponder the actions of Stonewall and QPR footballer Joey Barton and their support for The Right Behind Gay Footballers campaign. Is it a little too soon or too late?

Sets of rainbow laces have been sent to all Premier League and Football League clubs, as well as the 42 teams in the Scottish Professional Football League by the gay rights charity Stonewall, who are also being backed by bookmaker Paddy Power. The Right Behind Gay Footballers (RBGF) campaign, which is being promoted by QPR midfielder Joey Barton, is focused on changing attitudes in football, asking players to come out in support and to wear the laces on match days between September 21 and 22.

By encouraging a greater visibility for LGBT in the game, it is Stonewall’s aim to encourage footballers and clubs alike to step up and make a visible stand against the latent homophobia that persists not only in the British game, but the entire footballing world alike. By wearing these pairs of rainbow laces, players will send a message of support to gay footballers and help steer the football terraces into a world befitting 21st century equality.

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Former Leeds and United States winger, not to mention heartthrob, Robbie Rogers retired from the game in February when he announced his sexuality, claiming that he could not have continued his career in the game due to the pack mentality that changes the way footballers behave. However, he has since returned to the game by signing for LA Galaxy, where he has been well received and supported by his team mates. Before the coming out of Rogers, there have only been two other professional footballers that had publicly come out as being gay – Justin Fashanu and Swedish lower league footballer Anton Hysen. I am left with the question, is this campaign a little too soon or too late?

I feel that the campaign in its entirety – even though a good idea, and possibly able to bring about meaningful change – is a little bit too late. Football is seen to have one of the most hostile environments towards homosexuality, and the perceived negative impact on the sport that homosexuals could have. Rainbow laces may be a strong show of solidarity, but how much of that tolerance on the field transfers to the baying crowd of Millwall fans at The Den is up for discussion. Ugly stereotype, but true. Even though so much progress is being made by FIFA and local football associations to stamp out racism, promoting tolerance and the ideal of equality towards to the LGBT community is seen to be particularly lagging.

Many international sports associations covering American Football, Cricket, Rugby, Swimming and Diving, for example, have come out in full support of the LGBT community by promoting tolerance and non-discrimination based on sexuality. They have also protected individuals that have come out to varying degrees of gasps of shock and a lack of acceptance towards these sportsmen and women who make our respective nations proud through their sporting achievements, but make certain sections uneasy through their sexual orientation.

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Many footballers have commented about the so called issue of homosexuality in football today. Ranging from the German captain Philip Lahm, where he states that gay footballers should just stay in the closet, to that of Mario Gomez – Bayern Munich superstar striker – stating that he fully supports the LGBT cause. However, FIFA is seen to be the mightiest bastion of homophobia today. A prime example of this is the awarding of the World Cup Tournament to Qatar, a country in which homosexual acts are outlawed. Whilst the Homosexual Propaganda laws were not in place at the time of choice, the 2018 World Cup in Russia looks an equally uninviting prospect for LGBT fans.  Sepp Blatter at the time was asked about the gay sex issue, where he merely retorted that they should refrain from homosexual acts then. This is a prime example of the attitude that has plagued the football world.

How can homosexual footballers come out, when there is such a negative view of homosexuality, where personal abstinence is advocated rather than tackling the bigotry around us? In what is seen as the world’s most popular sport, when the head of the football federation has such blasé views on LGBT equality, are the efforts of the RBGF campaign doomed? Change can inevitably come from footballers alike; but change should come from the top as well as the bottom. If Blatter and FIFA as a whole were to embrace this, it would help to encourage gay footballers that their sexuality would not be received negatively, as they should be judged on their skill as a footballer, irrespective of sexuality. A safe environment for homosexuals should be promoted, rather than be compromised for the sake of following the times and old regressive habits.

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As much as I commend Stonewall for thinking of such an initiative, I feel a lot more work is needed than one mere project of wearing shoelaces. The campaign may well be the first of many, setting the ball rolling to make homophobia as much of a taboo on the terraces as racism. It can bring about heightened awareness about homosexuality in the game, but the campaign will not change the attitude of those who govern an organisation that has so much economic and political clout, yet seemingly little resolve to lead on social equality from the top.

It is always hard to challenge or create awareness within an organisation and a sport in general, particularly when you consider the long history of homophobic tendencies and reproduced stereotypes and bigotry in each generation. To much of my disdain the uncontested re-election of Sepp Blatter will not help this matter, but keep the world football federation in the doldrums of blasé homophobic attitudes for another few more years. Players and their pack mentality, along with management’s concealed attitude towards homosexuality and clubs alike need to step up to the plate. A realisation that homosexuality is truly a human reality rather than a condition will help this change happen sooner rather than later.

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