Ants Weekly with Stephen Russell – The culture around the LGBTQ+ community in football

Hi Ants, for this week’s piece I’ve decided to look into the culture around the LGBTQ+ community in football. I put out a request for real fans from this community and the response has been overwhelming. I wish I could include the experiences of each and every one of you in this article. I want to thank you all so much for opening up and hopefully this will help raise awareness around this issue and ultimately push towards a fair and equal sport for everyone to enjoy!

Professor Jayne Caldwell began to address the homophobic culture surrounding football in 2011 in her journal article ‘Does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ The spatiality of homophobia in men’s football culture in the UK. She discusses the hyper ‘macho’ culture in football and how the aggressive masculinity present in the game has implications for the LGBTQ+ community. In the same way that national fans might assert their support for their country at the expense of another, the heteronormative world of football does this at the expense of the LGBTQ+ community given the discriminative association between homosexuality and femininity.

            This article also brings up the idea that women’s football is a much safer space for LGBTQ+ fans than male football is. While only being a simple observation, this shows that it is in fact the overly ‘macho’ environment within male football that holds the problems we face here.

Comedian Joseph Parsons discussed with me the extent to which he believes this sort of discrimination manifests itself in football. “Homophobia is massive in the sport”, he told me. “But there are glimmers of hope” he said in reference to players like Loftus-Cheek showing support or clubs like Altrincham using the rainbow flag on their kit.

            “You do hear homophobic slurs at players who fall over too easily or poor refereeing decisions – I think it’s an issue embedded in the culture of football”. Joseph believes that these derogatory comments are off hand and an appropriate means of addressing this would be to bring to attention the effect of the language used. He raises an excellent point – do the perpetrators of this behaviour really mean what they sing?

I also spoke with Voltraine Claire who is a transgender season ticket holder for Philadelphia Union of the MLS. Voltraine told me that within football a lot of “normal aspects” of being trans are, in essence, amplified. With the environment being a little more unrestricted than, say, a supermarket, and it being male dominated it “can make being a trans feminine person harder or like trickier in the same way that it is for cis [cisgender – the same gender one was born with] women”. Fundamentally, people are “caught off guard by your presence”.

            This feeling is supported by research conducted by a professor who would prefer to remain unnamed. The professor found that most participants in their study, while not necessarily experiencing explicitly discriminative behaviour towards them, had to at the very least be wary of the effect their attendance could have.

Another factor to be considered is the fanbase. Voltraine has travelled to many different games spanning different continents and, overall, has found that predominantly left wing fan bases are generally more accepting. “If I’m attending a match at a ground with a decidedly left wing base or whatever I feel much more comfortable/don’t feel the need to be as careful”. This contrasts massively with right wing fan bases. Voltraine told me that they would feel more or less at home with a team like Celtic as opposed to a team like Lazio. This draws many questions about what governing bodies, such as FIFA and UEFA, should be doing about this. Why are some fan bases allowed to be accepting and some aren’t? Was the £7,615 fine for homophobic chanting from Mexico at the World Cup really all they could do?

            I took to Twitter to ask more fans about their experiences to see if this trend with fan bases was more than a coincidence. Liam Feeney, a lifelong season ticket holder at Celtic Park, was told by his grandfather when he was small that details such as race and creed didn’t matter – all that matters is the kind of person you are. “That always seemed to be reflected in my club” he stated. “The fans are diverse from all walks of life and were always early adopters and supporters of anti-discriminatory practice”. Liam also told me that his proudest day as a Celtic fan was when the Pride banner was unfurled away to Kilmarnock. “I belonged on the terraces with my straight mates”.

            To then compare this with a typically right wing fan base, I spoke with an LGBTQ+ Chelsea fan. He told me that he’d had nothing but negative experiences when at the football. Having been to Stamford Bridge on several occasions, it was enough to put him off any future football games. He suffered from homophobic chanting from away crowds and then told me that afterwards, when trying to get a drink with his boyfriend, he would be directly targeted. “There’d be name calling and sometimes physical abuse. All happening in plain view of the security staff and the staff behind the bar who did nothing”. Listening to these sorts of challenges from people just trying to watch their beloved team has been heart wrenching, and it does seem to be primarily from right wing fan bases.

We are led to believe that there are no professional gay footballers in the world. Groups like Proud Huddle for Celtic provide some sense of representation and belonging to LGBTQ+ fans but it isn’t enough. Many people I spoke with claimed that even just one professional footballer coming out as gay, or bisexual, or really anything other than being a heterosexual male would make the world of difference. An unnamed supporter told me “As much as I wish this [a professional footballer coming out] though, it’s a massive massive risk to take as obviously some fans and (unfortunately) even some club management may not take kindly to it since there’s still people who have major problems with LGBT people”.

Justin Fashanu is a prime example of the problems that can occur for players that do come out. For those who aren’t aware, Justin tragically committed suicide shortly after coming out, unable to deal with the abuse he received. Could this act as a deterrent for future footballers following his brave path? Are we to believe that every single professional footballer out there is straight, or is it more likely that the hostile environment rejects any different?

There are more and more schemes in place to help tackle this prejudiced behaviour. Rainbow Laces from Stonewall is a fantastic example to show support, however it has received mixed reactions. I spoke with a Rangers fan who told me about the backlash from the campaign on the club’s twitter left him feeling “alienated” from his fellow supporters. The response isn’t all bad though. Jardin Daly is an LGBTQ+ Motherwell fan and has been going as long as he can remember. With it being what he described as a “small town, small minds” situation, he began to feel excluded as he discovered his sexuality. “Football is a very hyper masculine environment to be in and there are parts of that I loved but when it bordered on toxic, I struggled to be comfortable about it”. He expressed that, although being able to have a laugh, it wasn’t the best hearing how casually words like “poof” can be thrown around

            At around 16 years of age, when Jardin came out as bisexual, things started to change with the group of boys he went to games with. Every conversation seemed to end with a joke about him “being a bender”. “It was as if a safe space where nobody cared who you were, just as long as you supported Motherwell we were all pals, had just vanished”.

            Jardin then detailed how his proudest moment as a Motherwell fan was when the club announced that they would be supporting the Rainbow Laces campaign and took to the field wearing them. “Doesn’t matter who I am, Motherwell are still happy to have me there and cheer them on because I’m a Well fan and to them that’s what’s most important. That’s what the club wearing the rainbow laces means to me.” If the campaign can mean so much to even one person, and get back the special feeling at the football for them, then, for me, it’s a fantastic campaign.

Overall, these schemes might not change the culture or behaviour in football overnight but we really cannot underestimate what it means to fans like Jardin. How many more fans exist that refuse to speak out about such issues out of fear of rejection and exclusion? Together, it’s up to us to support these fans and these campaigns wholeheartedly and let football be special to everyone. Some things transcend football and its rivalries and this is one of them.

Once again, I’d like to thank everyone who wrote to me. While I can’t include everyone in this article, I appreciate each and every one of you for helping me to understand further about this issue and should you want to share your experiences still then please feel free to reach out to me on sjrussell23@outlook.com to share and, although it may be slow given the response I’ve had, I WILL get back to everyone. Have a brilliant week Ants, and take pride in the fact that we are a club who accept everyone! We hope to see you at McKenna Park soon!!

MON THE ANTS!!

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