“I'm coming out about my homosexuality because I want to move the discussion about homosexuality among professional sportspeople forwards,” former Germany international Thomas Hitzlsperger explained when coming out as gay in January 2014, a few months after retiring from professional football in September 2013.
More than four years later, no professional footballer in the UK’s top four leagues openly identifies as gay or bisexual. With this in mind, one might be forgiven to suggest that football remains in the “dark ages”, as former Wales rugby player Gareth Thomas maintained in a recent BBC documentary.
Is this really the case?
What is the evidence?
Football supporters are often assumed to be the primary reason gay footballers refuse to come out. West Ham chairwoman Karren Brady recently likened the experience of a gay footballer in football stadiums to “being eaten by lions in the Colosseum”.
A 2016 Stonewall report into homophobic abuse in football echoed this; according to the survey findings, 72% of football fans have witnessed homophobic abuse at football games while one in five 18 to 24-year-olds say they’d be embarrassed if their favourite player came out.
21% of all 469 reports of discriminatory languageKick It Out received during the 2016-2017 season related to homophobic, biphobic or transphobic abuse.
And yet there is reason for being optimistic about the progress made to tackle homophobia: this might not be reflected in the presence of an openly gay footballer, but the progress made lays the groundwork for what could be an eventual ‘coming out’ in the professional men’s game. There are four interrelated reasons for my optimism:
1. Shifting attitudes
NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey highlights an increase in positive attitudes regarding same-sex relationships among the general public. More specifically in relation to football, a range of scholarly research has documented a shift in fans’ attitudes.
This is not to say that homophobia is absent; existing empirical studies do have methodological flaws (e.g. limited sample size) but consistently point to a gradual shift in attitudes among the football-playing and football-watching population in the UK.
In many ways, the UK is at the forefront of the fight against homophobia in football. Over the past decade, a range of campaigns and organisations such as The Justin Campaign, the Gay Football Supporters’ Network, the Professional Footballers’ Association, as well as The Football Association have all been involved in raising awareness of the issue.
Refreshingly, at the end of November each year, footballers in the UK take part in Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign to raise awareness of LGBT involvement in football.
While this could be dismissed as mere tokenism, the visibility of such campaigns is symbolically significant.
3. Footballers as straight allies
Refreshingly, more and more current and former footballers are actively speaking out against homophobia and encouraging fellow professionals to come out.
Clearly, the existence of so-called straight allies provides a supportive environment that makes a ‘coming out’ more conducive. Footballers who have engaged in homophobic language – Coventry’s defender Chris Stokes and former Burnley striker Andre Gray come to mind – have received fines and bans for their behaviour.
4. LGBT visibility
Over the past decade, a range of LGBT football supporters’ clubs have formed, thereby making LGBT people more visible on the terraces. According to Pride In Football - the alliance of LGBT fan groups - there are currently 28 officially recognised LGBT fan groups in the UK.
The presence of such groups is crucial for two reasons: first, it contradicts the myth that LGBT individuals are not interested in football; and second, it might encourage participation (active and/or passive) by those who have thus far felt excluded from the game due to perceived hostility towards LGBT individuals.
What happens next?
There is of course still a long way to go for the ‘beautiful game’ to be free of homophobic discrimination. One issue that I believe remains overlooked in debates on homophobia in the men’s game is the absence of women.
With very few exceptions, non-playing occupations within professional men’s football today remain limited to men only.
This is important because academic research has shown that homophobic views/behaviour tends to thrive in all-male environments, where masculinity is defined as a property that is neither ‘female’ nor ‘homosexual’.
With this in mind, an increase in the number of women across the men’s game can be an effective and straightforward way of hastening a wider cultural change in professional men’s football around homosexuality and gender.
A visible increase in the number of women breaks up all-male environments that are conducive to homophobia and challenges a wider perception of femininity as oppositional to masculine identity. This might then lead to a wider acceptance of masculine identities in football, including being gay.
It is therefore incumbent upon clubs, governing bodies and media organisations to create more opportunities for women as managers and pundits in the men’s game.
It’s about time this happens.