Graeme Le Saux was pushed over the edge by homosexual taunts, and who can blame him? But you can call me straight any time and I won't lash out, says gay writer NEIL MIDGELEY
Sick of being branded gay, Graeme Le Saux this week gave fellow footballer Robbie Fowler a swift clip round the head, and suddenly found himself embroiled in controversy. The newspapers discussed the issue on their front pages, and the Professional Footballers' Association practically honoured Le Saux with a hearty round of applause for reclaiming his questioned manhood.

But those of us who are blissfully happy to be known as homosexual are wondering quite what all the fuss is about.

Until last week, Le Saux could have stood proud among the pantheon of gay idols. That come-hither fringe and boyish grin put him, along with David Beckham and Michael Owen, firmly in the premiership of the fantasy shower-sharing league.

I confess to having occasionally tapped his name into the internet in the hope that some innocent fanzine might have posted a picture of him on their website, victoriously shirtless and sweaty, for my shameless misuse. It's not as if Le Saux (married, child) is a closet case, and therefore pathetically vulnerable to Fowler's reported invitation to "Give it to me up the arse". Le Saux obviously has no craving what- ever to deflower Fowler's arse; and Fowler's arse will doubtless be all the happier to be left inviolate. In fact, the gay taunts were just plain daft.

Which exposes the central question - the question that the broadsheet football writers, in all their endless column inches about class warfare and racism, singularly failed to bring up: why is it such an insult for a straight man to be labelled gay?

Those same writers tell us that homosexuality is seen, in footballing circles, as a sign of weakness. That may in part be due simply to ignorance: the only gay story that English soccer has really generated is Justin Fashanu's horribly troubled, and eventually suicidal, decline.

But if the England squad could bring themselves to watch two burly six- foot gays going at each other after a drug-fuelled night at the hard-core club Trade, they would be hard pressed to detect mercy - let alone effeminacy - in their mutual abuse.

To see the real silliness of the Fowler/Le Saux spat, though, imagine that the tables of sexuality were turned. Imagine if yours truly was engaged in a game of football against a team including a mouthy Toxteth lesbian who, throughout the match, taunted me with jibes such as "breeder".

Imagine that things come to a head when, as I'm about to take a pivotal free kick, she opens wide her Umbro-topped legs and loudly exhorts me to "Give it to her." Would I be affronted, running to the referee for protection? Would my (unfortunately non-existent) long-term boyfriend be insulted? Doubtful. More likely, he would already be rethinking our foreplay to make the most of my new-found heterosexual insights.

More enervating still is the fact that Le Saux can find the energy to be offended by words which, to gay men themselves, lost all their sting years ago.

Like Eskimos referring to snow, gays can express dozens of nuances using words which, to an audience of straight outsiders, appear synonymous. In dodging the verbal harpoons of Old Compton Street, the heart of London's pink disctrict, the right choice is crucial. If Robbie Fowler confused the spinelessness of "poof" with the sleaze of "faggot", he would have endless difficulty in making himself understood in Soho.

Even truly homophobic jibes fail to get many of us going. When the posters for a mash-'em-up PlayStation game splashed the words "Southern Poofs" across the lower half of the country, some gays were outraged. But the editorial line of The Pink Paper was that they should forget it.

Nevertheless, not even the hardliners could fail to sympathise with Le Saux's frustration at years of taunting. A taunt, after all, is a taunt, regardless of the semantics of gay politics. Gays know well enough how hard it is to continue to bite your lip when you are provoked day in, day out.

Picture what would happen, though, if every gay man who had ever endured years of homo-phobic sneering marched into his office tomorrow morning and decked his boss with a cheeky elbow to the bonce. Call me chippy, but I doubt the newspapers would be quite as carefully even-handed as they have been this week to plucky little Graeme Le Saux.

It is that media posture which is the real offence. Le Saux is no homophobe, and his tantrum, like all the other gay-tweaked side shows, will soon leave no more visible trace than a black mark on his file at Sports Personality of the Year. Yet pundits will go on assuming that an unfounded assertion of homosexuality is a slur, just as they will wring their hands for outed cabinet ministers and megastar cottagers.

What this culture tells us is that open gays are the ones at fault; that we should have stayed cowering in our closets where Liverpool strikers could more easily have picked on us.

Face it, Graeme, there are worse ways to come up against homophobia than to be presented with a ringside view of Robbie Fowler's buttocks. So do like the faggots have learned to do, and butch up.