Homophobia: Tackling football's last taboo

Justin Fashanu was the first, and only, top-flight player to come out. Now, 12 years after his suicide, the fight against homophobia goes on.

Kate Youde
Sunday 02 May 2010 00:00

Homophobia remains an ugly stain on the "beautiful game": the majority of football fans at matches across the country this weekend will hear – and some engage in – anti-gay abuse.

Today marks the 12th anniversary of the suicide of Justin Fashanu, Britain's first black, million-pound player. He remains the only professional footballer to come out as being gay.

The Justin Fashanu All-Stars may not have the skills of household names, but for Jason Hall, the side's action in a four-a-side tournament in Brighton yesterday was "probably more important than any Premiership match, because this is people's lives we are fighting for". The team represented the Justin Campaign, which Mr Hall founded two years ago to demonstrate the prevalence of homophobia in football a decade after the death of the Norwich City star Fashanu.

"Things are changing, but it's because we [the gay community] are doing something about it," said Mr Hall.

"We are starting to mobilise and it's becoming a movement now. Whereas in the past homophobia was also in the closet, now homophobia is being spoken about."

The campaign's supporters, including Mr Fashanu's niece Amal, are also taking part in the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall's 10K Equality Walk in Brighton today. Miss Fashanu, 21, a student and the daughter of ex-Wimbledon footballer John, hopes the Justin Campaign "can help other young footballers out there who are in agony". The PR expert Max Clifford has helped three gay Premiership players to "make sure that their private lives never came out". "It's against my nature to say you've got to stay hidden but I honestly believe what they believe, that if they were to come out, it's [their careers] finished," he added.

"I said in 2000 that I was sure that by 2010 homosexuality in football would be accepted the way it is in just about every other aspect of life, but it isn't. It's still in the dark ages."

The Gay Football Supporters' Network (GFSN), holding its cup final today at non-league Hampton and Richmond Borough, runs the world's only national league aimed at the LGBT community. Its chair, Chris Basiurski, said that while attitudes have changed, the fact that no professional footballer has come out shows there is a lot of work still to be done.

"I am willing to admit there is a team I stopped playing for when they made my life pretty uncomfortable when they found out I was gay, and so the league exists, as well, to give people the chance to play. Otherwise the homophobia that exists in the game might prevent people from getting the chance of a game," he said. A 2009 Stonewall report found that, out of more than 2,000 football fans surveyed, 70 per cent had witnessed anti-gay abuse on the terraces. More than half thought the FA, the Premier League and the Football League were not doing enough to tackle the issue.

"In all walks of life, leadership is required to bring about lesbian and gay equality, so the FA, as the governing body of the sport, has an essential role to give a strong, determined and cast-iron lead," said Derek Munn, Stonewall's director of public affairs. "In due course, this will need to include sanctions for clubs that fail to tackle homophobia in their terraces or their boardroom."

Kick It Out, football's equality and inclusion campaign, worked with the FA on a video aimed at raising awareness of homophobia. However, the FA postponed the official February launch of the advert, which was released online, and its hard-hitting angle proved controversial.

Kick It Out's director, Piara Powar, said that the campaign was planning a new film, similar to its anti-racism campaigns, in which leading footballers will talk about homophobia and convey simple messages.

Funke Awoderu, the equality manager at the FA, said the organisation was committed to tackling homophobia with the help of stakeholders such as GFSN, Kick It Out and Outrage!, but that there was no "quick fix". She explained that work to tackle racist abuse had been a "10-year journey", and dealing with homophobic abuse would involve a similar journey.

Ms Awoderu added that the FA was working on education, raising awareness through steward and referee training, and promoting the reporting of abuse by engaging with fans forums.

Peter Tatchell, of the gay human rights group OutRage! and a friend of Mr Fashanu in the early 1980s, acknowledged that the FA had begun to tackle homophobia but described the process as "painfully slow".

Curtis Davies, Aston Villa defender told Kick It Out:

"Football is always seen as a 'man's game', so there are macho attitudes both on and off the pitch. My take on the matter is simple: as long as a player does the business during 90 minutes, his sexual persuasion just doesn't come into it. I'd rather be playing alongside the best player in the world who is gay than someone who's not good enough."

Clarke Carlisle, Burnley defender and Kick It Out ambassador:

"I think it's [whether we will see an openly gay Premiership footballer] an issue, not just in football but generally in sport, and it's a reflection of the nation we live in. There is a stigma about homosexuality and this is why the coming-out process is such a traumatic one. When you transpose that into a sports environment, it's very alpha-male dominated, so you don't want to show any signs of weakness.

"It was a monumental effort for me to hold my hands up to say I had a problem with alcohol back in the day, because it was exposing a vulnerability to others. Coming out as a homosexual sportsman can be viewed negatively, so people don't want to do that."

Keep quiet: It was easier not to tell my team-mates

Ryan Cudlipp, 28, is the chairman of GFC Bournemouth and Hampshire, which is playing Nottingham Ball Bois FC in today's Gay Football Supporters' Network (GFSN) cup final.

"I have never actually come out in any of the straight teams I have played for. I don't think it would have been received brilliantly.

"The teams I have played for, they've all been quite manly lads and I guess I thought it was just easier not to tell them rather than get them to accept it. You do find yourself dodging questions like 'Have you got a girlfriend?'.

"I think you are just worried you will be isolated, and you have that changing-room atmosphere where it's quite matey ... and, if you are getting on with people, you don't want to rock the boat.

"The standard of the football [in the GFSN] is never going to be as good as in some of the other teams I have played for, but it's made up for with the social side of it.

"I met my current boyfriend through it."

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