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In December 2009 Welsh international rugby player Gareth Thomas took the brave decision to ‘come out’ to almost complete support from Rugby fans, fellow athletes and the media. It did however raise the question as to whether the same degree of support would be met in the world of football?
Homophobia is literally an uncontrollable fear of homosexuals and of homosexuality, but the term is generally used for a negative and contemptuous attitude to same-sex sexual relationships and to those who participate in them.
It has long been recognised in Sociology and gender studies that a homophobic undertone exists within the game of football and more specifically amongst supporters and chanting. Despite significant changes and successful developments to rid the game of racism through campaigns such as ‘Kick it out’, it seems that homophobic chanting and accusations towards players is still commonplace. Public relations guru Max Clifford recently stated in a Sunday paper:
“It’s a very sad state of affairs. But it’s a fact that homophobia in football is as strong now as it was 10 years ago.”
Football has always been identified as a working class sport with ritualistic customs and often a sense of ‘pack mentality’ amongst supporters. There is a “generation and reproduction of a particular form of aggressive masculinity, especially in lower class communities. In these 'rough' neighbourhoods young males are socialised (at home, at work, in peer group gangs etc) into standards that value and reward publicly assertive and openly aggressive and violent expressions of masculinity. Young men are expected to be able to 'look after themselves” (Dunning, Murphy and Williams)
With this display of masculinity comes ‘put downs’ of other fans and opposing players, questioning the sexuality or masculinity of rivals is a reoccurring theme. One team that suffers this more than most is Brighton and Hove Albion. The city is well known for its hedonistic, sexually liberal attitude and is noted as the gay capital of the UK. With this, Brighton fans often endure homophobic chanting at both home and away games with little intervention from stewards or police.
There are mixed views about the severity of the chants, Brighton fan Marcus Hancocks stated that ‘Personally I don’t find it offensive because I have nothing to be offended about. As far as I am concerned it’s a bit of banter between two sets of fans. I recognise that Brighton has now become stereotyped and it doesn't bother me in the slightest. Why should it?
However, fellow fan Lee Burrows however has expressed concerns that his gay friends would feel uncomfortable attending a match “Gay mates of mine get upset because the opposition fans are re-enforcing attitudes that being gay is not alright. It doesn't matter if it's impersonal or not, it's the idea that being gay is bad, something worth mocking and has no place in footie”
Gay Brighton fan Steve Brewer suggests that for him there are various forms of chanting and some are more offensive than others: “Most stuff is pretty mild and no more than harmless banter between the fans, however some chants about AIDS and sexual disease takes it too far”
As a group of Leicester university Sociology academics note “Symbolic demasculanisation of the rival fans is another recurrent terrace theme. Yet another recurring theme is denigration of the community of the opposing fans” (Dunning, Murphy and Williams)
Indeed, Brighton fans often return the chants with ridicule of their opposing teams, whether it be deeming Portsmouth or Gillingham as ‘Pikies’, Liverpool as ‘thieves’ or Norwich as ‘inbreeders’. Despite these examples often being viewed as nothing more than stereotyping it must be noted that several Brighton fans were arrested after chanting ‘Town full of paki’s’ at Bradford fans as a response to Bradford’s chant of ‘Town full of faggots’. It seems that the race stereotype was deemed far more offensive than the homophobic chant.
In questioning how deep rooted the problem actually is a charity called ‘Stonewall’ produced a publication entitled ‘Leagues behind - Football's failure to tackle anti-gay abuse’ (2009). Their research of fans across all four top leagues showed that 7 in 10 fans who have attended a football match in the last 5 years had heard anti-gay chanting. Whist 61% of fans said that racist abuse had decreased in the last 20 years, only 33% said that homophobic abuse had. This is backed up by the statistic that 62% of fans agreed that their club had put in measures to tackle racism but only 17% agreed that measures had been introduced to tackle homophobia.
Perhaps the problem is best highlighted by Peter Clayton, Chair of the FA’s Homophobia in Football working group who told the Independent on Sunday that the anti-homophobia campaign has come to a halt because organisers have been unable to gain the support of the major players to speak out in a film against homophobia that would be shown at stadiums nationwide. He stated that “Unfortunately there seems to be reluctance by some players and some clubs to speak up for gay rights,”
Brighton and Hove Albion of course are not alone in being victims of homophobic chanting and it was this factor that was behind a 2008 art initiative by the creative duo Nicholas Shorvon and Ben Hunter. Recognising the pervasive anti-gay prejudice in the game, the pair embarked on an ambitious and potentially dangerous project to expose, probe and deconstruct the attitudes of football fans towards gays.
Their plan was an undeniably brave one - to send a gay couple to a football match at Tottenham Hot Spur’s White Hart Lane and covertly film the reactions of the crowd as the couple walked hand in hand. The artists then captured Reponses from fans in both photographic and video form.
The study did indeed provoke some stereotypical responses towards the couple but it must also be noted that reactions were perhaps not quite as strong and hostile as first anticipated.
To understand homophobia on the terraces it is important to understand how, and at what age this verbal mocking starts. The Sociologist David Plummer (1999) used detailed interviews with 30 males from a diverse range of backgrounds to explore the use of homophobic terms by boys and young men and the meanings they invoke when using them. Plummer suggests that “Homophobic terms enter boys’ vocabulary during primary school, well before puberty and their own sexual maturity”. At this point however the words mean little to those that are using them but the intensity and impact of the terms increase up to and beyond the age of puberty.
Plummer concludes “Homophobia precedes and presumably provides an important context for subsequent adult sexual identity formation of all men. Ultimately prejudice about homosexuality is founded on gender too—because homosexuality is by definition a reference not to particular sexual practices, which are often fluid, but to the gender of one’s sexual partner” (Plummer 1999)
It seems that for many males the use of these terms is inbuilt by the time they reach kidulthood and early adulthood. The use of these terms on the terraces then becomes a form of bonding, integration and solidarity, albeit in a negative form of behaviour. Alex Hopkins from out-there magazine states that “You have to join in the chanting, the boozing and the butch swaggering in order to fit in. If you don’t you risk being singled out and victimised yourself. In this way straight male behaviour is as much inflected by mask wearing as gay behaviour is. If your heterosexual male lets his mask slip, he too is accused of being unmanly, feminine, or heaven forbid a poof”
The Stonewall group identifies that although homophobia is a problem in the game, there is both recognition of the problem and a desire from many to rectify the situation. Their research showed that 54% of football fans felt that not enough was being done by governing bodies to tackle the problem and 64% of fans felt that football would be a better sport if anti-gay abuse and discrimination was eradicated from the game. Likewise over 50% of fans stated that they would encourage either tougher sanctions on fans for homophobic abuse or even a zero tolerance attitude to such actions.
Another example of a group raising the awareness of homophobia was the launch in May 2008 of ‘The Justin campaign’. The group was founded following the tragic suicide of former professional footballer Justin Fashanu in 1998, Fashanu was the first openly gay professional footballer and his suicide was due to a combination of factors but the terrace abuse he received for being both black and gay contributed to his downfall.
The groups carries out a variety of art, education and football events to raise awareness of the damaging effects that homophobia can have. The Justin Fashanu All stars is a team that plays matches to highlight and raise awareness of the issue. Founding director Jason Hall states that “We felt that the campaign should raise awareness about homophobia in football. You can talk all day, but it’s not until you seriously compete on the pitch that people will seriously think about sexuality and football”
It seems that homophobia is still very much a part of the game of football, campaigns and attempts to rid the game of it are in progress but it is a process that will take a while to fully gain momentum. It took years for the game to clean up its racist image, in fact there is still some recognised racism in the game but it has certainly made huge progress over the last 20 years in the English leagues in particular.
The hope is that the anti-homophobia campaigns are heading in the same direction; they are just a decade or two behind. If ideas on homophobia are also ingrained at such as young age as some sociologists suggest then the education on sexuality needs to start from a young age. Society also needs to decide as to whether homophobia is as offensive as racism, because at the moment they are viewed with differing levels of extremity.
Perhaps the true test of progress will be the first ‘coming out’ of a significant Premiership league player and judging the responses of the media, fellow players and ultimately the responses of the opposing fans.
Dunning, Murphy and Williams (1988) The roots of football hooliganism. London/New York. Routledge.
Plummer, D. (1999). One of the boys: masculinity, homophobia and modern manhood. New York: Haworth Press
Matthew Wilkin is a Sociology lecturer at Bellerbys college in Brighton, he has previosly taught Sociology in Kenya and Spain and writes textbooks for Collins publishers. Matthew is the main editor and moderator for the Podology website.
FA anti-homophobia video
Brighton highlights from the first game at their new Amex stadium
BBC Newsnight discuss the FA ad
Anti-homophobia video from Nottingham University
Interview with Jason Hall from The Justin Allstars
BBC documentary on Justin Fashanu
Justin Fashanu 'Goal of the season' 1981