Gay footballers: fan attitudes limit progress

Congratulations to Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former German international footballer who came out as gay yesterday. I’m happy that he feels comfortable enough to go public about his sexuality, can act as a role model for those who want to be professional athletes, and has received widespread positive responses to his announcement.

But I’m still troubled by the fact that he felt he needed to wait until his premature retirement before announcing he is gay – much like former Leeds player Robbie Rogers (who has resumed playing in the MLS).

The more I see the reaction to former players coming out, or rumours about players and their sexuality, the more I am convinced that the perception that one cannot be a footballer and openly gay at the same time has less to do with fellow players in the squad, and more to do with the attitude of fans in the stadium.

What gives us the right?

How arrogant are football fans to think that it is any of their business who someone is attracted to? Can he play the game, will he improve the team and help them to win? Yes? Then that’s it.

We forgive high quality players for their indiscretions and mistakes, because they are good at playing the game. John Terry racially abused someone and got forgiven. Luis Suarez racially abused someone, bit someone else (the second time in his career he’s done that) and he’s been forgiven. How many high profile players were involved in recording themselves having sex with women? Hasn’t done their reputations any harm at all. And yet being bisexual or gay is some massive problem? What gives a football crowd the right to make those decisions?

I can’t remember what game it was, but I was watching Chelsea play someone over the holidays (it might have been the game against Liverpool, but I’m not sure) and one of the other Chelsea fans had taken against one of the opposition players, and decided to put voice to his displeasure by repeatedly calling the player a “faggot”.

Nothing was said to this guy, but it’s not like I’m the only one who heard him – he was sitting at least five rows behind me, and somewhere to my left. Whether this was because everyone around him agreed with the neanderthal’s point of view, or if it was just the fact that he was bigger and louder than those around him, I don’t know. It’s also possible that since it was Liverpool, he was ‘on our side’ so whatever he said was fine.

Whatever the reasons, he was unchallenged. And this is why there won’t be a openly bisexual or gay player in professional English football. Not just this one idiot, but the quietness of those within earshot (I’m including myself in this). Every time someone uses homophobic abuse at a football match and goes unchallenged, their behaviour is reinforced. Ignoring the bullies doesn’t make them go away, it just makes them think they’re right.

Without other fans taking a stand, without fellow supporters standing up and saying “Stop!” progress will continue to be non-existent. Bigots, racists, anti-semites and homophobes must be called out on their ignorance, even if it means telling someone bigger and stronger than you that they are wrong.

Fans hold the key to creating an atmosphere where openly gay players can show that they’re just as talented as their heterosexual counterparts. But if we keep ignoring it, hiding from conflict and abdicating our responsibility, we have no-one to blame but ourselves for our close-minded reputation, and our continuing ability to live down to it.

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