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11th Jul 2018

Football can never truly come home until it welcomes everyone into the fold

Everyone should feel safe and welcome in football. Not everyone does

Louis Staples

When I’m at parties or gatherings, there usually comes a time, around five or six drinks in, when a straight person I barely know will ask: “When did you realise you are gay?”

For a brief second, I stop myself from politely responding that this might not be the best question to ask someone you’ve just met. After all, many LGBT+ people are bullied and rejected in childhood, sometimes by their own families. Yet the frequency that I’m asked this question, along with my “coming out” story, is bizarre.

If you’ve asked someone this before, don’t worry; I understand that it’s just your funny way of letting me know you’re okay with it. If your heart is in the right place, I recite a variant on the same answer.

I say that, for me, there was no “moment” of realisation. No childhood crush on Leonardo DiCaprio. I simply knew, from as young as I can remember, that I was “different” to most children. I explain that my first realisation of this was when I didn’t gravitate to activities that were considered “for boys”, such as football.

If you’re a football fan, you’ve probably found yourself thinking: “Imagine not liking football?!” over the last few weeks. I hear you. As a gay child who grew up worshipping the Spice Girls, I know how annoying it is when people try to piss all over things you’re excited about.

But football – the simple concept of 22 people kicking a ball around – can hurt people. This World Cup, I’ve been confronted with the impact that football, with its inescapable societal baggage, has had on me. When the world goes football crazy, it can be a strange time for those of us who have felt excluded or harmed by the sport in the past.

It’s difficult not to like football, particularly if you’re a man. That’s because football forms a dominant part of male culture. “Dominant cultures” are found in wider society and even in subgroups such as the LGBT+ community.  These cultures tend to revolve around the interests and priorities of the most powerful people within that group.

For instance, in the LGBT+ community, the dominant culture often aligns closely with the interests of affluent white gay men. Because heterosexual men occupy a position of privilege in society, prominent parts of male culture, such as football, are impressed upon the rest of us.

Too often we are defined by our rejection or conformity to the dominant culture with which we are expected to subscribe. Even in later life, football is used as a barometer for whether a man is “normal” or a “decent bloke”. We’ve all seen the cringe-worthy videos of politicians such as David Cameron struggling to remember which football team their press rep told them to support.

This is no accident. From childhood onwards, football weaves its way through all areas of life, influencing perception of family, masculinity, religion and class. To cope with this, some men pretend to follow the Premier League upon meeting their future father-in-law to avoid making a bad first impression. New recruits in male-dominated offices, faced with being left out of half of office conversation, force themselves to take an interest.

But not all of us have the option of playing along. For some, there are barriers to participation. Growing up as an awkwardly feminine boy, it felt like football and the hyper-masculine culture that surrounded it had a problem with me, not the other way around.

In primary school, I struggled to connect with other boys, who excluded me from playing with them. It wasn’t long before this became a gateway to deliberately barring me from other activities and even birthday parties and play dates. As things escalated I’d get footballs kicked at me in the playground. The first time this happened I returned it to its owner, thinking it was an accident, only for it to be pelted straight back at me.

The message behind the stinging red mark on my leg was heard loud and clear. Even now, when I hear a football being kicked nearby in the park, I get a little nervous that it might come flying my way.

This brings me to another point that, presuming you’re a heterosexual man, you might not have thought of. Groups of men, or activities involving all-men, can be intimidating to some people. Growing up, anything that involved groups of boys made me feel nervous. Even if those particular boys were being perfectly nice, there was always a feeling of not quite belonging.

In high school I’d always turn my headphones off when walking past a group of boys in between classes or on lunch break, just to be safe. I still do this now when I walk home from nights out and a group of men passes me on the street. This hyper-vigilance is draining, but necessary.

LGBT+ people and women have legitimate reasons to be fearful of groups of men, particularly those under the influence of alcohol. Every time I’ve been the victim of a hate crime – which is more often than you’d imagine – the perpetrator has been either a man or a group of men. These range from being called faggot, compared to a paedophile and a rapist and being spat at in public.

A few months ago, I was called a faggot by two separate men on the same day in central London for daring to hold another man’s hand. Even something as simple as using a men’s public toilet can make me nervous because of all the times I’ve received abuse while hurriedly washing my hands. One in five LGBT+ people has been the victim of a hate crime in the last 12 months, and 80% of incidents go unreported.

But what’s this got to do with football? Well, quite lot.

As an adult, I’ve learned to purposely steer clear of situations or people that make me feel unsafe. Having spent my childhood not quite fitting in, most LGBT+ people are keen to avoid the same feeling as an adult. I want to be able to be fully myself, without fear, as much of the time as possible. A pub when the football is on, or god forbid a football match, is not a place where I’d currently feel able to do that.

These fears aren’t unfounded. In March this year, the BBC reported a 59% increase in incidents of hate crime and discrimination in UK football. So far this season, 46% of these have occurred at professional games and 15% in the grassroots game. Homophobia was the second most cited form of discrimination behind racism.

A 2016 report by Stonewall also revealed that 72% of fans have heard homophobic language at football matches recently. Worryingly, the report found that young people were twice as likely to feel embarrassed if their favourite player came out as gay and dismiss homophobic language as “banter”.

The behaviour of some football fans continues to be the game’s biggest image problem. Yet football’s dominant status within our culture and the societal expectation for men to behave badly, particularly after a few drinks, means that we collectively accept it. As the World Cup kicked off, charities warned of a domestic violence surge after research revealed that instances of domestic violence rose by 38% when the England team lost a game and by 26% when the team won or drew.

This should be a national scandal. Anti-domestic violence adverts, paid for by the multi-billion pound FA, should be played on TV and in stadiums during half-time. The same goes for football-related sectarian violence, which is rife in Scotland where I grew up. But once again, football avoids accountability.

Imagine if an interest not primarily associated with men caused this many problems. If fans of, say, Love Island, got so drunk while watching every episode that they got into fights, chanted racist and homophobic slurs then returned home to beat up their partners. There would rightly be outrage, but football is excused from this and still put forward as the most acceptable male interest.

It should trouble every single football fan that the Football Lads Alliance, a far-right group who were recently photographed performing Nazi salutes, chose “football” as the acceptable banner for their racist, sexist and homophobic agenda.

Football’s problems didn’t emerge out of thin air. They are a direct consequence of deliberate marginalisation and inaction at the highest level. This year’s World Cup proves FIFA is more concerned with being an ally to corporate sponsors than the LGBT+ community.

It’s difficult to articulate quite how irresponsible and dangerous it is to allow Russia, an institutionally and violently homophobic country, to host such a prestigious international sporting event. Russian LGBT+ people are hunted, beaten, killed and left unable to protest for their rights.

Putin turned a blind eye to a brutal and co-ordinated police campaign in Chechnya, a Russian province, which saw suspected gay men captured, tortured and murdered in makeshift prisons. Even when it became clear that LGBT+ fans would be at risk of violence at the World Cup, FIFA’s silence was deafening.

Global sporting events present an opportunity to change attitudes. The international community famously boycotted South Africa over Apartheid, embarrassing them on the world stage. I can’t help but think what could have happened if pro-LGBT+ nations, such as Sweden, Portugal, England, France, Uruguay, Belgium and Germany, had refused to play unless Russia had reviewed its anti-LGBT laws. The World Cup wouldn’t feel so grand without these teams, would it?

Instead the mood since the World Cup began has been one of “just let it go and enjoy it!” As infuriating as this is, I understand why people who’ve never experienced homophobia would be frustrated by constant mentions of it. But it’s hard to let it go when reports emerge of gay football fans being left with brain damage. Or when Liverpool’s star player Mo Salah is pictured smiling with Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya who masterminded the anti-gay purge. Salah even accepted honorary citizenship to Chechnya.

When I see people cheering on as Russia play Saudi Arabia, following a speech by Putin, like there’s nothing problematic about it, it makes me feel like I’m going mad. When FIFA fined the Mexican Football Association just £7,600 for repeated homophobic chants, it made me feel like I don’t matter.

Of course not every man who doesn’t like football is gay, and there are gay men and women who love the game. I’ve been moved by stories from gay men who’ve fallen in love with football after joining a gay team. But the fact that gay-only teams exist suggests that regular football clubs need to do more to encourage LGBT+ engagement. The FA’s recent campaign with LGBT+ charity Stonewall is a great start, but more needs to be done.

Liking football is obviously completely fine – as long as you aren’t a dick about it. Life is short and moments of joy, particularly those that bring generations together, are precious.

As much as I’ve criticised football, the World Cup is actually pretty fun as it’s accessible to clueless viewers like me. I shrieked at least twice during France v Argentina. England and Colombia’s penalty shoot out was more nerve-wracking than coming out of the closet. The drama! But it’s also frustrating that the one time I’ve found myself enjoying football has been tainted by guilt because of the Russian connection.

If any of this has made you think about ways you can help make football a more welcoming place, there’s plenty. If you’re not homophobic, that’s great, but make sure you call out homophobic language whenever you see it on or off the pitch, even if it seems like “banter”. Your voice is powerful and if you don’t challenge homophobia, you’re complicit in it.

If you’re a dad, why not let your son choose for himself whether he likes football? If he doesn’t, don’t make him feel bad about it. I didn’t like football, but I loved tennis – there’s a sport for everyone. Or better yet, let him know that it’s okay if sports aren’t his thing, it doesn’t make him less of a man and there are other ways you can bond.

If you’re lucky enough to have gone through life viewing football as purely a game, it’s important to remember that not experiencing barriers because of your perceived sexuality isn’t a privilege everyone enjoys.

Football is more than just a game. Its dominant status within our culture means that it wields huge influence. We can all be tribal and defensive over things we like, but if you meet people who don’t like football, try to de-personalise the issue and be mindful that it might not be just because they think it’s boring. For people who have been shunned for who they are, it can be very hard to separate the game from its surroundings. Listen to them – don’t make it all about you.

This year’s World Cup has shown me a different, friendlier side to football that I wish had shown itself earlier. But if the sport wants to gain fans that tune in more often than every four years, without the incentive of an office sweepstake, then it has to stop fostering a culture of hyper-masculinity at the expense of everyone else.

Regardless of the results from Russia, when football fulfils its responsibility of creating an environment where everyone feels welcome, that’s when it will truly come home.