Homophobic chanting still isn’t strictly illegal at football matches - it needs to be

Homophobic chanting still isn’t strictly illegal at football matches - it needs to be

8 months ago

Rainbow Laces Day 2021: Under the current law, if you want to get up and imitate anal sex to a stadium full of people, you’re pretty safe to do so

Every time Ryan Mather cheered, his breath froze in front of his face. An ardent Huddersfield supporter, he had defied the icy Yorkshire weather to cheer on his team. He shuffled his feet in the stands trying to keep warm, adjusting his multi-coloured laces. Kick off. It didn’t take long before the 23-year-old was numb with pride. Huddersfield scored 55 seconds into the match - the earliest goal in the Premier League that season. Their fans answered them with a victory roar. The club’s chant, “When the Town go marching in” echoed around the stadium. Then an hour in, Brighton equalised. Suddenly a different Huddersfield chant rippled through the crowd into Ryan’s ears. “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” 

That offensive chant might have been new to Ryan that morning but Brighton fans hear it at nearly every away game. When challenged, those doing the chanting are likely to dismiss it as just 'harmless fun', or 'part of the game'. They might even protest that 'nobody minds, they find it funny too'. 

But Ryan minds. “I was ashamed of my own club,” he says. “I was this close to leaving the stadium. Someone did leave, and I would’ve too if I’d been closer to the chanting.” 

After the match, the situation got worse. Huddersfield supporters, emboldened by the lack of consequences for their homophobic chants inside the stadium, shouted, “f****t” and “gay boy” at the Brighton fans that crossed their path in the car park. Three years later, Ryan still remembers the fear he felt on that cold December afternoon.

Ryan, second from left, with David James and the members of the Huddersfield Town Foundation. Credit: Will Early

It’s no secret that football has a homophobia problem. Actually, it’s the opposite. Every LGBT+ football fan has a story like Ryan’s, if not worse. The homophobia in football is so barefaced there’s a strong chance the comments section of this article is already full of it. 

And here’s the thing, under the Football Offences Act 1991, it’s legal. The archaic wording of the act means that only “racialist” and “indecent” chanting is currently banned in stadiums, making homophobic chanting near impossible to prosecute. So if you want to get up and shout “you’re just a town of f****ts” or call the other fans “rent boys” and imitate anal sex to a stadium full of people,  you’re pretty safe to do so. And under the Football Offences Act, people like Ryan have no leg to stand on when complaining about it.

Rugby player and LGBT+ icon Gareth Thomas tried to get the law changed in 2017 to include homophobia. He campaigned for years, made two documentaries on the topic and lobbied multiple MPs, all to no avail. He called the current state of progress in football “an absolute failure”. But the Football Association has just thrown its weight behind the law change, telling JOE: “We would support its adoption into the Football Offences Act 1991 as an illegal behaviour.”

Gareth Thomas has been campaigning to get the law changed for years. Credit: Getty

The UK’s lead officer for football policing, Chief Constable Mark Roberts, has also backed the law change, saying: “We would be supportive of banning homophobic chanting at football [matches] and seeing appropriate action taken.” Furthermore, the Law Commission released a report this morning which recommends law changes to Public Order Offences to make them more actively include homophobia, showing that even these placeholder offences aren't tackling the issue enough. “Homophobic chanting in football is a problem we identified in our work on hate crime,” a Law Commission spokesperson said.

But the Home Office is resistant. They argue that Public Order Legislation - aka the laws which cover riot, rout, unlawful assembly and affray - is a “strong” enough legal framework to deal with homophobic chanting as it is. They say: “Any form of racist, homophobic or other hate crime is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Legal experts aren’t convinced. “Changing the [Football Offences] Act would send the right message,” Geoff Pearson, a football legislation specialist and professor of criminal law at the University of Manchester, says. “Looking to stamp out homophobic chanting is an achievable aim and that law can do it.”

Legal expert Geoff Pearson thinks the law is “unfit for purpose” and it’s consolidated by the figures: according to data obtained by JOE from 35 police constabularies across England and Wales, there have only been 55 arrests at football games in the last three years for racialist and indecent chanting. And yet there were found to be over 200 criminal incidents of online racism against England players after the Euros final alone, this year. This means football fans either mysteriously became four times as racist for a short period of time, as if racism was a strange airborne disease that ripped through supporters at Wembley, or that offensive chanting isn’t being reported and dealt with effectively enough, and that the law is no longer functional

This culture of homophobia in football is one of the reasons why LGBT+ supporter groups exist. “I suppose you could say there’s safety in numbers,” says Carl Fearn, co-chair of Gay Gooners, the oldest gay supporters group in the UK and the biggest in the world with just over a thousand members. Despite supporting Arsenal since 1971, Carl didn’t feel able to attend an Arsenal game until just three years ago. “As a gay man, it didn’t feel like a space for me. I know Gay Gooners who have been going for years but felt they had to hide the fact that they were gay.”

Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang wore a pride armband in a recent match against Newcastle United Richard Heathcote/Getty

He still wouldn’t go to an England game, though. “I personally wouldn’t go to the World Cup, I’m not the biggest England supporter,” he says, admitting, “England fans can be awful.” This feeling of being unwelcome is amplified by next year’s World Cup being hosted in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death (though there are no known cases of this punishment being used). “There is an element of feeling forced out of the game we love. But also, I don’t want to point the finger at one country because I’d run out of fingers to point at all the others. There’s an element of ‘where even is appropriate to hold the World Cup?’ And you could certainly argue that England isn’t.”

The potential impact of changing this law goes beyond making LGBT+ fans feel more welcome. It could even help shift attitudes within the game. In his 2019 documentary about homophobia in football, Gareth Thomas asks the audience: “There are currently 5,000 professional male footballers in Britain, but none who are openly gay. When roughly one in six people identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, how is this even possible?”

Justin Fashanu was the first professional football player to come out publicly, in 1990, while he was still playing. Fashanu took his own life just eight years later. His close friend, Peter Tatchell, who is also a prominent LGBT+ rights campaigner, believes homophobia had a part to play in this. In a recent article for Attitude magazine, Tatchell says that Fashanu was disowned by his own brother, John Fashanu (who recently said that he regrets how he treated Justin, saying he acted like a “monster”), was called “an affront to the black community” by black newspaper The Voice, and was subject to homophobic abuse in games prior to, and following, his coming out. 

“If the Football Offences Act had been around back then it probably would have helped make things better for him,” Peter says. “Even before he came out, there were rumours circulating that Justin was gay, and that made its way onto the terraces.”

Justin Fashanu at the Norwich City grounds in 1981. Fashanu was the first black football player with a £1 million transfer fee. Credit: Getty/Allsport UK

More than 30 years have passed since Fashanu came out and there are still no openly gay professional football players in the UK. Jahmal Howlett-Mundle, a 24-year-old player for ninth league team Sheppey United FC, who also happens to be bisexual, understands this better than anyone. “I do get why a lot of people are closeted [in the football world]. And I was all of my life up until just under three months ago.”

Jahmal’s story went viral in July when he was filmed coming out to his teammates during a pitchside huddle. “The worst possible outcome would have been if someone on the team walked off,” he says. “Because even if we weren’t that close, I couldn’t have them in my life anymore. But we’re supposed to play football together, so how would that work?” Luckily, they didn’t. In fact, they applauded.”

Jahmal admits his experience could have been vastly different were he playing in the Premier League, instead of a lower league team. “It's a lot more high-profile. There's gonna always be trolls on the internet, or people are gonna say something if you misplace a pass, you have a bad touch and all of a sudden you're the worst player in the world even if you've won Premier League titles, Champions League titles, everything.”

Gay Gooners co-chair Carl agrees, saying that while the group would love an Arsenal player to come out, “We would never put pressure on anybody. We would like for them to feel they could come out, but we're not going to press anybody because of the things that we still hear on the terraces.”

Jahmal and Carl both support the amendment to the Football Offences Act entirely. “One hundred per cent,” Jahmal says. “Because we all know that if there's a rule in place, and you break that rule, then there's going to be consequences. But it's about the follow up. If it takes a month, three months or even six months then people might think something will never happen and will continue doing it.”

And it’s not just members of the LGBT+ community that back the law change. Darren Wildman is a coach at the Skelmersdale United FC in Lancashire. He feels a personal responsibility to stamp out discriminatory behaviour while players are still young.

Earlier this year, Darren was left “shocked and disappointed” after he witnessed a player on a rival team direct homophobic abuse at one of his players. So he removed his team from the pitch and refused to play on. How did the county FA respond? He claims they banned him from the touchline and issued him with a fine for “abandonment of a game”. Liverpool County FA responded to JOE’s request for comment saying that all allegations “are investigated in accordance with The FA's rules and regulations as well as the relevant authorities.”

“You hear a lot of things thrown around in football crowds,” he says, “f****t, bender - but all that, it’s actually a hate crime. If you said that on the street in front of a police officer you’d expect to get nicked. But there seems to be this antiquated view in football that what happens on a football pitch stays on a football pitch. And it shouldn’t.”

Darren overseeing a game in September, Credit: Darren Wildman

Darren had a player of his own utter a homophobic slur several seasons ago, and he didn’t go any easier on him. “We sent him home immediately. He was 15 at the time, so they gave him a six-game ban and I increased it by a further four games. Then off his own back, he wrote letters of apology to his teammates and put in a donation to Stonewall. And now what you’ve got is an 18-year-old player who’s one of the most respectful lads you’ll ever meet.”

That’s the impact of properly enforced rules against homophobia at football games. But this isn’t the reality yet, and not every youth player is lucky enough to have a coach like Darren. 

Take Thomas Beattie, an ex-Hull City Youth player who was raised in the academy and then went on to play for the Singaporean Premier League. He felt football was so at odds with his sexuality that it took a head injury that forced him to leave the game for good for him to admit to himself what he had known deep down for years. “When I was playing, I just didn’t even dare go near the thoughts of being gay. Then my injury set me free. If I was still playing now, I wouldn’t be out, to be honest.”

This internalised homophobia started at a young age. “I think when I was younger and [in the academy], it’s so difficult to be something you’re not shown. Everything that was said about being gay was so negative. And it’s such a fragile career as well, you’re aware that being out, and getting an offer from China or Russia, countries where this type of sexuality is frowned upon or illegal, you cut those opportunities off as an LGBT+ athlete. So there’s a lot of challenges that aren’t just the stigma.”

This is reflected in the current conversation surrounding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. While it's clear that Qatar is behind England as a country in terms of progress against homophobia, Thomas echoes Carl's point that English fans criticising Qatar as a host of football tournaments need to “look at their own backyard first.”

It’s 2021, but until a footballer in this country knows he can walk out into a crowd of thousands and not feel at risk of receiving homophobic abuse, there is no hope for fighting homophobia in football. And until people like Ryan Mather can attend a game without worry or fear, football will remain an exclusive club where only straight people get to feel safe.

Huddersfield FC tells JOE they have implemented a host of new policies since the incident Ryan Witnessed in 2018, including new reporting hotlines, a new sanctions policy and a commitment to the Premier League’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Standard.