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20 Apr 2007 11:02
If one in 10 people are gay, where are all the gay Premiership stars? It’s a question that is often asked, but there are only whispers, dodgy rumours and malicious media gossip for answers.
Football, it seems, is one of the last professional environments where you cannot be out and proud. In every other entertainment industry we have gay stars, so why should football be different? Are football fans really so incapable of watching a gay player without abusing him?
The same bunch of fans who are routinely homophobic always sing along to the camp-as-you-like Scissors Sisters anthems played at grounds up and down the country, or the Pet Shop Boys song Go West.
Famously, Justin Fashanu was the only footballer who dared to come out back in 1990, and eight years later he killed himself.
But football was a very different place then. Racism was still a major problem: players being covered in boot polish or given a hiding. Had Justin been white, maybe he’d have had a different experience.
In those days, football was also much more homoerotic, with more bum-patting and kissing—so maybe the presence of an openly gay footballer would have upset the comfort zones.
Sportsmen and women have come out in other sports, but it hasn’t always been a straightforward process: although Martina Navratilova continued to be successful on the tennis court, she claims she lost out on $12-million in sponsorship deals.
Many athletes prefer to wait until they retire, like British former NBA player John Amaechi did earlier this year. I was watching the TV when his announcement flashed up. I know John because our paths crossed while working for the Special Olympics, but I would never have guessed he was gay.
But then again, how can you ever guess? Footballers are superstars these days and yet very few open their private lives up to the media.
So people hear a name and the rumour that he’s gay and they don’t even know that he’s married with three kids. Not that you can’t be gay and married, but anyone can see a footballer and invent an identity for him.
No one’s ever come out to me during my 18 years in football. But I must say, I’ve seen and heard some strange things—remarks that could suggest someone is gay or bisexual. I’ve heard drunken footballers egging each other on to do certain things for a certain amount of money. Maybe it is routine stuff, part and parcel of what goes on in every pub team across the country, but it made me wonder why they would be talking about it if they were straight.
That is just me speculating, but speculation is half the fear factor around coming out. Gossip is a brutal thing and footballers are no better than anyone else. In the old days, we used to invent rumours for a laugh and then watch them spread. We would say, “Did you know so and so is gay? No, he isn’t really, but it would make a great rumour.”
Even now rumours about certain players fly round by text message. “Do you know who it is?” But there’s no certainty in it, it’s just old wives gassing over the fence. Much of it is about banter, an excuse to wind an opponent up on the field.
Like Robbie Fowler parting his bum cheeks to annoy Graeme Le Saux. I don’t believe Robbie is homophobic, I think he was just being childish.
But it was blown out of all proportion. The media are like a pack of snarling dogs—they want to get their teeth into something and the thought of gay footballers is a major bone for them.
It is a favourite of the media. They love to spin stories and, if they do it without naming people, it keeps the mystery going because the footballers they are hinting at cannot defend themselves.
All this player A and player B nonsense, it’s a witch-hunt. In the past I’ve spoken to players who have been accused and it is very traumatic for them. They feel angry. The intense speculation causes a lot of problems for their loved ones.
Families have to put up with being approached in the street and taunted about it. It is a scary thing that, as a society, we are still using such things as cheap fun.
A senior executive in football said to me he wished all the gay footballers would come out so we could just get on with it.
I find that view refreshing. In marketing terms they could make a fortune. Just imagine, football’s first gay couple playing for rival teams, arguing about off-side decisions over the dinner table. They would do Hello! magazine, chat-shows, advertisements.
Would it upset players to be naked in the changing room together? What about the after-hours highly homoerotic activities—indulging in football threesomes and roastings? Would football culture ever be the same again?
I cannot imagine it would be possible for a 17-year-old to come out, no matter how good he was.
The protective bubble of success wouldn’t be there. You’d have to prove yourself first before you could be openly gay and still be accepted. And football is a sheltered existence. Even if you are accepted for being gay as a football star, it could be different once you retire. It could come back to haunt you. Football is transient and loyalties are quickly switched.
Another NBA player, LeBron James, chastised Amaechi for betraying his teammates in keeping his sexuality secret, but in football your teammates one day could be your opponents the next.
Down the years I could easily have been accused of being gay. I was a bit different—I modelled for Giorgio Armani, sparking rumours over which designers wanted to get into my pants. I practised yoga, I read, I painted. I’ve been to The Boardwalk—a gay club in Manchester—although I was with my wife at the time, and I’ve even driven past the local gay dogging spot in Devon. There were a couple of guys in tight black shorts and vests looking like Village People try-outs.
I have a number of gay friends and, although they wouldn’t want me shouting from the rooftops about their sexuality, I’d like to encourage them to come out.
I accept that it is easy for me to say that, but how many more years will it be before we can talk openly about gay men playing professional football?
From next season homophobic chanting is outlawed, which is a start. It’ll still take some sort of new-age hero to be the first to come out, but I just hope, for football’s sake, that it happens soon.—Â
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