Homophobia: the big game’s big problem?

Professor Ellis Cashmore says those calling for bans on chants are “piety fanatics”. (eosdude/Flickr)

When Aslie Pitter MBE came out to his team in the early nineties, he got the reaction he dreaded.

It was an end-of-season do. The other lads had turned out with their girlfriends and wives, but Pitter turned up with his boyfriend. When the squad asked who his guest was, Pitter made no secret of their relationship. That was when the grief started.

“I was playing for the first team … and then I ended up in the fourth team in the space of two weeks.” It did not take long for Pitter to pack his duffle bag and head for the door.

But, rather than letting his boots gather dust, Pitter founded Stonewall FC: a side where gay footballers could get stuck in without fear of discovery or abuse.

The early nineties was a tough time for a gay football start-up. Brian Clough, while the manager of Nottingham, had dressed down Justin Fashanu for going to gay bars in an infamous changing room exchange just a decade before and factors outside of the sport added pressure.

“It was the height of the AIDS epidemic,” Pitter said, “anything negative — gay people were blamed for it, and there was section 28.” Section 28, a policy passed by the Thatcher government, made promoting homosexuality as an acceptable, alternative lifestyle a crime.

Stonewall FC played straight sides week-on-week amidst that atmosphere. How much abuse did they get? “We got so much abuse, not just verbal but physical abuse as well,” Pitter began “elbows, two-footed challenges and back then referees didn’t know how to deal with it.”

“In recent years, referees will now step in. I felt referees back then would let a lot of things go.” He specified that jibes of “queer” would be ignored, at least until games threatened to turn into handbag brawls.

As football headed into the new millennium, the official position towards homophobia also progressed. The Football Association prohibited homophobic chanting in the stands and terraces in the late noughties, despite an absence of out-and-proud professional footballers.

Yet, negative perceptions still lingered. In 2002, the two-time manager of Brazil, Luiz Felipe Scolari, went so far as to say he would chuck any gay players off his team were they to come out. The PR wiz Max Clifford warned players not to come out due to a level of homophobia in the football sphere he thought insurmountable.

Eric Najib, the manager of Stonewall FC, admits to being sceptical himself when he joined the side in 2001. Najib said: “I went down with a pre-conception that it wouldn’t be all that great because it’s a gay football team.”

Cut to 2017 and Najib’s misconceptions about homosexuality and football have dissipated and the big game has followed suit in some ways. Aslie Pitter was awarded an MBE for his services against homophobia in 2011; the FA have openly backed the ‘football v homophobia’ campaign and players like Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former Aston Villa star, have come out of the closet in retirement.

However, there is a sense that more could be done. Jehmeil ‘Jay’ Lemonius, Stonewall FC’s starting striker and a professional games administrator for Kick It Out, said working with clubs on anti-homophobia campaigns could be difficult. It is Jay’s job at Kick It Out to collate the fixtures sides nominate for anti-racism and homophobia stunts and sort out logistics for the day.

“They are very lax, so sometimes you have to prompt them,” he said. “You have to also try and prompt them to do a bit extra as well, as opposed to just wear a t-shirt.”

Jay adds that clubs are more accommodating in other ways. Kick It Out, he claimed, are invited to set up scholar sessions at the academy level of many clubs. These sessions pivot on equality and inclusion workshops, dealing with racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination.

On top of equality workshops at the academy level, professional players have been happy to take on token gestures against homophobia. “A couple years ago, Stonewall the charity started a rainbow laces campaign to acknowledge the issue of homophobia within football,” Najib began “I think this season, pretty much every club in the premier league adhered to it.”

Is there anything else to be done? Jay thinks the terraces need to be safer spaces for homosexuals. Pitter agrees, saying “more and more people in the stands are saying [homophobia is] out of order”. Jay takes a hard line, pushing for “chants and stuff” to be stamped out.

Parliament fell in line with Jay’s thinking. An inquiry into homophobia in sport by the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, recommended that bans be doled out to fans found to have engaged in ‘homophobic chanting’, as a means of making the sport more inclusive.

How much impact punitive measures against fans would have on homophobia in football is highly questionable. Research conducted by the University of Staffordshire found that nine in ten football fans took issue with homophobia and would have no problem supporting a player if they came out.

Professor Ellis Cashmore, the report’s lead researcher, called those suggesting bans on homophobic chanting “piety fanatics”. He said they were “seeing abuse everywhere and especially where it doesn’t exist.”

What the CMS committee and Kick It Out interpret as homophobia, Cashmore claims is often little more than an “exchange of banter”. Flexing his research credentials, he referenced a chant often directed at Brighton fans: “Stand up, if you can’t sit down!” Cashmore suggests that seeing those sort of chants as malicious is to be humourless.

Does he not think there is any problem with homophobia in football? “There is homophobia in football, but not with the fans.” Cashmore asserts that the lack of out-and-proud pro footballers stems from agents, managers and owners.

He pictured agents worrying that they would not get their commission on sponsorship deals were their client to come out, owners being concerned about brand image and managers worried about players getting stick on the pitch.

If what Cashmore says is true, and backroom players are obstructing progress against homophobia in football, why has the problem never been addressed? Cashmore has a theory. “It’s easy to send out a press release saying: ‘It’s these moronic fans.’” The hard work, challenging football’s big names and big money, is work he says officials don’t want to do.