It may not have escaped your notice last week that Arsenal and betting company Paddy Power produced a video in association with Stonewall, Britain’s leading LGBT charity. The video caused something of a stir across social media, which was soon picked up by the mainstream media. The campaign, Rainbow Laces, is intended to highlight and tackle the issue of homophobia in football. The short film featured some leading Arsenal first team players indulging in some self deprecating pastiche.
It’s fair to say that homophobia isn’t a fight that football has shown a great willingness to arm itself for to this point. Society itself has taken too long to properly address the issue, but football, in its machismo bubble, has kept it firmly on the shelf. Or in the closet, if you will. In 2012, the Football Association launched an anti-homophobia campaign but could not find a single current player to publicly endorse it.
It’s a thorny issue for sure. Football has long been considered the domain of the alpha male, both in the stands and the dressing room. Even if the gentrification of football crowds in the last 20 years means that the social construct of the terraces is a little more forgiving than it was prior to the 1990s. However, the fact remains that we don’t have a single openly gay footballer in the Football League when, statistically speaking, it is virtually impossible to suggest that there aren’t any gay footballers.
American midfielder Robbie Rogers publicly declared his sexuality and immediately followed up by retiring from football aged just 26. Thomas Hitzlsperger waited until he was retired before coming out. At this point, many will ask, “Why does it matter? I don’t care what footballers get up to in the bedroom, I just care how they play”. On the surface of it, that’s a perfectly reasonable standpoint and once we have moved to a position of complete acceptance of homosexuality in the game, you would hope it would be the prevailing sentiment.
Arsene Wenger himself said as much earlier this year, “It [would be] good if four, five, six people come out and after that nobody speaks about it anymore because they just think it is people who live their life like they want to live it. He [Hitzlsperger] could not come out during his career, which means we still have some progress to make in our game because he should not have had to wait until the end”.
The problem is we haven’t yet reached this nirvana of approval. We have probably progressed from the point where abuse and violent retribution would be anything other than the reaction of an idiotic minority (though that minority still lurks menacingly in the shadows). But that doesn’t mean we have reached acceptance. Ask yourself a question. In all of the football matches you have ever attended, do you think you have ever walked past or even sat next to a gay couple? Statistically it’s pretty likely that you have. More than once too.
Now ask yourself, have you ever seen a gay couple holding hands at a match together? I know I haven’t and I’ve probably clocked in at over 1,000 top-class matches now. Around 30 of those, I attended with a gay couple I knew well. Yet how many straight couples have you seen at matches down the years walking hand in hand towards the stadium? I attend matches with my wife and I know I don’t even have to afford a second thought to clasping her hand or putting my arm around her. Whilst this remains undisputedly the case, we still have a cause worth fighting and as an Arsenal fan, I am proud to see Arsenal leading putting their heads above the parapet.
"It would be good if four, five, six people come out and after that nobody speaks about it anymore because they just think it is people who live their life like they want to live it"
I am writing this in an internet cafe, in searching for the Arsene Wenger quotes provided above, I was led to a website called sosogay.co.uk. For some reason I felt the need to glance over my shoulder as I clicked the link to see if I was being judged. Whether that was down to my own subconscious prejudices (‘I’m not gay, honest! It’s just research!’), or my fear of the prejudices of others, I confess I am not entirely sure. Or maybe I am just not comfortable with the answer and have intentionally re-branded it as intellectual confusion.
For this is the problem. It is unconscious bias we are fighting and that is a tricky battle. It is easy to identify and isolate froth-mouthed purveyors of abuse. Tackling the prejudices people don’t even realise that they possess is another struggle altogether, as is educating those who don’t believe there is an issue at all. On Wednesday evening, Arsenal Ladies defender Casey Stoney publicised a quite disturbing letter that somebody had sent her (anonymously, of course) via her twitter feed which suggests homophobia’s canteen culture is alive and well and has access to the Royal Mail.
This is why the Gay Gooners banner and the Rainbow Laces campaign are so important. The best way to weed out unconscious bias is to normalise. Make that marginal ‘other’ a part of people’s visible reality. Remind them constantly that there are gay people in their football stadiums, in their football teams and there always have been and that it does not and has never remotely threatened their experience or enjoyment of the game. The sky hasn’t fallen in and it hasn’t rained men and it’s not going to.
It’s just that there are some people that would like to be able to go a game or play the game with the same level of blithe acceptance most of us enjoy and take for granted. And we’re not there yet. Campaigns and banners such as these are not about ‘rubbing our noses in it’. Nobody’s asking for a parade of pink-hot-pant-clad men to thrust their groins in our faces for half time entertainment. The aim is actually the complete opposite of a demand for attention. It’s about the freedom to be ignored. To be oneself at a game or in the changing room without attracting so much as an awkward glance.
That’s what campaigns such as these are working up to. Since Arsenal publicly backed their LGBT group, Gay Gooners, clubs such as Everton and Spurs have followed suit. Whilst acknowledging that this is an issue that ventures beyond tribalism, we ought to be proud that Arsenal are setting an example. Homophobia might not only be a football problem, but there are a multitude of examples of sport being a uniting force for good.
Imagine if you will, Marine Le Pen trying to explain away France’s 1998 World Cup triumph with a team comprised largely of first and second generation African immigrants. The Rainbow Laces video was amusingly and tactfully executed, which can only further the cause. In the meantime, try not to ask why there is no ‘Straight Laces’ campaign or ‘Straight Gooners’ banner. Instead, give thanks that they have never been necessary and hope that, soon enough, video campaigns and banners won’t be required for football’s LGBT community either.