Fans and football players, though not unanimously, have showed discontent around the bans on homosexual behavior in the country. Which is kind of surprising given football’s history around the acceptance of homosexuality. Spoiler: it’s not great.
What is the state of homosexuality in football? Do football players feel comfortable coming out? While the culture seems to be improving, it is still really early days to see widespread acceptance of the LGBTIQ+ community.
Coming out in football
football players coming out publicly is a pretty new concept. Jake Daniels, a forward for Blackpool FC, is the first active English male professional football player to have come out as gay publicly as of 2022, saying “For a long time I've thought I would have to hide my truth because I wanted to be, and now I am, a professional footballer. I asked myself if I should wait until I've retired to come out. No other player in the professional game here is out.”1
Several players did wait until retirement to come out. Richarlyson, now retired Brazilian midfielder, commented on his choice to announce his bisexuality after his career had ended, “I didn't want to be ruled out because of my sexuality, that I'm bisexual. I wanted people to see me as a mirror for everything I've achieved in my work.”2 This is from 2022 too. And he’s the first and only Brazilian football player to have come out as of 2022.
A few players had dared to come out in earlier years, such as French player Oliver Rouyer or English player Justin Fashanu. Though the current atmosphere reflects extremely recent, small progress on openly gay players.
This is applies beyond gay men. Surprisingly enough, it’s not all that much better for women neither. The list of openly queer women in football is fairly low as well, for the same reasons as men: the tragic story of Eudy Simelane, a openly lesbian player of the South African Women’s football team that was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered for her sexuality3 is an example of the dangerous anti-LGBT sentiment around the world in football. Representations of other genders in the LGBT community are non-existent at the professional level.
Preserving the image of the footballer
Why is it so hard to come out in football? The world of football is very based on masculine ideals that aren’t too tolerant of deviations from traditional expectations of manhood. Jake Daniels commented on this too, “The subject of being gay, or bi or queer in men's football is still a taboo. I think it comes down to how a lot of footballers want to be known for their masculinity. And people see being gay as being weak, something you can be picked on for on the football field.”1
And being picked on is a nice way to state it. The Turkish Football Federation was sued in 2009 for considering referee Halil Dincdag unable to perform his duty due to his homosexuality (he won the case too!). He had been a referee for 13 years prior to his public coming out on television4.
Though bullying and harassement are worthwhile considerations of coming out in the sport, general support from teammates is important too. In Paris Saint-German professional football club, Senegalese player Idrissa Gueye was reported to have voluntarily missed a match that involved the club showing support towards the LGBTIQ+ community by wearing rainbow themed jerseys.5 While it is this player’s choice, it does further reinforce the uncertainty of how others will react and upholds the stigma of coming out.
It is not only within the structure of football though: preserving the image of football for fans is a huge factor, economically, professionally, physically and emotionally. In 2017, Georgian player Guram Kashia was met with fiery protests because of his decision to wear a rainbow armband, in support of Coming Out Day -- the protest led to 8 arrest for hooliganism, due to anti-gay chants, Pride flag burning and use of flares and smoke bombs6.
The chanting part is a pretty popular problem from fans unfortunately: for instance, the International Association of Association Football (FIFA) fined the Mexican national team for their fans usage of anti-gay slogans that were chanted to opponent teams during a game in 2016 and in 20187. Similar reports have been made about fans in France8, Spain9 and England10.
The choice between football and your identity
“I thought: 'Why don't I step away and deal with this and my family and be happy?' Imagine going to training every day and being in that spotlight?” said American football player Robbie Rogers about his choice to leave the sport after coming out11. The lack of acceptance of queer people within the sport forces players to feel like they must choose between their profession and their sexual orientation. It can lead to internalized homophobia too, for “punished” to have to make this choice. Brazilian player Douglas Braga echoed this sentiment, “It was a choice that either you're yourself, or you're a footballer. It just wasn't possible to be both.”12
Thankfully, although slow, progress towards equality and acceptance is moving forward. Homophobic behavior is being punished by people within the football institution and fans (all chants incidents listed previously were met with investigations).
Some coming outs even showed hoped: that was the case for the former German midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, who received praise from fellow teammate allies and his coach, after his coming out in 201413. The same went for Josh Cavallo, Australian midfielder, who came out in 2021. Receiving support from his club, major players in the sport such as French player Antoine Griezmann, English player Gary Lineker and Spanish player Gerard Piqué. The latter wrote in a tweet, “I don’t have the pleasure to know you personally but I want to thank you for this step that you take. The world of football is far behind and you are helping us move forward.”14
For real cultural and structural change in sports to happen, activist projects encouraging queer acceptance are needed. Teams composed of queer players (like Stonewall FC), mixed gender teams, youth programs… BOWIE’s very own project Neunzigneunzig has the ambitious and necessary goal to change football into an inclusive, equitable sport. Check it out here.
We need gay heroes: https://www.irishexaminer.com/sport/football/arid-30575849.html
Photography courtesy of Gareth Fuller