I didn’t choose to be gay or an Aston Villa fan. I attended my first football game at Villa Park in the late 1990s, and I knew I was gay even then. Was it the muscled torsos, moustaches or the long shorts? None of the above, really, I just knew I liked guys.
It’s safe to say that at the time a football ground was not a welcoming environment for a gay man. Homophobic taunts were common both on the pitch and off, the game was still living with the dire legacy of Justin Fashanu’s side, and no-one seemed ready to discuss sexuality in football at all. Any time that sexuality was discussed, it was through the prism of the tortured soul struggling to live a lie in his personal life.
To walk into the gleaming glass and brick stadiums of today, you’d think that everything has changed. Football is run by suits who are at pains emphasise the “gameday experience” – or what used to be called “a beer and a pint” – and you’re more likely to see a spilled latte than a fight in the stands. We haven’t quite hit the heights of Yankee Stadium and its $2,500 cushioned seats, Michelin star food, and jet-engine air-conditioning, but sometimes it doesn’t feel far off. Any of us who have endured a rainy away day at the Baseball Ground might be forgiven for wondering what’s happened to football.
Society is in a different place too from when I first stood on that wet and windy Villa Park terrace. 1997 saw the arrival of a Labour government, which slammed shut the pernicious legacy of section 28, “inalienable right to be gay” and fretting about AIDS – and brought in a new era of LGBTs serving in the armed forces, an equal age of consent and gay couples adopting.
And all of this found its way onto the terraces. Outright homophobia in the stands isn’t quite a thing of the past, but it now brings opprobrium on those who still practice it. Most people now have a gay mate or even a gay mate that they go to the football with. As many as two-thirds of people now say that same-sex relationships are “not wrong at all”, up from 59 per cent in 2015, and 47 per cent in 2012.
The area most resistant to change, in fact, appears to be the stuffed shirts at the top of the game. Football Association chairman Greg Clarke told The Times last month that he didn’t think top-level football was “ready” for a player to come out.
Peter Tatchell’s appeal for the FA to report The Sun to the Press Complaints Commission for calling Ronaldo a “Portuguese nancy boy” fell on deaf ears and former FIFA President Sepp Blatter commented that gay fans should “refrain from any sexual activities” if they visit the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.
This is a generation that neither really understands, nor wants to address the issue of sexuality in sport, but thankfully it is a generation that is now passing out of the game.
However, while there is still tacit approval from the top of the game, homophobia will remain a problem. My biggest memory of playing five-a-side football five years ago was a barrage of homophobic abuse every time I took a player on, with the referee doing nothing to address it. Even while I was at university, I was told: “You can’t be gay, you play football.”
And while homophobic abuse has been mostly eradicated from the stands, it still hurts when you hear it.
I’d have hoped, also that we would have more than one out footballer, Liam Davis, playing in the UK at the moment. One would have also hoped that he would be playing at a higher level than Gainsborough Trinity, six divisions below the Premier League. People will ask why the issue of openly gay footballers matter, and say that there is too much pressure put on players to come out. My answer to that would be why shouldn’t it?
Before we see a real change, I sense that football is going to have to undergo a culture change. British football, which has always been just as likely to praise a thundering tackle as an intricate bit of skill, might need to change the way it looks at itself. The idea of a “man’s man” footballer has started to give way to a greater appreciation of more technical prowess. Yet the idea that football is essentially about success and domination still lingers, and none of the gay footballers that are in the Premier League have felt able to come out during their playing careers.
Thankfully, that culture change is now starting to take place. The Rainbow Laces campaign, controversial at first, is now a standard part of football culture. You can even buy your own.
Pride Week 2017 also saw the first ever #CALLITOUT event, held at Manchester’s National Football Museum. The event, organised by alliance group Pride in Football and funded through the Premier League Fans Fund, aimed to mark the rise of the LGBT fan movement and offered an opportunity to debate issues surrounding homophobia in the sport. People were also given the opportunity to openly discuss and challenge the alienation of LGBT fans at the Russia and Qatar World Cups, how police are tackling incidents of homophobia, and hate speech in football.
Like much of the wonderful social change that has happened in recent years, the battle to rid football of homophobia is taking place from the ground up, turbocharged by social media. It could still be some time before football feels like a genuinely open and inclusive place for LGBT fans, but for the millions of LGBT fans around the world who love the game, that change can’t come soon enough.