‘Openly gay footballers? It’s a long way off’
“My sexuality and football are equally important in my life… it’s just a shame that the two can evoke a lot of conflict”
Sadly, being openly gay in football, as a fan or player, is to risk the homophobia that has run through the game for years.
Attitudes are gradually starting to change. A handful of footballers have come out as gay – mostly in retirement – and someone like Neil Beasley is able to tell his story, which is simply a must-read.
Coventry City fan Beasley, also the player and chairman of Birmingham Blaze from the Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN), talks honestly about growing up gay in the game and fighting for his right to enjoy the sport he loves without prejudice.
The author describes his opportunity on telling a story from a point of view that hasn’t been told before.
“There are grassroots players who are out and nobody ever talks about them,” he told me. “Nobody talks about their lives and no-one cares or asks what it’s like for lesbian, gay, bi and transsexual (LGBT) fans.”
His story, which took two years to write, touches on Beasley’s youth, playing football, coming out to his team-mates and the macho culture that views gays as weak and somehow not masculine enough to play a ‘man’s game’.
The book also raises awareness about the GFSN and the ugly homophobic abuse that still dogs the beautiful game at all levels.
As well as his own struggles, Beasley’s book offers views from a former Premier League professional, an openly gay non-league manager and a current gay non-league footballer.
“It wasn’t too hard to be open with my feelings telling the story. Trying to get hold of a professional player to talk, now that was hard!” Beasley said.
“We tried lots of people and lots of football clubs to get help. It was difficult, when it came to the subject hardly anyone wanted to talk and when we finally got somebody they didn’t want their name put with it
“The reason we think the professional didn’t want his name in the book was because of what happened with Matt Jarvis, who appeared on front of Attitude gay magazine and got a lot of abuse.”
Jarvis, who is heterosexual, appeared on the cover of Attitude magazine in January 2013 whilst at West Ham and gave an interview stating that gay footballers should be open about their sexuality.
In the book, the anonymous Premier League player discusses his views on homophobia and how he played for a team with an openly gay footballer in the set-up.
“I never would have known that he was gay if he hadn’t come out. It makes me wonder if I have played with other players who are gay. I must have.
“The courses that organisations like the FA are running, coupled with campaigns such as Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces are improving peoples’ awareness and understanding,” he adds.
Are we close to having openly gay footballers?
In 2016, we are yet to have an openly gay footballer across all professional leagues in England, and Beasley told me that he believes it won’t happen for a while yet.
“There will gay footballers right now. When do we think they’re going to come out? I think we’re a long way off
“There would be quite a distance between one and two coming out but between two, three, four etc, they’d come quite quickly”
“Every time we get somewhere, somebody else says something stupid. You can’t go more than six months without someone bringing it to a negative light
“I don’t know why you would want to come out. Life would be difficult, if you were having a bad game, the fans are going to hate you and what’s the first thing they look for? Weakness.
“Being gay is always seen as a weakness, not being macho, it’s the first thing they’re going to go for.
“People say it’s no different from when the black people played in the 80s. Yes, it is – you could see that they’re black.”
Most football fans are familiar with the case of former Nottingham Forest striker Justin Fashanu, who in 1990 came out as gay. No-one else followed suit. The first black footballer to command a £1 million transfer fee tragically hanged himself in 1998.
However, the author of Football’s Coming Out believes in 2016 there would be a chain reaction if one high-profile footballer came out.
“We would see an initial delay because everyone would want to see what would happen.
“What would happen if you went and reported someone for making homophobic comments to a steward or police? Nothing”
“There would be quite a distance between one and two coming out but between two, three, four etc, they’d come quite quickly.”
Being open with his sexuality to fellow team-mates at Non-League Heyford Athletic was courageous of Beasley, but for him a situation which, bizarrely, he found “disappointing”.
“People ask what it was like coming out to team-mates, they’re after a meaty story but I always say actually nobody really cared!
“In a roundabout way it was a real disappointment! In my mind I was going to get kicked out of the club,” joked the author.
But he remains adamant there have been no real improvements in relation to homophobia in the sport.
“What I think there is, is a media interest that was never there before, trying to push a positive spin on it. From a fans point of view, it’s not a great deal different.”
Abuse from the terraces
In the book, which was nominated for the prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, Beasley describes how we still hears homophobic abuse on the terraces today; specifically at a recent England World Cup qualifier.
“Outsiders enter a football stadium with this fear of hooliganism, and their fears are often compounded through the aggressive, hostile atmosphere at games.
“And when the outsider is gay? Well, they’re definitely going to be pretty fearful of the hateful, often homophobic, attitude.”
Beasley recalls Tom Cleverley having homophobic abuse hurled at him at Wembley.
“Fans love a scapegoat, and this idiot picked out Cleverly, the reason for the midfielder’s underperformance was that he was a ‘faggot’
“The vocal fan carried on with a volley of aggressive homophobic abuse as the game continued. Inside, I was seething”.
Beasley said the homophobic abuse we hear at football matches needs to be questioned.
“It needs to be challenged. If you stood there and shouted something racist, it would be challenged by other supporters
“What would happen if you went and reported someone for making homophobic comments to a steward or the police? Nothing. That’s what I think would happen.”
A recent BBC 5live survey showed that 8% of fans would turn their backs on their team if they had an openly gay footballer. A percentage that Beasley believes is worryingly “high”.
“They say, on one hand, they’re fanatical about supporting their club. On the other, if you get a gay player which doesn’t affect you in any way shape or form, in fact makes no difference to your life whatsoever, you’re just going to quit supporting your team? It seems barmy to me.”
Until the Football Association have an openly gay player to support, Beasley believes it’s always going to be tricky for them
“It’s difficult for the FA, I’m always kicking them, always! But it is difficult and always will be till they have a gay player to support. At the moment it’s all just words.”
But the Birmingham Blaze chairman remains positive: “Things will change, maybe not in the near future, but they will.
“We’re seeing now an emergence of LGBT fan groups at various clubs and with this, we may get a different response down the line.”
Football’s Coming Out is published by Floodlit Dreams Ltd (£9.99 Amazon)