Time to change the beautiful game?
PUBLISHED: 08:00 03 October 2015
There are many parallels between Brighton and Weston. From the majestic piers, the sweeping beaches and seaside cafes, Brighton has been earmarked as a coastal, cultural hub for Weston to emulate.
And with the recent arrival of Dismaland, that aim could soon become a reality. Yet where the two towns differ is in sporting opportunities for gay and lesbian people, particularly in football.
While Brighton blazes a trail – its LGBT sports society BLAGSS has more than 500 members – Weston follows a more typical UK trend, lagging behind when it comes to homosexuality and sport.
Opportunities for gay people in team sports are particularly slim. But certain groups and individuals in the South West are determined for that to change.
When former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger announced his homosexuality in January 2014 he became the most high-profile footballer to reveal he was gay, yet still remains in a tiny minority.
Why do so few footballers in Britain feel they can come out as gay? Moreover, is homophobia proving a barrier to gay people playing team sports? Weston Football Club manager Ryan Northmore says football must use its status in society to set a precedent.
“I think we are at a crossroads,” he said. “Football is reflective of society and it is slowly changing.
“It requires people to be brave and to stand up for who they are to change opinions. But it’s also the responsibility of everybody to support people so they feel able to express their views.
“Football has a lot of catching up to do, but at the same time it can be a great educator.
“People tend to listen to football which is ridiculous. But I think there is a big responsibility for people within the game.”
One group attempting to broaden opportunities for gay people in team sports is charity Stonewall UK. It campaigns for equal treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people.
One of its biggest aims in the past two years has been to change dressing room culture so gay men do not feel intimidated to take up football or rugby.
More than half of gay and bisexual men surveyed by Stonewall said they expect to endure discrimination in team sports.
In April, a study by anti-discrimination group Kick It Out revealed Premier League footballers receive 134,400 abusive posts per season, with 19 per cent of a homophobic nature – the third most common type of abuse. Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge was targeted with 1,600 abusive messages in a single season, the majority of them levelled at his sexual orientation. Sturridge is heterosexual.
Abuse is all too common within the game. Even in Brighton, Britain’s gay capital, home fans are derided with weekly chants of ‘we can see you holding hands’ by jeering away crowds.
Northmore says football must act, because despite the likes of Hitzlsperger making a stand, the culture embedded in the game shows little sign of revolutionary change.
He added: “I don’t think it will come from the top. People at the top of the game get there because they tend to say the right things and do the things people are expecting of them. It has to come from the ground up. Clubs need to force the change.”
Stonewall research suggested team sports are unpopular in the gay community. It says gay men are less likely to join a sports club (25 per cent) than go to the gym (59 per cent) and concluded gay men have difficulties feeling included in the ‘macho’ environment of team sports.
A report of the findings said: “Girls are mocked for playing rugby or other ‘male sports’, because it betrays ideas of appropriate femininity. Many participants made a direct association between men who play football or rugby, and men who are ‘masculine’ and straight.”
Having seen at close quarters the harsh nature of football changing rooms and the torrents of abuse from the terraces, let alone the unforgiving nature of social media, Northmore accepts change won’t happen overnight.
“Being gay within football is not something that has been openly discussed,” he said. “People like to feel safe in football, but the humour can be harsh.
“It causes people to be more hidden about their own personality and that is not just exclusive to people that are gay. It could be players that are from a different walk of life – any characteristics that people are not comfortable with.”
Stonewall’s director Andrew White said: “If these issues are not addressed, we risk excluding a generation of the many benefits offered by taking part in sports.
“The message is clear: those involved in running sport must do more to show their commitment to tackling homophobia and encouraging gay people to take part.”
Stonewall launched a nationwide campaign last year, endorsed by Hitzlsperger alongside Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, to encrouage sports clubs around the UK to wear rainbow-coloured laces. Reaching 30 per cent of the population and gaining widespread media coverage, the campaign was a qualified success. Rainbow laces represent equality – a level playing field for gay people in sport.
One of the South West clubs to embrace the campaign was the University of Bristol women’s football club (UBWFC). Equality and diversity officer Jo Dulieu said: “We thought it would be a great way to raise awareness of the fact that homophobia remains a big issue in sport (and unfortunately in particular within football).
“At a time when I was coming to terms with my own sexuality the whole football club were easily the most supportive and lovely, so this just spurred me on to get more people involved.
“As we continued through the season we kept encouraging more and more of our members to ‘lace up’. We even had members of opposition teams asking about the laces, and [we] encouraged them to get involved too.”
UBWFC is not alone in promoting equal chances within football for gay and lesbian players. In fact, a string of gay-only sports clubs has recently popped up in the West Country – both Bristol Bisons rugby club and Bristol Panthers FC are growing in membership numbers. But progress is slow.
Weston boss Northmore concluded: “It is a young subject in terms of how long it has been brought to football’s attention. People need to have a greater understanding of who they are interacting with.”
Perhaps Northmore is right, sport is at a crossroads. But the reach of charities such as Stonewall is limited. It takes, as Northmore said, clubs at every level to accept people no matter who they are. Sport is universal, after all.