The controversy over the Sochi Olympics and LGBT rights shows sports is a powerful cultural disseminator. These spaces are used to subvert oppression when Gabby Douglas tears down barriers for black gymnasts, or when Jeremy Lin destroys stereotypes of the emasculated Asian man on the basketball court. Football is embedded in the British social fabric and thus an essential arena for tackling homophobia in society. The decision of retired footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger to come out, and Tom Daley’s admission of being in a relationship with a man, has renewed pressure for an active footballer to come out. But barely an eyelid batted when the England women’s football captain Casey Stoney came out as gay. Can men’s football learn anything from women’s sports in encouraging safe spaces for gay and bisexual players?
The hyper-masculinity of team sports has mythologised a gay or bisexual man who will tear down all homophobia in his way, such as Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas. In the US, basketball player Jason Collins made headlines last year as the first active sportsman in the Big Four sports to come out. But when Brittney Griner – the most talented active US women’s player – came out, it didn’t create the same headlines. Women’s sport is familiar with ‘out’ athletes and ‘allies’ are seen as the default. For women athletes misogyny is a greater barrier than sexual orientation – homophobia is simply one facet “to control women, both gay and straight.” In one sense this actually allows greater solidarity among self-identified women athletes, making it harder to divide them with homophobia.
If homophobia cannot break women athletes’ solidarity it is one of the most effective means of policing men’s masculinity, as shown by recent bullying scandals in American football. Undermining men with sexism and homophobia – conflating feelings with weakness – is the basis of locker room culture. Solidarity is not built through accepting broad gender and sexual expressions as in women’s sport, but by calling men ‘sissies’, ‘fags’, ‘weak’, and sometimes just ‘girls’ – gay athletes ostensibly threaten this culture. There is an idea a few out athletes will remove homophobia; locker room culture can then resume as normal without tackling the ‘effemimania’ – the fear of femininity Julia Serano describes – that exaggerates the rigidity of self-identified men’s gender and sexuality. Gay and bisexual footballers do not test whether men who have sex with men are accepted, but whether men are allowed to relate to and love one another. Men expressing love in ways deemed ‘feminine’ is more antithetical to patriarchal norms than variance in sexual orientation.
Out player(s) will test whether the Football Association (FA) can successfully ‘kick out’ homophobia with the same commitment shown against explicit racist abuse, though institutionalised racism remains. Stonewall has joined with Paddy Power to ‘get behind’ gay footballers, with footballers showing solidarity by wearing rainbow laces. In the context of mostly Western cis, white, able-bodied, upper-middle class gay men taking the lead on the Sochi Olympics and LGBTQ rights there are important questions about who leads these campaigns. The reliance on the innuendo of ‘getting behind’ footballers is insufficient in tackling homophobia. Indeed relying on two organisations with histories of transphobia sidesteps the roots of football homophobia: misogyny.
As an FA commission investigates how to develop grassroots football, the issues football has in locking out self-identified women, people of colour, and LGBTQ people are coming to the forefront. Heather Rabbatts, the most senior woman of colour in the FA, has criticised failures in tackling grassroots racism for entrenching barriers to ‘home-grown’ players. The vacuum of racism in football has reopened in recent years with antisemitic chants and the John Terry/Luis Suarez controversies. Liverpool responded to the Suarez controversy with a code of unacceptable racist, misogynistic, and homophobic words and terms; they have to be tackled all at once and cannot be considered separately as openly gay, retired basketball player John Amaechi has argued.
Greater leadership roles for women may be necessary for tackling racism and homophobia in football. It is significant that the most prominent black – and out – manager in English football history is former England women’s manager Hope Powell. Casey Stoney has recognised the barriers misogyny, and not just reductive homophobia, place to women’s football. She has argued tackling football sexism requires giving self-identified women a more prominent role in men’s football, and higher status to women’s football. When she was a defender for Charlton Women, the team was shut down in 2007 despite success because the men’s team had been relegated from the Premier League and needed to cut costs – as she put it, “the men get relegated and we get punished.” Doncaster Belles were relegated by the FA last year because they didn’t have the same money as Manchester City had for their women’s team. Women’s football is not afforded its own status but seen simply as an extension of men’s football.
When women’s sport receives just 0.5% of sponsorship and 5% of media coverage there is a problem for LGBTQ representation – as most LGBTQ athletes are self-identified women. The cases of Charlton Women and Doncaster Belles clearly show the need for alternative financial structures. While ownership of clubs by fans is no panacea and there are other issues such as TV distribution rights, a fairer distribution of money in football is clearly needed to ensure the infrastructure and resources to support women’s football. As shown by the success of women tennis players in guaranteeing equal pay, the issue is also having an equal platform with men. As long as self-identified women are not awarded equal sponsorship, coverage, and income for their labour, women’s football will not be respected; when given an equal platform as at the Olympics where a gold medal is no less in status than for the men, respect for the women’s game follows.
Tackling homophobia in football can provide a model for the rest of society. But it cannot be on the backs of lesbian and bisexual women athletes for whom being ‘out’ comes with the territory of the marginalisation of their work. It will not be achieved through the representation of gay and bisexual men alone; it requires tackling the stifling misogyny in football and according self-identified women footballers the respect and status their labour deserves.