Kick It Out, football’s equality and inclusion campaign, concluded its One Game, One Community weeks of action campaign last week with an event at Brighton and Hove Albion FC to debate the issue of homophobia in football.
The event, in association with The Justin Campaign, an anti-homophobia group set up in memory of gay footballer Justin Fashanu, brought together a panel involving Kick It Out’s Alison Vaughan, Lou Englefield from Pride Sports and Observer chief sports writer, Paul Hayward.
The event looked at how the game still struggles to embrace the gay community. A recent Stonewall survey found that seven out of ten football fans have heard homophobic abuse during a game.
“It’s ridiculous to think there are no gay footballers,” said Jason Bartholomew-Hall, director of the Justin Campaign. ”If a number of players decided to come out, we’d see a shift in attitudes and policy in the game.”
Gary O’Reilly, a former Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace and Brighton defender, was in attendance. He played alongside Justin Fashanu and gave his views on homophobia in the dressing room. “Its not as bad as people imagine. I played in the same team as Justin and had a strong feeling that he was gay. It was never once an issue or a problem. He never brought it into the dressing room.
“Some of the homophobic chanting that we hear at grounds today is nasty and vile and goes way beyond ‘banter’. Banter is a healthy part of the fans’ involvement in the game, but not when it crosses the line.
“There may be a reluctance for managers to buy players who are gay. However, if an extremely high profile and talented player was to declare his homosexuality, then that might change.”
Paul Hayward from the Observer, added: “There is a shift outside of the football world of people being more open about their sexuality. The Welsh rugby union referee, Nigel Owens, has just written an autobiography where he describes a suicide attempt when grappling to come to terms with his homosexuality. In a small Welsh village steeped in rugby, and macho, culture, you could see why this might be difficult. We’ve also seen a hurling player in Ireland coming out.
“We haven’t seen it in English football and I think, sadly, it’s a long way off. It requires clubs to create a tolerance and an open atmosphere so people feel that they’re in a safe environment to talk about it openly.”
Daniela Wurbs from the Football Supporters Europe network spoke of the challenge from a European viewpoint.
“Sadly there is intolerance to the issue on the continent too. There are, however, some notable exceptions. A league two side in Germany has a gay president. But, like in England, it would be difficult for a player to come out in this climate. The social pressure would be too much, I fear. “