Why has so little advancement been made around homophobia in football in the last 30 years? Ben Riley-Smith meets gay grassroots players to find out more about the sport’s last taboo.

“Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?” Brian Clough once asked Justin Fashanu in 1982, having heard rumours of his recently signed striker’s homosexuality. “A baker’s, I suppose” replied a confused Fashanu. “Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?” “The butchers,” replied Fashanu again. “So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?!”

It would be easy to dismiss Clough’s incredulity at the idea of a gay footballer as simply a product of a bygone era. That was the 1980s, Thatcher’s Britain, a time when fans were expected to riot and defenders knew how to tackle. But the truth is homophobia appears to be every bit as prevalent in football today as it was 30 years ago, a reality illustrated by the tragic legacy of Justin Fashanu. In 1990 Fashanu became the first professional player ever to come out as gay. A decade later he would be dead.

Disowned by his brother and England player John, increasingly alienated from football and embroiled in a sex-assault scandal in America, Justin hung himself in 1998. “I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family,” the suicide note read. Not a single British professional footballer has publicly come out since.

The stubborn persistence of homophobia in football remains somewhat of an enigma. With around one in every ten men in the UK thought to be gay, there is no doubt that some of England’s 2,500 or so professional footballers are homosexual. Why, then, has so little advancement been made? The fight against racism has achieved remarkable progress since the days when any John Barnes England appearance would trigger waves of bigoted crowd abuse. Equally the rise of female commentators and officials, as well as a booming women’s sport whose major tournaments receive terrestrial television coverage, suggests the strength of traditional gender stereotypes in football is weakening. Why have these advances in race and gender not been mirrored in attitudes to sexuality? More worrying still, why have the recent high profile revelations of homosexual players in equally ‘macho’ sports – rugby’s Gareth Thomas and hurling’s Dónal Óg Cusack – failed to be matched in football?

To discuss some of these issues I met with the London Falcons Gay Football Club. The Falcons represent a fascinating phenomenon, perhaps the most radical grassroots change the sport has seen this decade: the emergence of gay-friendly football clubs.

“The motivation was for gay men to be able to play in a non-threatening environment,” explains Kevin Latham, the Falcon’s first XI player manager. “There are gay people who are put off from playing at this level. We don’t really get any homophobia because we play against other gay clubs.”

They compete in the Gay Football Supporters Network National League. Created in 2002, the GFSN National League’s increasing popularity has made it the largest LGBT-friendly 11-a-side league in the world. The Falcons were crowned 2009 / 2010 Champions in May.

Support, however, is by no means unanimous within the gay community.

“There is a lot of opposition to gay football,” says Ian Kehoe, the club’s captain and chairman. “Our sponsors, FitLads the dating website, have forums on there. Often you’ll see someone who is obviously gay posting ‘Why the hell are you lot separating yourself from the wider football community? Why do you have to have an exclusively gay team?’ I’d say one of these posts is started every day just on the topic of gay football.” The justification, as Ian argues, is that of positive discrimination. “You’re taking an unprincipled step back in order to take two forward. Maybe gay football is a step back. But it’s getting a lot of gay people who wouldn’t otherwise play to step into the game. From there they might then filter out into regular teams”.

Talking to the players about their personal experiences outside of the Falcons, it’s hard to deny the legitimacy of Ian’s rationale. Homophobic abuse, says one goalkeeper, is too often the norm. “For one team I played for in the past, coming out would be absolutely out of the question. The team talk would be ‘you’re playing like a bunch of fucking queers’. If I’d come out they’d have told me to fuck off”. Having joined the Falcons recently, the keeper continues to play for a semi-professional club, a club at which he was recently ‘outed’. “It’s shit,” he states. “It’s just not what you do. On the first day of everyone knowing I was gay a couple of people gave a bit of banter, but some others were like ‘nah’. I was on the bench and one of our strikers got taken off – he was one of my better friends there. When someone jokingly asked if I fancied him he went ‘don’t even f**king answer that, I hate this gay business’”. In the face of such hostility, he has since decided to leave.

Similar stories could be found right across the team. Many players had hidden their sexuality from teammates at former clubs. Others had actively pulled girls on post-match nights out to negate suspicion. Some simply stopped playing altogether. Yet while the problem is plain to see, the solution is less clear. One point on which all the Falcons appear to agree is the need for an openly homosexual professional player. No other single change could have the same immediate power in challenging homophobic stereotypes. The revelation would force the country’s press and public to face the issue head on, thrusting football’s unspoken problem under the spotlight of national debate. Yet two major barriers continue stop this from happening.

The first is crowd abuse. “Football has been traditionally a very working class game” manager Kevin explains. “On a social ladder it is definitely one rung down from rugby”. Today, despite being banned, homophobic chants are commonplace on the terraces. “Do clubs do anything about it? Not really. I’ve never been anywhere where the stewards give a crap about anything that happens. I’ve looked at stewards and suggested they do something but they don’t. If you were a steward on the minimum wage would you go up to the burly man? Is it worth your while?” The experiences of Graham Le Saux and Sol Campbell, constantly taunted after allegations of homosexuality, show a glimpse of the hostility an openly gay player would face. With the FA doing little to curb crowd homophobia, most recently pulling a hard-hitting advertising campaign aimed at this very issue, things are unlikely to change soon.

The second barrier, and perhaps the more worrying, is this: there is a clear economic incentive for clubs to discourage players from being openly gay. Falcons captain Ian recalls talking to a senior FA spokesman about the Premier League’s gay footballers. “She suggested that a lot of players would have something implied in their contract that the club would certainly prefer them not to come out because their transfer value might be affected, their potential for merchandising might be affected.”

Ian continued: “It would seem rational and logical to do that. I couldn’t dispute that from an economic point of view, I would absolutely hate for one of my players to come out. If they’re assets, I don’t want my asset to depreciate.” As football clubs increasingly become businesses, and as players increasingly become marketable brands, such market forces are rising in influence.

There is a self-perpetuating nature to all of this, a catch-22 of sorts. The level of homophobia in football discourages gay players from publicly coming out. Yet it is this very lack of openly gay professional players which means football’s homophobia remains unchallenged. Without any focal point for discussion, the issue stays in the dark. Will this cyclical silence be broken? Can we realistically expect a player to come out in the near future? If so, it is likely to be an older player, free from the uncertainties of a youngster making his way and familiar with crowd hostility. It is likely to be a player nearing the end of his career, no longer pressurised by a club’s financial motivations or constrained by the need for future transfers. It is also likely that the media could play a role, forcing the pace with a ‘jump or be pushed’ moment. Yet these remain ifs and maybes, lacking any kind of certainty or inevitability. For now, there is only one thing we can say with confidence. That until a professional player comes out, English football’s last taboo will remain unspoken, unanalysed and, ultimately, unchanged.

Ben Riley-Smith is a freelance reporter and the Guardian’s Student Sports Writer of the Year 2009. He writes features and interviews on sport at betweenthelines.me.uk.