Writing for PinkNews.co.uk, Stonewall FC footballer and employment lawyer Jamie Feldman looks at the potential ramifications of a current gay premiership star coming out as gay.
Earlier this month Thomas Hitzlsperger became the first high profile player who had plied his trade in the Premier League to come out as gay. Having won 52 caps playing for Germany, Hitzlsperger, nicknamed “Der Hammer” also played for Aston Villa, Stuttgart, West Ham United and Everton. However, questions remain to be answered as to why Hitzlsperger didn’t feel comfortable coming out whilst he was still playing, and waited until he retired to do so.
Coming out to family and friends is, no doubt, a difficult choice to make. There are likely to be concerns about how will people react to such news and will that reaction manifest itself in rejection. The pressure of coming out is heightened when there is public interest in one’s personal life with the resultant additional fear of not only rejection by one’s family but also by the public, and so perhaps there should be some understanding as to why Hitzlsperger came out after he retired.
Hypothetically, what would happen if a current Premier League football player were to come out? Would there be abuse from fellow professionals? Would there be abuse from the stands? Is it not that person’s footballing ability that we should be interested in rather than who they find sexually attractive?
In terms of abuse from fellow professionals, having played for 6 years for Stonewall Football Club, the UK’s first and most successful openly gay football club, I have faced minimal abuse on the pitch, especially in recent seasons. We play in the FA Middlesex County League as an openly gay team. Opposition managers, players and fans know who we are and what we are about. However, those same managers, players and fans respect us for our ability on the pitch, and therefore see us as football players who happen to be gay rather than gay football players. In that respect, aside from extremely rare occasional comments said in the heat of the moment, homophobic abuse is not particularly evident at grass-roots level. So does the same apply for Premier League players?
Currently and unfortunately, the answer is no. We still live in a society where discrimination is still a live topic. In my work as a solicitor specialising in employment issues I am often faced with employers discriminating against employees for having a protected characteristic, that is, a characteristic which entitles you to be protected under the Equality Act 2010, with one such characteristic being their sexual orientation. It could be assumed that those employers who are being discriminatory are the same people who are attending matches as fans, so would they abuse a player who is openly gay in the same way that they are being discriminatory in the workplace?
Picture the scene – Manchester City vs Manchester United. The game is level at 1-1, the winner of the game takes home the Premier League title and there is 89 minutes on the clock. Joe Bloggs, Manchester United’s man-in-form and England’s next rising prodigy scores a goal to put Manchester United 2-1 up with seconds remaining. Joe Bloggs is an openly gay football player having come out at the beginning of the season. The abuse that follows from the Manchester City fans is then vitriolic. Bloggs is called every name in the book, each and every word said with a homophobic slant. And what of the minority of Manchester United fans who had been abusing their own player all season? They now see him as a hero. Unfortunately, this scenario is too easy to imagine!
So what do we have to do to move things forward?
The FA and organisations such as Football v Homophobia are working hard to battle against the issues of homophobia in football. Charters have been released and the “Month-of-Action” in respect of all discrimination in football takes place in February. But is this enough? Equality laws and the Equality Act 2010 have attempted to minimise the problem but when discrimination still exists in society and in the workplace, how can we expect to eradicate it from the world of sports and/or football?
The answer appears to be simple to write, but harder to implement. We simply continue with what we are doing by making people aware that there is still a problem. Media coverage, however big or small, helps to get people talking about the issue. We are not asking for a hero to appear – a Premier League player flying the rainbow flag at every opportunity – we are simply asking people to consider the live issue that discrimination should not exist in any form or in any medium. Once people consider this and we attempt to eradicate this from society, and from the workplace, a big name player might feel more comfortable to be open about his sexuality.
Jamie Feldman is an employment lawyer at Harbottle & Lewis and a midfielder with Stonewall FC