Navigating LGBTQ+ issues in a sport reluctant to change
Words by Lorcan Barnett
In October of 2021, Josh Cavallo became the first openly gay professional footballer playing in a top flight league. His club Adelaide United posted a video where Josh explained his decision to become openly gay. Very quickly the video gained massive media attention with many high profile players supporting him and congratulating Josh for being so courageous. Overall the general reception was positive and it was clear that the footballing world was more than accepting. However, It was also apparent that the culture that surrounds the game was yet to evolve and progress. Not only on Josh’s video, but also in the much darker corners of social media, hate and mockery was brewing and the toxic culture surrounding homosexuality once again proved to be as obvious and blatant as ever.
The twenty-first century has proved to be a massive turning point for LGBTQ+ issues. In 2005 abuse against LGBTQ+ individuals became included in human rights practices(1) and in 2013 gay marriage was legalised in the UK. Whilst changes have been made, there are still many barriers to break and issues to overcome for the community. Football is still a section within society whereby attitudes are extremely backwards and delayed, with stigmas and tensions to difference being dangerously ignorant. There are no laws or legislation preventing football players from expressing their sexuality and identifying differently however, a footballer breaking the stereotype is still far too rare.
In the English Premier league, there are five hundred and twenty four registered players with none of those players openly stating that they are part of the LGBTQ+ community. The office of national statistics shows that in 2019, 2.9% of men aged 16 or above identified as lesbian gay or bisexual (LGB) (2). Statistically this means that roughly fifteen players within the premier league should be openly part of the LGB community. This still discounts all the members of society that haven’t come out. Fifteen players make up a whole starting eleven and even leaves room for four other players on the bench. This figure is staggering and poses all kinds of relevant and crucial questions. It is possible that many of those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community avoid careers in football altogether due to stigmas attached and that those who are of an alternative sexual orientation don’t feel enough support and protection to identify differently and come out.
It is important to view the experiences of those in retrospect that have identified with a different sexuality within the football world and how their life was affected by their decisions made. Justin Fashanu was the first openly gay professional footballer. Fashanu made over 100 appearances for Norwich City FC and was also capped for England at youth level. Not only was Fashanu a homosexual man during a time that was far from generous, compassionate and loving but he was also competing in a sport where hatred for difference was ripe and homosexuality was mocked and taunted mercilessly. Brian Clough, one of the most celebrated managers in English football, barred him from training after hearing allegations. Fashanu publicly came out as gay in 1990 after a decade of playing football professionally. The amount of bravery and courage Fashanu possessed to make the leap to reveal his true identity. After coming out Fashanu received endless taunts and malicious chants by players and fans. In May of 1998, Fashanu hung himself and in his suicide note stated, ‘I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family.’ The story and life of Justin Fashanu is sickening and shocking and justifies the reasons as to why their are so few openly gay professional footballers. The treatment by his own fans and teammates really makes one question the reality of the ‘beautiful game’ and how behind the sport is in it’s acceptance of difference.
Why does English football culture have a complication with accepting differences? Will progress ever be made and how will a change be made? Are higher bodies and establishments such as the FA responsible for enforcing progress? Whilst current professional football players coming out and identifying by a different sexual orientation is crucial for change, there must be other strategies and plans to allow attitudes to shift and alter. Players and fans must make a point of standing against any injustices and promoting difference within the sport.
It is crucial for all of those fortunate enough to be involved in football to support each other and celebrate differences. It isn’t only stories like Fashanu’s that should take one’s attention but players should take their anecdotes and memories of the game to the world. As a former player myself, I definitely have experienced some of the evils of the game but also moments that no other sport would provide. Granted I have never played professionally, I was able to be involved in some really strong dressing rooms with many former professionals and experienced players. Whilst I can confirm that hyper masculinity within football is very apparent, union between players during tough and challenging times brings hope to the sport. Love between players and support for one another is very heartwarming and relationships between all those at a football club are as strong as anything.
The story of Josh Cavallo will be interesting to follow. It is saddening to hear that already been subjected to abuse by fans although it is mildly encouraging to hear that the Australian league could be imposing sanctions on the Melbourne Victory fans. Cavallo’s career and his own fight to oppose homophobia within football will be crucial to the progress of the LGBTQ+ community. His ease and happiness with his own identity will hopefully encourage the current and next generation of players to express their true identity and even more importantly encourage those of a different sexual orientation to participate in the ‘beautiful game’ and open the sport up to a far more diverse group rather than limiting it to hyper masculine and heterosexual men. The culture within football must let go of it’s strict and limiting rules and become at ease with difference. It is important not only for establishments within football to enforce change but also communities and clubs around the world to support each other and allow football to become more inclusive and comfortable for everybody.