Ex-Everton, Villa and West Ham player Thomas Hitzlsperger has come out but only after he retired - if an active footballer did that, it might be a different matter...
So, what did we learn from Amal Fashanu’s documentary on the lack of openly gay footballer’s in the British game? Very little if I’m honest. To get to the heart of the matter would’ve taken more than just an hour long programme and would have required someone with a more in depth knowledge of the subject. Just as Freddie Flintoff had attempted to delve into the deep waters of depression only for him to merely scratch the surface, Amal’s background of being the niece of the only footballer to ever have openly revealed his homosexuality was deemed more than enough to be able carry such a delicate, yet weighty issue. It wasn’t.
The finger of blame was mostly pointed in the direction of football fans, managers, the rich white men who populate board rooms and footballers themselves. Disappointingly, there were no managers or chairmen questioned whether they could do more to build the right environment for a player to come out. This left fans and footballers as the two main targets of condemnation and as a footballer myself, I took this to heart. We’re not the monsters the media would have you believe.
The tragic story of her uncle, Justin Fashanu, was only worsened by her realization that her father, John, had condemned his brother for his actions and ostracized him from the family in a way that can only be described as “unbrotherly”. How inconvenient it must have been for his brother to step out from his life of lies and reveal his true self. It’s a sad indictment of the environment professional football was in those days.
Times have changed though. Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson are no longer the staple of our Saturday night TV and neither are our pitches filled with homophobic Neanderthals. In all honesty, I couldn’t think of a more welcoming place to reveal your sexual preferences than inside a footballer’s dressing room. If anything, the program clarified this.
I’m 100% sure that every other player in our squad would not bat an eyelid if one of the lads called a private meeting and announced to us that he was gay. His proclamation would be met with a hug and an appreciation how hard it must have been for him to come out. Christ, if Millwall players are coming out and endorsing the acceptance of homosexuality within the playing fraternity, you can’t be denying that attitudes have moved on (Millwall’s Steve Mildenhall, who took part in the interview, is a good friend of mine and every word he said would be echoed in clubs up and down the country).
Whilst I admit that scenario has never happened, I have been involved in teams where players have suggested they were bi-sexual and it’s been greeted in a matter of fact way that makes a mockery of the general consensus it would never happen. It’s this assumption that the lack of acceptance from fellow teammates stops gay players from coming forward that has always baffled me. If you could be a fly on the wall for one day and witness all of the pseudo-sexual activity that goes on, you’d probably assume we were mostly gay anyway.
In 2012, the dressing room is a much more forgiving place than everyone would imagine
Our self appointed spokesman on everything, Joey Barton, has been the target of some criticism from myself in the past but there’s no denying that his appearance added a bit of gravitas to my belief that hetero footballers aren’t the reason for the invisibility of homosexuals in the game. He spoke from personal experience and deserves every bit of credit that comes his way for associating himself with the program. Which is more than can be said for the others who were asked to participate. I mean, it’s all well and good me coming out and saying that I’d welcome any gay footballer’s decision to come out but it’s not going to bring as much attention as if someone like Rio Ferdinand came out and said it. Rio’s refusal to give his endorsement to the cause was sad but probably understandable for someone who still deems it acceptable to use the word “faggot” when trying to degrade someone. Which is surprising since he has done so much to help stamp out other forms of bigotry from within the game. As with the other players mentioned, his non-appearance can only do him harm.
I’ve always been baffled by current footballers who are reluctant to come forward and even speak in favour of gay players coming out, in fear of being labelled gay themselves. In 2012, the dressing room is a much more forgiving place than everyone would imagine. If they’d have asked me, I’d have told them it didn’t matter one jot whether a teammate likes men, women or both. The crux of my bemusement probably lies in the fact that I don’t care if anyone thought I was gay or not. That’s the honest truth. Maybe that’s down to my age and being more comfortable with being myself no matter what others think but I’ve always been that way. In the past, the fact I can string more than five coherent words together whilst carrying a copy of The Times under my arm would have been enough evidence to have me labelled gay. But that was then.
There’s no doubt it’s still going to take a cast-iron character to come forward, even in these enlightened times. Unfortunately, whoever follows in Justin Fashanu’s footsteps will have their career and personal life overshadowed by their sexuality. They will become the ambassador of the gay community in the world’s biggest sports and have to carry the burden of being an historic pioneer around with them. Can you imagine the coverage and then the subsequent handling of the story? How long would it be before the tabloids are raking around in bins, trying to unearth other footballers who may be connected with the poor soul who is brave enough to take all this on?
And if that’s not enough to cope with, you have to deal with the torrent of vile abuse that is guaranteed to come your way from the terraces. Look at it that way and you cease to wonder why no one will step out of the shadows. If it was me, I’d just want a quiet life and hope the world will let me be who I was born to be, without having to have any extra pressures on me. Perhaps, that’s what they want, too.
The media and the general public attack footballers on this subject like a starving dog gnawing at a shank of lamb but we’re not the reason homosexuality is a taboo subject. If they really want to know why Britain doesn’t have any openly gay footballers, they should look in the mirror and ask themselves.
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