Anthony vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda

I turned seventeen in the spring of 1986. Days later Chernobyl’s nuclear power station huffed radiation across northern Europe, causing sheep to glow in the Scottish Highlands (subs: please check). At the time, the Soviet Union’s fresh, thrusting, young fifty-something leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was shouldering the tiller in an attempt to turn the supertanker USSR ninety degrees to starboard. Words like glasnost and perestroika were becoming commonplace on news bulletins.

Glasnost: openness

Perestroika: restructuring

Despite the pre-roasted lamb courtesy of an over-sugared Ukrainian microwave, it was an optimistic time in geopolitics (strokes beard). Like most of my generation, I’d assumed I would perish in a nuclear fireball, ash on the wind, not least because in those days we lived twenty minutes from a US air base housing several of “our” ICBMs. Gorbachev seemed to be leading us onto a different path.

And so it proved: for a while.

Aged seventeen, my own personal glasnost was stalled awaiting some cerebral perestroika. I was as closeted as a partially melted fuel rod under a hasty sarcophagus. And around us on the analogue eighties airwaves swirled HIV and AIDS, a geiger counter that ticked more urgently each week. Adverts, posters, leaflets, even school assemblies. Condoms on TV!

I honestly don’t know how my friends and family would’ve reacted had I come out then, all pimply and non-bald. I was in suffocating denial, even as I knew. Such is the plastic teen brain, such is the ability of humans to hold contradictory notions simultaneously. Crushes were crushed, neatly compartmentalised, boxed and ribboned and jettisoned and retrieved and reopened.

I’m sure one of my friends knew, or suspected. She wasn’t daft. I remember we skirted the subject once, a few years later at college. An idle have you ever wondered question, over student crumpets. Even then, I wasn’t ready. It would’ve been so easy, a couple of words. It would’ve changed nothing, and everything.

In 1986, there were no role models for a seventeen-year-old boy in my position. On TV, beyond the tumbling AIDS icebergs and red-faced ministers stammering through discussions of sexual practices, we had only high camp, sexless figures, and the inevitable haunted queer who coughs at the end of act one. Channel 4 showed the occasional late-night movie of a pink persuasion, barely audible above the braying and honking of faux-scandalised MPs and Mary Whitehouse. This was hardly a rainbow-rimmed invitation to come out over the Sunday beef (the lamb was off).

Newspapers? “EastBenders”. Say no more.

Movies? I wasn’t 18. And I’d never have had the courage.

Books? I remember looking. I’d never have bought anything: that would’ve collapsed the quantum unicorn wave function, Schrödinger’s Teen forced out of his box. Sometimes I’d stand in a bookshop, heart thumping, and read a page or two from something — I remember A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White.

Today’s seventeen year olds — in many countries, at least — inhabit a better world, if their parents and grandparents will let them keep it and survive it. This is a world of Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country. Of Drag Race, of the gender-blind First Dates. Of Noah Can’t Even, of Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda (Love, Simon in movie form). Even Trump’s America can’t stuff these back in the closet. The major corporations seem to have jumped on board the rainbow train, albeit with occasional jitters. That particular skirmish, though not the war, might be almost won.

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I wonder how the seventeen-year-old me would’ve reacted to Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda. Perhaps it would’ve given me the courage to come out, to take that risk even amongst the shoulder pads and approaching menace of Thatcher’s Section 28. The current me would disappear in a glittery pop, of course. Things would’ve progressed differently: other choices made, other universes forked. Even so.

Reading Simon now, aged approximately 104, the book filled me with joy. Sure, I’m a soppy middle-aged bloke wishing he could have his time again (minus: exams, three-eyed sheep; plus: self-confidence). Sure, there’s a heaped tablespoon of optimism and pink-washing of what it must actually be like as a closeted teen in the American South.

But the message of hope. The non-noxious radiation of love and warmth. Wonder, discovery, dreams, redemption. The relentless positivity and promise of Obama’s path to the future, rather than Trump’s crazy paving.

I could’ve read it in one sitting — if I were actually seventeen and could survive on no sleep. Rationed to a few chapters a night, the book kept worming into my thoughts during the day. I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It made me grin, and gasp, and weep (see: soppy old man).

I wasn’t expecting this. I suspect I needed it.

One brief moment in a glorious exile from Trump/Brexit lunacy, spending time in the world I never dreamed could exist when Chernobyl melted into our vocabularies, but which now feels no more than a fingertip out of reach.

My fear is that it has begun to recede.

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And with one bound, he was free

Robbie Rogers is playing football again, for LA Galaxy. He’s the first openly gay player in the MLS — the North American equivalent of the Premier League. And he wants to make the US team for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

I simply could not be happier about this.

The story of Robbie Rogers renders the core of Disunited almost a historical curiosity, given the book’s about a young player coming out — and I knew that would happen, and I hoped it would happen. But until a British player comes out and carries on playing over here, the book won’t become entirely irrelevant. Even so, I’m glad I followed my instincts and published early: by now I suspect I’d have binned the manuscript, or rewritten great chunks in a blue funk.

Today sees the last match of the domestic season: the Championship play-off final, considered the richest game in football. The winners — this time, either Crystal Palace or Watford — join the big boys and the rivers of gold in the Premier League. Since I started on Disunited I’ve been convinced a British player would come out in the close season that follows today’s match. Now Rogers is playing again, I think it’s even more likely.

Start the clock: 82 days and counting.

By the way: I dropped the prices of Disunited and The Pink and the Grey in ebook format recently. They’re now £1/€1/$2 cheaper: ideal summer holiday reading, if you ask me.

The FA is to blame for discrimination in football

Dear David Bernstein,

You must have a splendid view from up there, perched atop football’s pyramid as Chairman of the Football Association — at least until Greg Dyke replaces you in July. I wonder how the state of the game looks to you? The top clubs are awash with cash, the players are paid weekly fortunes, and the grounds are full — in the Premier League, anyway. Lower down the divisions, teams aren’t so lucky. The national team recently beat San Marino 8-0, which would be cause for celebration if only a team existed that couldn’t beat San Marino 8-0, and struggling to a 1-1 draw against lowly Montenegro hardly fills any England supporter with confidence for the Brazil World Cup next year.

As you edge towards the door marked Exit, you must be thinking about legacy. Have I left the game in better shape than I found it? What changes did I make to have a positive effect on players, on coaches, on clubs, at every tier of football?

Derived from photo at https://www.facebook.com/therobbierogersI hope you read today’s interview in the Guardian with Robbie Rogers. Any thoughts you might have had about how well you’ve tackled discrimination should be banished utterly, replaced by shame.

Watch the video. Look into his eyes as he talks about “the homophobic culture” within the game. How he, plainly, wants to keep playing. In the printed interview, he says: “Most days I wake up and I go to my computer and look at my emails and then go onto the football sites. Football will always be part of me.”

You shouldn’t need me to tell you this: you need players like Robbie Rogers in football. Positive role models. Articulate, intelligent, passionate, thoughtful. Not thugs and bullies, in and out of car showrooms, in and out of trouble, in and out of court.

Why have you driven Rogers away from the game? Why is he allowed to retire, and the others given every incentive to keep playing? Why has nothing been done about the homophobic culture pervading the sport?

Oh, yes, you’ve written an action plan. You’ve made a few statements and partnered with other organisations, and “pledged full support” for the Football v Homophobia campaign. During February and March you “focused” on the issue, setting a goal of signing up 150 clubs to the campaign. So far, you’ve got 48.

So much for action. So much for leadership.

I’m sure you’re not a homophobe yourself. It’s a financial calculation, perhaps. Who’s driving the culture? The supporters. Who pays the bills? The supporters. You want them to keep paying ever-increasing ticket prices. You don’t want to alienate them.

I think it’s telling that the FA has taken four months and counting to “investigate” anti-semitism against Spurs fans by West Ham supporters. Are you, perhaps, waiting for everyone to forget about it?

It’s funny, isn’t it, how other sports don’t have this problem. Gareth Thomas came out and carried on playing rugby. Steven Davies came out and carried on playing cricket. Orlando Cruz came out and carried on boxing.

And yet still, nobody is out in football in this country. It cannot possibly be true that there are no gay footballers currently playing in the UK. But they don’t even feel happy talking in confidence to Robbie Rogers. They are scared. The culture of football — the sport you run — prevents them from being themselves.

Here’s what Robbie Rogers says in the interview:

“In football it’s obviously impossible to come out – because no-one has done it. No one. It’s crazy and sad.”

“I don’t think I would have been able to go training the next day. That would be so scary.”

“I might be strong enough but I don’t know if that’s really what I want. I’d just want to be a footballer.”

He just wants to play football. And he doesn’t feel he can. What a legacy.

I have some suggestions for you. Real actions you can take, with your colleagues in the Football League.

First, tie the behaviour of fans directly to a club’s position in the league. If an independent observer at a match identifies any discriminatory chanting or other actions, the club is punished with a severe points deduction. Further such behaviour results in further, increased deductions. (In cup matches, order replays or disqualifications.)

Second, any player, coach or official found to have made racist, homophobic or otherwise discriminatory statements on or off the pitch should be barred from the game in all formats, permanently. That is what “no tolerance” actually means. If that’s too strong, introduce a three-strikes rule and ever-increasing bans: eight matches, one season, life.

Third, if you’re looking for someone to present to the teams at the FA Cup Final in May, I hear Robbie Rogers is free.

Warm regards,

Anthony.

Thoughts on Robbie Rogers

robbie-rogers-headerI had a feeling it was coming. Like the Richard-III-under-the-car-park lady whose every nerve fizzed when she peered at a dried-up old tibia in a trench, I sensed an outing was afoot. It’s why I published Disunited as rapidly as I could.

Robbie Rogers, of Leeds United and the US international team, has come out. He’s not — and I’m sure he’d be the first to agree — the most famous footballing name in this country. At least, he wasn’t. But it was never likely to be someone at the very top of the game who would be first to jump out of the closet.

All the reaction I’ve seen on Twitter and elsewhere to Rogers’ announcement has been positive: from his teammates, from the authorities, from respected elders such as the blessed Gary Lineker (crisps be upon him), and of course from the gay community. To my surprise even people sending him messages on Twitter — numbering in the several thousands it seems — appear universally to be praising him. If there are negative reactions, they’re drowned out by the positive. It’s a heartwarming response.

But the good wishes are sprinkled with disappointment. Please don’t retire. Put your boots back on. Shame you had to quit.

The sad truth is that Rogers has decided to stop playing, with immediate effect. He’s not, after all, going to be the first out gay player in the British game since Justin Fashanu: he’s going to be one of the many sportsmen who waited until retirement before coming out.

In fact it’s worse: he retired, seemingly, expressly so he could come out.

Read his statement.

“Fear that judgment and rejection would hold me back from my dreams and aspirations.”

“Fear that my secret would get in the way of my dreams.”

“Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work.”

Painfully honest, and moving, and damning.

No outpouring of support and best wishes and congratulations from teammates and authorities and elders and strangers can whitewash the blunt truth: even today, even after anti-discrimination laws, even after civil partnerships, even after the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to support equal marriage, in football it seems you can be gay — or you can play.

The sport should be ashamed of this reality.

It is not enough the Professional Footballers’ Association bland-tweeting vacuousness like this:

It “fully supports” a “courageous decision”. As Danny Prince’s agent Cherie would say in Disunited: “Of course it bleedin’ does. What they gonna say, titter titter don’t drop the soap?

The FA has issued a similarly weedy press release. Eight short paragraphs — three of which aren’t about Rogers at all — patting itself on the back for doing the barest minimum.

Messages like these from the FA and PFA are sonar pings: simple acknowledgements of simple truths. Glossy FA brochures and platitudes about “support” cannot make up for the years of fudging, of shelved campaigns, of pocket-money fines, of lack of any substantial action.

In my view the leadership of the PFA and the FA should be prostrating themselves before the media begging forgiveness. They should be admitting that their organisations have failed utterly to support gay players, by not speaking out and acting more strongly against homophobia within the game. Homophobia such as anti-gay chanting from travelling supporters towards the home crowd at Brighton and Hove Albion, which has become worse in recent years. Even last Tuesday the Blackburn Rovers player Colin Kazim-Richards allegedly made homophobic gestures towards fans on “at least five occasions” during their match at Brighton. Kazim-Richards is an official campaigner for Kick It Out, the FA’s anti-racism initiative.

The authorities take racist behaviour seriously, and yet don’t seem to treat homophobia in football the same way. This fails gay supporters — of which there are many — and it fails gay players.

It is the responsibility of the FA and the PFA to make the game safe for gay players to come out, just as it is their responsibility to rid the game of racism to allow players of all backgrounds to succeed.

Just as the game — not the player — would be shamed if a non-white player retired rather than play in an atmosphere of hate, the game is shamed when a gay man like Robbie Rogers does the same.

Read these sentences again:

The FA: “The Football Association has offered its full support to former Leeds United winger Robbie Rogers after he came out as gay.”

The PFA: “The PFA fully supports Robbie Rogers in taking the courageous decision to announce that he is gay.”

Robbie Rogers: “Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work.”

Out now: Disunited

DisunitedGood news, everyone! You can now buy Disunited for Kindle in the usual places, such as Amazon UK and Amazon US. It’s also available for Kobo, and via Lulu for other ePub-capable ereaders.

In the next few days, fingers crossed, the book will also be available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch on the Apple iBookstore. And within a week or so it should appear on Amazon in paperback form.

UPDATE Feb 1st: It’s also now available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, and on Amazon in paperback.

As usual the cover has been designed by Blogshank. I love it.

The story’s just over 97,000 words in total and the paperback runs to 326 pages. Fans of Thora Hird, and I know there are many, will be delighted to learn that she does indeed make her traditional ceremonial appearance.

As always I’m grateful for any and all feedback, positive or negative. Feel free to leave reviews on Amazon or wherever you park your cursor. Tell your friends! Buy it for your family! Convince me I should narrate the audiobook!

But first, I’m going for a lie down.

Coming soon: Disunited

footballerA couple of years ago I wrote a short story — very short, only about 1500 words — set in the dusty office of the manager of a football club. A young, talented member of his team came to him with a confession: he was gay. More than that, he wanted to come out publicly. The story played out as an exchange between the two, with a not particularly twisty twist at the end.

It was inspired by the then-recent decision of FIFA, football’s world governing body, to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. For an organisation allegedly committed to stamping out discrimination in the game, the decision was and remains incomprehensible: homosexuality is barely tolerated in much of Russia, and is illegal in Qatar. It’s as if FIFA had awarded the World Cup of 1978 to South Africa, at the height of apartheid.

The player in my short story looked ahead to 2022, when he might be out, happily married, with kids — and playing for England. Would the FA not allow him to be selected, to avoid offending the hosts? Would Qatar turn him away at the airport, along with any other players that might be out by then? Of course not.

The authorities in Qatar could surely do nothing but let him and the others play, or risk the condemnation of the international community. They would have to let in his partner, if he had one. Any other action would be intolerable, and worthy of a boycott.

I’m sure that by 2022 this won’t be a hypothetical scenario. I’m convinced that there’ll be out gay male players in the top football leagues around the world, and it’s more likely than not that at least one of the 32 national teams in Qatar will field an out gay player.

But currently there are none at the highest levels of the game, nationally or internationally: the only out gay man currently playing is Anton Hysén, in the third division of the Swedish league. In Britain, the only out gay player so far has been Justin Fashanu, twenty years ago, in a different world.

I don’t believe this will remain the case for long. I think that within a year — possibly this summer, between seasons — someone playing in the English or Scottish Premier League will come out. I don’t know who, I don’t know where — I have no inside information — it just feels as if it will happen. A momentum seems to be building, almost as if a growing number of people are being let into a secret and then voicing their support without naming names. Eventually there’ll be a critical mass, a tipping point, and the unnamed player or players will come out. Perhaps: I don’t know.

But this gut feeling is why I’m in a hurry to publish my next book.

Called Disunited, it’s set at a football club I don’t name, in a city I don’t name, in the present day. It’s about a newly signed rising star of the game called Danny Prince who becomes — reluctantly — the first British player to come out since Fashanu. It’s my usual mix of humour and seriousness, and — in case you might be put off — it’s not a football book, full of arcane gags about the offside rule. The first top footballer who comes out in the UK today will face many struggles on and off the pitch — dealing with his teammates, his manager, and not least his supporters — but the story’s about universal human worries: loyalty, honesty, risks, relationships, and remaining true to yourself.

The book will be out in early February, which happily coincides with the Football v Homophobia month of action and LGBT history month. I’ll publish a sneak preview here when it’s available.

Or maybe a real-life player will beat me to it…