Another gay footballer at last?

The older I get, the closer I come to losing it entirely at Pride — in a good way. I marched again this year, and the waters rose first somewhere along Regent Street, when the shockwave of joy and smiles and rainbows and goddamn whistles and acceptance and unrelenting positivity finally buffeted my inner Eeyore into submission. And second, on the train home a few hours later, opposite a glittery baby gay all arms and legs at his first Pride: with his family, so happy, so free.

I blinked away the tears. I stared at the watery suburbs sloshing by.

I’ve been out almost twenty years now — plus a decade of silence. In that time I’ve seen once unthinkable changes, like rainbow flags on government buildings, serving uniforms marching at Pride, and equal marriage. And the pendulum has inevitably swung the other way, too — anti-trans bigotry, and Trump.

And still the forever war of toxic masculinity, pervading and devouring, the black mould in the grouting of life. It’s the source of that voice in my head that forces me always to be careful, to not let down my guard, to behave, to be closed and not open.

It’s that toxicity in wider society, that lingering stench, which has ensured top-flight male football in the UK is still ostensibly exclusively straight. It’s thirty years since Justin Fashanu. It’s five years since I wrote Disunited, convinced a player was sure to come out prepublication to steal my thunder. Robbie Rogers came out soon after — but never played in the UK again.

And now this:

It might be fake — but it might be real. The last taboo, as Disunited’s blurb put it, might finally break. It’s an exciting prospect. The thought triggers those emotions again. The joy, the freedom, the ability of this player to finally be himself.

The time is right. Half a century since Stonewall, and another giant leap in the news, we might finally see an out gay male footballer take one small step onto an English professional pitch.

Coming out is a political act. Being visible is a political act. They polarise: but at least you know who’s not on your side. If we’ve learned anything in the UK from the three years since the EU referendum, it’s that many thousands of people remain obtusely blinkered to the modern world, unwilling to adapt to society’s changes. The only constants in life are change, and the existence of a chunk of the populace in denial about it.

Let’s assume it’s true, and our player comes out before the start of the next football season. What happens? We’ll be able to divide the reactions into three: true friends, false friends, and enemies.

First, the true friends. His own real-life friends, no doubt: he’s a player in his early 20s, according to his Twitter feed (not too distant in age from Danny Prince in Disunited) and he’ll have friends for whom his sexuality is irrelevant. He may have LGBT friends, and a partner. The club officials and his fellow players will support him, as will the LGBT supporters groups that have flowered at all levels of the footballing pyramid over the last few years. The FA and EFL will say positive things — more positive than a few years ago. FA president and aspiring baldie the Duke of Cambridge will be supportive too. Other out sporting stars will stand with him, like Robbie Rogers, Tom Daley, and the mass of LGBT women in sport already such as the amazing Megan Rapinoe. Whichever incompetent is running the government will undoubtedly bleat words of encouragement while briefly surfaced for air in the Brexit cesspool.

The enemies will make themselves rapidly known. It’s funny how the era of Trump and Farage et al has allowed closeted fascists to themselves come out, to reveal their true natures — a political act indeed.

The false friends cause me most alarm. The player will need to rely on a close, trusted group to guide him along these twisty passages. I can only draw on history, which may be an unreliable indicator, but I have two main concerns.

First, the spectators: the crowd, the mob. In the away end, even the largest LGBT supporters group, even with allies, can’t outshout a stadium baying at full voice. When it happens — it will happen — the authorities must act swiftly and harshly. And I fear they won’t: players of colour are still racially abused today, and bananas still fly from the stands in games in Europe. I have no confidence that the dodgy combovers haunting the FA and the EFL will do more than waft press releases and inconsequential fines in the general direction of offenders. (And here’s a thought: our newly out player might not be white.)

A quick point 1.5: other players. Sooner or later someone will say something homophobic on the pitch to try to intimidate him. I don’t expect this to be a common problem, but neither do I trust the authorities to do anything significant about it.

Secondly, and more importantly, the fourth estate: Her Majesty’s Press, and to a lesser extent the TV companies. Certain things just seem inevitable. Hold on to your pyjamas, here comes a bulleted list. They will:

  • Praise him for coming out, and compete for the first gushing interview.
  • Hunt down and throw money at his friends, especially ex-girlfriends, if any exist.
  • Out (or nudge-nudge the sexuality of) anyone he knows, especially close footballers, if they think they can get away with it.
  • Speculate about boyfriends past and present and future.
  • Dig into his history on social media for anything remotely controversial, especially related to sexuality.
  • Clutch their pearls at everything they deem to be the slightest deviation from the straight (sic) and narrow.
  • Assume he’s a bottom.
  • Build him up, and knock him down.

There’ll be intense interest in the first match he plays after coming out. His every move will be scrutinised. Every stereotype will be overlaid like tracing paper on his actions. Every poor choice will trigger the question, either spoken or unspoken: Does this mean gays can’t play football? It doesn’t matter that it’s nonsense. If it sells papers or clicks, they’ll write it.

And we’ll hear every joke. Kissing on the pitch. Showering together. Euphemisms regarding tackles. “He’s not used to that position.” “Drama queen.” When he moves clubs, he’ll have “played for both sides”.

And there will be Piers Morgan. I’m sorry, but it’s some kind of law, apparently.

I’m sure our player knows to expect all this — I’m sure it’s why he and other players haven’t already come out. I can only imagine the stress, the second-guessing, the tumble of consequences in his mind right now as the time nears. That milestone dividing the before and the after, the unknown-and-known times from the known-and-unknown.

I hope he sees the opportunities. I hope he sees the amazing, positive, empowering message he can send. I hope it triggers more players, present and past, to come out.

I can’t wait for Pride next year.

Trying not to map paving slabs

A few days ago, as a friend and I were chatting about The Pauline Conversion, he said he’d bet any money I’d researched it to within an inch of its life. He believed I wouldn’t be happy until I’d followed every research thread to its end, mapping every paving slab and shop front of Cambridge in February 1972 to be sure the story played out in a historically accurate setting.

I laughed. He’s not right, but neither can I say he’s entirely wrong. The truth is, research is the best way to keep my flat clean. When I need to research something – say, the miners’ strike in progress at the time of the story – I approach it as I would a rattlesnake doing its little dance. I run away screaming.

It’s not that I don’t want to know what happened, or don’t want to do the research. I enjoy knowing. I enjoy learning more about things that interest me. The problem is, I’m a details person and I can be a bit of an obsessive. Research has an inertia for me: hard to start, hard to stop.

And I know I’m like this: hence the procrastination.

Research lays a number of traps for the unwary.

First: I researched it and you’re damn well going to know it. You know the sort of book. The author vomits every factoid in his research notebook into the manuscript to justify the time spent discovering it. The precise shade of blusher under a talcum face and wig. The twirl of brass on a pistol. The manufacturing history of a pair of contemporary bloomers. The author’s trying to paint a picture with too many megapixels. I don’t think I suffer from this: I try to make details serve the story as much as possible, or add a smattering of colour, or at least be an excuse for a joke.

Similarly, the past is a foreign country, endlessly fascinating, and it’s easy to dwell upon the differences – “only 7 1/2p for a bag of chips!” – and the multitude of hats, and forget that to the characters this is the now, the normal. Although a book might be written almost as the memoir of a participant, it’s best to avoid the literary equivalent of pointing and sniggering. There are always exceptions – for stories that flit back and forth in time, for example. But comparing then to now brings the certainty that, before long, now becomes then and the book exists in two time periods: when it was set and when it was written.

To put it another way: all books, even novels set in the present day, are historical. (Some day Disunited will be a curiosity in a world where out gay professional male footballers are normal and common. I hope it happens soon.)

Another risk is the possibility the research becomes more interesting than the book. I was worried I’d be knocking on the library doors at 7am desperate for my fix of 1972 local newspapers, fast becoming the world’s foremost authority on postwar Sidney Street roadworks. An honourable title, to be sure, but unlikely to power a page-turner.

And there’s the risk that sometimes becomes a gift: the wondrous, terrifying prospect of the author finding a piece of information that upends the entire story. Is it crisis or opportunity? That’s part of the fun of research. And by fun, I mean nightmare. The author never knows if, lurking over the page, is a photo that burns the plot to vapour. This worry can spur research far beyond what’s required to write the book.

Related to those last two: a discovery that real life events make a better story than the one the author had in mind. Truth really can be stranger than fiction – coincidences abound that would be laughed out of a novel. (Good fiction can get away with one coincidence at the start, to set the plot rolling, and that’s it.)

A pragmatic approach is best.

With The Pauline Conversion the vast majority of readers, most likely, didn’t experience February 1972 in Cambridge, or perhaps anywhere south of an ovary. But I had to assume a reasonable level of knowledge of that time, gleaned from popular culture and so on. Nationally and globally, I wanted to be as accurate as I could. I’d never have dropped a smartphone into 1972, but not everything is so clear-cut. TV remote controls? In the US, yes. They were rare to non-existent in the UK. Our house didn’t have a TV with a remote control until the late 1970s, and we were probably early adopters. So, no remote controls.

But did it matter that characters in a scene didn’t mention the rather large Tesco along the street at that time, even though it would’ve altered their behaviour? Absolutely not, since the store had no relevance to the story. (It would’ve mattered had characters later visited it for some reason: consistency is vital. As it happens I learned about this Tesco shortly before publication.) Local contemporary norms can be subverted, I suppose I’m saying.

Partially this is to allow the story to happen. St Paul’s is a fictional college superimposed upon a real geographical area, after all. And partially it’s because local knowledge can be tremendously hard to get right: the information just isn’t readily available at that level, if it exists at all. There are always people who know more than the author about the topic – local geography, terminology, technology, etc. That’s a fact of life. But a writer can’t read everything, can’t interview everyone, otherwise we’re back to mapping paving slabs. Immersing is great: drowning is bad.

Sometimes I’ll get things wrong by accident, and sometimes it’s better to fudge things to simplify matters. My goal is “factually correct” (aside from the obvious fiction of the story), but I’ll accept “not obviously wrong to the layman”.

Perfect is the enemy of good. Serving the story is the key. The author needs just enough research to get from beginning to end. Breadth, not depth.

For the mildly obsessive like me, that can feel like cheating. Like setting foot in a foreign country for the first time claiming to know the language, when you’ve no more than skimmed the “Useful phrases” section in the Lonely Planet guide and can order up to, but no more than, six beers. You want to know only enough to get by, to bluff your way through, because beyond a certain level of knowledge the time spent in research feels wasted.

I say “feels” because I do need to know more than appears in the finished book. A tourist in a foreign land who takes the effort to learn just that little bit more of the language gains a buffer of confidence (“seven beers” is so much more impressive than “six beers and one beer”, if an additional drinker appears unexpectedly). A similar buffer in my research lets me add nuance, a little depth, as long as I don’t start vomiting out my notebook.

There is a balance, somewhere, which I hope to find as I grope around in the dark.

My friend knows me well, of course: it’s true I learned a lot more about Cambridge in February 1972 than I actually needed to know. To return to his original point, I don’t think I researched The Pauline Conversion to within an inch of its life: but maybe to within a yard. About the length of a paving slab.

Disunited: HALF PRICE this week

The nice people at Stonewall UK, in conjunction with bookmakers Paddy Power, have launched a campaign to challenge footballers to support gay players. They’ve sent out rainbow laces to every footballer in 134 clubs across the UK, and want them all to wear the laces in next weekend’s matches. The campaign slogan is “Right Behind Gay Footballers” (see #RBGF on Twitter) and the campaign has the vocal support of current QPR footballer Joey Barton.

This is a fascinating and potentially cunning campaign. I can’t wait to see the results: will anyone wear the laces? And if they do, what will the reaction be from their teammates, and opponents, and the people in the stands?

And also, will mainstream media talk about any of this?

Homophobia in football — and especially the prospect of an out gay footballer playing at the top level in the UK — are issues close to my heart: see numerous blog posts and of course my comic novel, Disunited. My prediction that a player would come out over the summer break didn’t come true, but maybe this campaign could be the trigger for someone. I hope so.

You might wonder, since I wrote Disunited, whether I knew about the campaign in advance. I didn’t, but I certainly support it. (Interestingly, rainbow laces was an idea considered for the Disunited cover.)

Anyway, in a gibbering fit of excitement as a result of this campaign I’ve decided, for this week only, to halve the price for Disunited for Kindle owners.

New Kindle prices:

Tell all your friends! Share! Tweet!

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.

Jason Collins, the coming gold rush, and an interview

Since Disunited came out at the end of January we’ve now seen two male sports stars do the same — and a few female sports stars too, let’s not forget.

Jason Collins is the first NBA player to come out and continue playing. The second might be newsworthy too. The third? Meh. No longer a story — which is exactly how it should be. The first few male sportsmen to come out will have the pick of the sponsors. Those that follow will just feel secure in the knowledge that they’re doing nothing special — and nothing lucrative.

The gold rush starts now.

By a remarkable coincidence, just a day or so before Collins’ announcement I was interviewed about Disunited by the editor of Stonewall Times, the community magazine for LGBT players of Star Trek Online. A few of my lines now seem a little prescient:

Statistically it’s highly unlikely there are no gay players in the Premier League – or in the NFL, or NHL, or NBA, or any major sport.

And:

I’m still betting on a top player coming out this year, probably over the summer, and carrying on in the sport.

In the latter quote I was talking specifically about football, and post-Collins I’m even more convinced: in football and in other team sports, the time is right. Who will be next?

Read the full interview (reproduced with kind permission of the editor).

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.”