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.