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.

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Pride London 2013

You may remember last year I marched with Families Together London for Pride. Last Saturday we did it all again, except with better weather and, I think, bigger crowds.

I thought I’d share some of the photos I took. I’d also love to find any photos or video of me or the Families Together London group taken by others. If you see any (or took some!) please let me know in the comments, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Google+, by telegram, or by street mime.

Click/tap/waft to embiggen…

Pride and visibility

Last Saturday I marched through central London as part of World Pride 2012. I was with friends as part of the Families Together London group, helping boost their numbers and generally pointing my camera around the place. (I’m not directly associated with FTL but they do good work.)

For me Pride is about visibility above all. Visibility for the marchers and their causes, of course, and also visibility for the faces in the crowd. And it’s an amazing crowd, all the way from Baker Street to Whitehall: smiles, cheers, clapping, cameras. Families of all kinds and ages. Tourists and locals. Straight people and GLBT.

Visibility for straight people in the crowd at a pride march might seem an odd concept. But it’s a kind of solidarity. Sure, you’ll get a small fraction of homophobes waving their prejudices, and a chunk expecting some kind of freak show. They’re not worth getting too worked up about as long as they’re not causing any trouble — it’s a free country, for small values of free. The vast majority of the straight people in the crowd are supportive, and happy to be seen to be supportive. That form of visibility is unquestionably a good thing, equally as good and important as the visibility of GLBT marchers.

But what struck me while marching, as it did at my last Pride two years ago (I was unwell in 2011), was the number of gay couples in the crowd. They were lined along almost the entire route: holding hands, or with arms around each other in every configuration, or just being together. No worried glances around, concerned about the reactions of others. Simply couples and families in the crowd, alongside and no different to other couples, other families. Being visible.

Prejudice evaporates by pressure of numbers, because bigots are bullies, and bullies are cowards, and cowards shrink and fold and crumble when outnumbered.

And prejudice evaporates by familiarity, because people fear the unfamiliar, the different. Visibility shows that GLBT people are not that unfamiliar, and not that different.

And this is one of the reasons why (cue the inevitable plug) my own stories include strong gay characters: for visibility. That doesn’t mean my stories are written exclusively for a gay audience, although some aspects of a story might resonate more with gay readers.

Sometimes, as in Till Undeath Do Us Part, the sexuality of the characters is almost entirely irrelevant to the story.  In my next book, The Pink and the Grey, the sexuality of the characters is more to the fore — though not in an X-rated way. Events centre mostly around a fictional Cambridge college, St Paul’s, slap bang in the middle of the city and very much the gay college — just as the real Newnham College is a women’s college. But the core of the plot isn’t about sexuality. It’s just the backdrop upon which the action takes place.

Which is a bit like Pride, I suppose. And like Pride, St Paul’s is a bit short of cash…