Appearing in print since 1976

captain-britain-meMy first appearance in print was in a Captain Britain comic in 1976. A less exciting debut than it sounds: I’d been to a event in London, met Stan Lee (praise be upon him) and got his autograph — plus Spider-Man’s — and was photographed holding up my copy of the recently published collection of origin stories, Bring on the Bad Guys. A few weeks later a black-and-white photo of my innocent young face appeared in Captain Britain issue ten.

I have several copies.

Almost ten years elapsed before I next graced the pages of a publication. This was Your Spectrum, one of the many computer magazines that flourished in the home computer boom of the mid-eighties. Proto-hacker that I was, I’d submitted an article about the recently released game Jet Set Willy II in which I’d worked out how to gain infinite lives and other exciting cheats. I also included a full map. As the game had only been out for a week or two at the time, I felt this was a mighty achievement worthy of celebration and payment.

An article duly appeared a few months later — curse magazine lead times — and my name appeared proudly against the piece surrounded by chirpy eighties italics. Sadly, it was the third of three credits: a couple of other writers had obviously been struck by the same idea. Very few of my words remained, but if you squinted you could see the article was derived from the text I’d given them. The head of the axe had been replaced, and so had the handle, but the strapping between them was unchanged, and it was all mine. And there I was, in print again.

I have several copies.

Fast-forward to today. I stand in WH Smith (other newsagents are available) leafing through the April 2013 issue of FourFourTwo magazine (other footballing magazines are available). I reach page twenty-five (other page numbers are available). And there, at the lower right, is a print review of Disunited.

It’s a very short piece, merely a brief precis and one sentence of commentary. It’s a shame there wasn’t space for a more in-depth review — and, selfishly, a cracking line I could lift for promotional purposes — but as an unknown author I’ll take what I can get in the magical world of mainstream media. It’s a decent review in print that 90,000 readers will see, and that’s no bad thing.

I didn’t buy a copy. I don’t want to make a habit out of it.

Advertisements

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.”

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…

The equality wagon

road-sign

 

Reality is so much worse and so much better than advertised in the brochure.

It is forty years since any human looked up at Earth from the surface of the Moon and yet we are exploring the solar system and beyond, with automated probes dancing around the planets and near-autonomous robots poking around Martian rocks with an electro-nasal-trowel and a laser. We are an overpopulated planet greedy for moar of all the things and starting to pay the environmental price, and yet we can be in touch with (almost) anyone, (almost) anywhere, (almost) anytime, in ways that would astound and bemuse even our younger selves, let alone our candlelit, sheet-draped ancestors.

Some governments around the world still try to suppress or deny or punish homosexuality in every possible way, often with the tacit or active support of some religions. And yet other countries are hurtling along the motorway to full or near-full equality. Not altogether painlessly, it must be said. The equality wagon is moving at a hefty clip, but one wheel does have an alarming wobble and the windscreen wipers are scraping dry smears into the driver’s eye line.

And that’s why here in the UK we’re apparently heading for a classic British fudge over equal marriage. Worse than true equality, better than being mugged by a gang of rabid vicars.

If the bill passes as proposed, it’ll be a hodge-podge of opt-ins, quadruple locks and placatory flannel, ensuring — in fact, enshrining in law — that same-sex couples may be discriminated against by entire faiths or by individuals, in a kind of à la carte smorgasbigotry.

It’s a funny kind of equality.

But hey, we should be grateful, I suppose. In the UK every mile travelled in the last twenty years has been in the same direction: forward. The wagon lost its reverse gear just after Section 28.

This assumes, of course, that the bill passes. It looks certain to succeed in the House of Commons, despite the legions of Tory MPs trying to hurl javelins into the spokes. The House of Lords may prove a more formidable opponent, containing as it does not only older, traditionally more small-c conservative types, but also twenty-six bishops in the Church of England, who by gracious virtue of fudges passim still have a place in the legislature. The Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal together might yet conspire to erect a diversion, like Wile E Coyote with an ACME hole-in-a-wall sticker, which our careering equality wagon might or might not successfully navigate unflattened.

Let’s assume the bill passes. What then?

It is surely inevitable that, one by one, the religious cul-de-sacs and chicanes will disappear in a series of highly contentious roadworks over years, perhaps decades. Some churches might even split into factions — it would hardly be unprecedented. The Church of England itself might schism, over this issue and women bishops, which gives me the excuse to chuck the word disestablishmentarianism into the blog as if I know what I’m talking about. In truth I cannot see the wagon stopping now, or U-turning — at least in the UK.

What’s also inevitable is that as homosexuality continues to become increasingly normalised in society — marriage being one of the last great gated communities closed to the equality wagon — then the final taboos become even more unsustainable. You never know: we might even see that most rare of creatures, an out gay footballer at the top of the game.

And on that subject I will have more to say…