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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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…