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.

Review: More Happy Than Not

More Happy Than Not – cover image
Please excuse the colour cast and the delicately distributed muck on top of my fridge.

It’s been a while since I’ve read an LGBT-themed book. Having finished Exo I saw the next few on my official to-read pile weren’t going to change that, so as a Christmas treat I decided to sneak in something new. Amazon opened its unwashed mac to show me a barely distinguishable selection of beefcake covers, and if you’ve read any of my books you’ll understand that’s not the sort of thing I write and it’s not my preferred reading material either.

I scrolled down, and saw a cover lacking both beef and cake. More Happy Than Not, by Adam Silvera. One blurb-skim later it plonked into my basket. It proved a fine choice.

I don’t remember reading anything like it before. A Bronx teen, Aaron Soto, struggles to figure himself out, torn between his girlfriend and a new, male best buddy, Thomas. Aaron’s father killed himself; his mother barely manages; his other friends run hot and cold, often violently. To Aaron, Thomas represents hope – and more? And threaded through the story, talk of a near-miraculous process offered by the Leteo Institute: the selective rewriting and deletion of memories.

A coming-of-age story, then, lifted by the generous peppering of a gritty setting and a dollop of SF mustard. In More Happy Than Not, no holds are barred, and teenage activities occur. This is not the (perfectly reasonable but) pastel, idealised world of some books. There are choices, and there are consequences. And the genre-mashing keeps you guessing, and keeps you reading, all the way.

Aaron is utterly believable: his thoughts, his feelings, his worries, all resonated to various degrees. The first-person present-tense style, not to everyone’s taste, brings an immediacy to a story focusing often on Aaron’s past and his future. I genuinely muttered “oh, god, don’t do that,” on at least one occasion, though I can neither confirm nor deny I was in a public place at the time and anyway it was noisy and nobody looked at me apart from that one lady.

I suppose if I were forced at knifepoint to find fault, I’d say I’d have liked the story to continue a little longer. That’s the reviewing equivalent to “my biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist,” I know. I guess some of the supporting characters feel a little interchangeable (not a great sin here). I can’t say whether the Bronx scenes are truthful in any way – my reality involves regular sightings of students in three-piece tweed, and consequently I’m an unreliable judge. It feels real enough, as does Aaron’s family and its fractured lives.

This is a book I rattled quickly through (always a good sign) and I wish I’d been able to read it as a teenager. The SF angle would’ve given me the excuse I’d have been looking for and it would have helped me, I’m sure. Oh, to be a teenager again (modulo school, acne, exams, climate change, Brexit, Trump… hmm, on second thoughts).

More Happy Than Not is Adam Silvera’s debut novel, which makes me both happy and envious. I look forward to his next dropping onto my pile soon.

What would Putin do?

It’s a big few years for sport in Russia. In a couple of weeks Moscow hosts the World Athletics Championships. Next January the Winter Olympics bandwagon stops in Sochi. And in 2018 FIFA’s World Cup peppers the country with 32 national teams playing the world’s most popular sport.

Meanwhile, let’s look at some of the laws Russia has recently passed.

July 3: Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law that means if you — gay or straight, single or married or civilly partnered — live in a country with any form of marriage equality, you will not be allowed to adopt a Russian-born child.

June 20: Putin signed a law allowing the Russian government to arrest, hold and then expel any foreign tourist who is gay or “pro-gay”. You could reasonably expect “pro-gay” activities to include showing the rainbow flag, or arguing for equality — very much considered acts of free speech in modern western democracies.

Earlier in June: Putin classified “homosexual propaganda” as pornography. A teacher in Russia must not state that homosexuality is OK and normal, for example. Worse than that: neither can a judge. Spouting such “propaganda” can lead to arrest and a fine.

Buzzfeed’s 36 Photos From Russia That Everyone Needs To See shows you in graphic detail what’s happening in that country as a result.

The heads of the IAAF, the IOC and FIFA should be worried. How does Russia’s behaviour match all the fine words on equality and anti-discrimination coming from these organisations? It doesn’t, plainly. And what are they going to do about it? Nothing, of course.

I’ve written before and at length about homophobia in football: FIFA blusters much and achieves zip; I don’t want to re-re-rehash that again here. In a statement the IOC claims the new laws won’t affect the Winter Olympics, saying “athletes of all orientations will be welcome at the Games.” There’s a petition calling for a stupid boycott: don’t sign it.

The IAAF, meanwhile, has been silent.

You won’t find any mention on the IAAF’s website of Russia’s new crackdown. The only gay is Tyson Gay. Google finds no mention on the site of the word “homosexual”, and only one instance of “sexuality”, used in an article from 2000 about an athlete who appeared naked in an advert.

Searching for Sexuality on iaaf.org

Now, I happen to have a copy of the IAAF Constitution to hand, along with its official Code of Ethics (these are all available on the IAAF website). In Article 3 of the IAAF Constitution, about the objectives of the IAAF, clauses 3.3 and 3.4 say:

3.3. To encourage participation in Athletics at all levels throughout the world regardless of age, gender or race.

3.4. To strive to ensure that no gender, race, religious, political or other kind of unfair discrimination exists, continues to exist, or is allowed to develop in Athletics in any form, and that all may participate in Athletics regardless of their gender, race, religious or political views or any other irrelevant factor.

Here’s the Code of Ethics, part A.1 (this applies to all IAAF officials):

A.1. No discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, political opinion or other such ground will be tolerated in Athletics, including in the IAAF Council, Committees, Commissions and other elected or appointed organs of the IAAF.

And here’s the IAAF Constitution again, under “Rights and obligations of members”, Article 4, clause 8(a):

4.8. Members shall have the following obligations of Membership:

4.8.(a) to respect and further the Objects set out in Article 3;

It strikes me that Russia is, by enacting these new laws, very much in breach of clause 4.8(a) of the IAAF Constitution. I’d also say that any IAAF official who through action or inaction allows discrimination on the basis of sexuality to take place in or around the World Athletics Championships is in violation of the IAAF Code of Ethics.

I tweeted @iaaforg earlier today:

Any response? Nope.

Of course, other countries in the IAAF already discriminate against LGBT people, and the get-out qualifiers “unfair” and “irrelevant” in clause 3.4 are no doubt the ones those countries underline in green ink as justification. But it is rare for a country to reintroduce discrimination it has already shed: and, in any case, the code of ethics to which all IAAF officials must abide has no such qualifier.

I’d like to see two things happen.

Firstly, and most importantly, I want to see LGBT athletes demonstrate publicly, confidently and repeatedly that they are not afraid to be out in elite sport, on and off the field. Visibility, visibility, visibility. It’s visibility that has brought equal marriage rights in England and Wales, and it’s visibility that will change sport — that is changing sport.

Secondly, I want to see straight athletes show their support for LGBT people — and do so on camera, in the stadium. Overtly or covertly, I don’t mind. Painted nails, rainbow pins, messages in interviews, signs to camera when lined up for their events, carrying rainbow flags on laps of honour, anything.

What would the IAAF officials do?

What would Putin do?