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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Anthony vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda

I turned seventeen in the spring of 1986. Days later Chernobyl’s nuclear power station huffed radiation across northern Europe, causing sheep to glow in the Scottish Highlands (subs: please check). At the time, the Soviet Union’s fresh, thrusting, young fifty-something leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was shouldering the tiller in an attempt to turn the supertanker USSR ninety degrees to starboard. Words like glasnost and perestroika were becoming commonplace on news bulletins.

Glasnost: openness

Perestroika: restructuring

Despite the pre-roasted lamb courtesy of an over-sugared Ukrainian microwave, it was an optimistic time in geopolitics (strokes beard). Like most of my generation, I’d assumed I would perish in a nuclear fireball, ash on the wind, not least because in those days we lived twenty minutes from a US air base housing several of “our” ICBMs. Gorbachev seemed to be leading us onto a different path.

And so it proved: for a while.

Aged seventeen, my own personal glasnost was stalled awaiting some cerebral perestroika. I was as closeted as a partially melted fuel rod under a hasty sarcophagus. And around us on the analogue eighties airwaves swirled HIV and AIDS, a geiger counter that ticked more urgently each week. Adverts, posters, leaflets, even school assemblies. Condoms on TV!

I honestly don’t know how my friends and family would’ve reacted had I come out then, all pimply and non-bald. I was in suffocating denial, even as I knew. Such is the plastic teen brain, such is the ability of humans to hold contradictory notions simultaneously. Crushes were crushed, neatly compartmentalised, boxed and ribboned and jettisoned and retrieved and reopened.

I’m sure one of my friends knew, or suspected. She wasn’t daft. I remember we skirted the subject once, a few years later at college. An idle have you ever wondered question, over student crumpets. Even then, I wasn’t ready. It would’ve been so easy, a couple of words. It would’ve changed nothing, and everything.

In 1986, there were no role models for a seventeen-year-old boy in my position. On TV, beyond the tumbling AIDS icebergs and red-faced ministers stammering through discussions of sexual practices, we had only high camp, sexless figures, and the inevitable haunted queer who coughs at the end of act one. Channel 4 showed the occasional late-night movie of a pink persuasion, barely audible above the braying and honking of faux-scandalised MPs and Mary Whitehouse. This was hardly a rainbow-rimmed invitation to come out over the Sunday beef (the lamb was off).

Newspapers? “EastBenders”. Say no more.

Movies? I wasn’t 18. And I’d never have had the courage.

Books? I remember looking. I’d never have bought anything: that would’ve collapsed the quantum unicorn wave function, Schrödinger’s Teen forced out of his box. Sometimes I’d stand in a bookshop, heart thumping, and read a page or two from something — I remember A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White.

Today’s seventeen year olds — in many countries, at least — inhabit a better world, if their parents and grandparents will let them keep it and survive it. This is a world of Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country. Of Drag Race, of the gender-blind First Dates. Of Noah Can’t Even, of Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda (Love, Simon in movie form). Even Trump’s America can’t stuff these back in the closet. The major corporations seem to have jumped on board the rainbow train, albeit with occasional jitters. That particular skirmish, though not the war, might be almost won.

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I wonder how the seventeen-year-old me would’ve reacted to Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda. Perhaps it would’ve given me the courage to come out, to take that risk even amongst the shoulder pads and approaching menace of Thatcher’s Section 28. The current me would disappear in a glittery pop, of course. Things would’ve progressed differently: other choices made, other universes forked. Even so.

Reading Simon now, aged approximately 104, the book filled me with joy. Sure, I’m a soppy middle-aged bloke wishing he could have his time again (minus: exams, three-eyed sheep; plus: self-confidence). Sure, there’s a heaped tablespoon of optimism and pink-washing of what it must actually be like as a closeted teen in the American South.

But the message of hope. The non-noxious radiation of love and warmth. Wonder, discovery, dreams, redemption. The relentless positivity and promise of Obama’s path to the future, rather than Trump’s crazy paving.

I could’ve read it in one sitting — if I were actually seventeen and could survive on no sleep. Rationed to a few chapters a night, the book kept worming into my thoughts during the day. I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It made me grin, and gasp, and weep (see: soppy old man).

I wasn’t expecting this. I suspect I needed it.

One brief moment in a glorious exile from Trump/Brexit lunacy, spending time in the world I never dreamed could exist when Chernobyl melted into our vocabularies, but which now feels no more than a fingertip out of reach.

My fear is that it has begun to recede.