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Why It’s Important When Footballers Come Out

9th January 2014

By Chris Basiurski, GFSN Chair

For years I’ve been consistently asked the same question - “When is a Premier League player going to come out”.

The answer of course is difficult to predict and the problems an ‘out’ gay player would face are numerous.  Not only would they be faced with potential hostility from the terraces, but also from teammates, management and opposition players.

I have, however, often wondered why retired players, free from the pressures of performing on the pitch had not come forward, especially those who were no longer in the game, looking to promote a book or launch a post-game career.

Out Footballer Robbie Rogers At An LA Galaxy Press Conference

Coming out can be an immensely positive experience. People feel like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders when they no longer have a secret to keep. As any LGB&T person who has come out knows, the reduction in stress levels are tangible. Maybe this could even have a positive effect on an athlete’s performance levels?

 Sports presenter Clare Balding put it well recently when she said:

“I think though when you’re honest and you’re relaxed, I think it can improve your performance and I think that’s true whether you’re in business or in sport… to think that actually just being relaxed enough to be happy would help you train and therefore would help you perform well.”

'Out' Retired Footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger

Fortunately, times are slowly changing and Thomas Hitzlsperger’s decision to publicly announce he is gay, which followed Robbie Roger’s announcement last year, shows that retired players are now seemingly comfortable in revealing what they dared not reveal when playing.

It is important for us to stress here that we at the Gay Football Supporters' Network (GFSN) would never ask or expect someone to come out, that is a personal decision and an journey that every LGB&T person goes on. Instead, the GFSN is looking to create an atmosphere in football where players at all levels could come out, should they wish, safely and free from discrimination.

Every time a player, such as Hitzlsperger or Rogers, comes out to a chorus of support and respect then we can be said to be one step closer to our goal.  Their coming out not only gives us an opportunity to showcase the involvement of LGB&T people in sport, but it gives others the opportunity to show their support. This point should not be underestimated. A few years ago we struggled to get any player, even retired players, to speak out in support of the LGB&T football community and against homophobia. Few, if any, were brave enough to do so. That was the power of the Stonewall/Paddy Power Rainbow Laces campaign in 2013; this visible symbol embraced by so many, including current England internationals Phil Jagielka and Toni Duggan and former England captain Gary Lineker was invaluable, together with the social media support from the likes of Joey Barton, helping young people coming to terms with their sexual orientation to feel reassured that the game has a place for them too.

The game is crying out for positive role models, people who can work with us to help break down the remaining barriers and be the visible advocate that the anti-racism campaigns have used so successfully. The current difficulties with Michael Johnson and The FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board highlight that the game is lacking a respected, “elder statesperson” who can represent the LGB&T community from the position of having been a gay player within the professional game.  Being a positive role model is also important. We do not need someone who comes out merely to further a showbiz career,  but someone who is willing to engage with the issues and try to change attitudes within the game. Someone who could act as a role model to LGB&T youth around the globe. When we have teenagers bullied and committing suicide because of their sexual orientation the power of a homosexual football hero to say “It’s ok to be gay” is immense. Footballers often talk of “giving back to the community” and this is an opportunity waiting to happen.

GFSN and B&HA Supporters' Club

In spite of the positive reaction to Hitzlsperger’s news, there is still a huge disconnect between people who are willing to support LGB&T players and those who believe it still acceptable to use homophobic slurs to unsettle opposition. Just last year we found in our joint research with the Brighton & Hove Albion Supporters’ Club that at least 72% of opponents of Brighton & Hove FC subjected them to homophobic abuse. Brighton is perceived to be a “gay city”, and this has put the club on the front line of this issue. Similarly, although we at the GFSN host the world’s only national football league for the LGB&T community to provide a safe space for LGB&T players, we see this as a stepping-stone to mainstream football.

Attempts by our teams to enter their mainstream FA county leagues have often been met with hostility and abuse on the pitch. Opponents who may be tolerant off the pitch may still  see it as fair game to use sexual orientation as a weapon on it, perhaps considering losing to a gay team to be an affront to their masculinity. Perhaps when these attitudes have been changed a current professional will feel able to come out. This is what we are working towards and this is why players coming out can be an important step in this direction.