One of the saddest stories for me to have emerged from football, is that of Justin Fashanu (1961-1998). A talented striker, who played for England, scored the goal of the season while playing for Norwich in 1980, and was the first black footballer to command a million pound transfer fee (to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest), he lived a private life in the shadows. A life that ultimately led to him committing suicide in 1998.
It is a story that reminds me that professional football remains one of the last bastions of homophobia. Being a homosexual footballer is a diversity that cannot be spoken of.
The former German international, Thomas Hitzlsperger, came out as gay, but only after he retired from playing, and worldwide, there are just a handful of players at the lower levels of the game who have declared their homosexuality.
Other professional sports have come to terms with the realisation that there are gay men playing and refereeing up to the very top echelons. Cricketers for example seem to have taken the coming out of their peers in their stride.
That most testosterone-driven sport, rugby union, has accepted that Gareth Thomas, the former Welsh captain is gay, and that the world’s leading referee, Nigel Owen, is, as well.
Indeed a spectator at Twickenham was banned for shouting Neanderthal insults at Nigel Owen during an international game, demonstrating how such behaviour will not be tolerated. There is even an all-gay team playing in the lower leagues in London.
And in football there has been progress. The recent banning of Andre Gray for his homophobic tweets shows that the football authorities want to set an inclusive agenda. Arsenal recognise the Gay Gooners and they have a page on the Arsenal.com website.
Moreover, the culture of women’s football seems to have allowed for gay women to come out without opprobrium.
Statistically, throughout society, depending on which research you read, the percentage of gay men could be anything between two and twenty per cent – a massive range; while the number of men who admit to having had homosexual experiences is also quite inexact, but leans towards the higher end (i.e. around twenty per cent).
Does professional football attract exclusively heterosexual men? I think it’s very unlikely. But there are only two acknowledged gay professional footballers. Ever. It seems fair to assume, therefore, that in English professional football, there might be anything from fifty to two hundred and fifty gay players, and that therefore there are that many people living secret or unfulfilled lives.
I have a personal interest in this issue. Two of my oldest and closest friends, living within shouting distance of the Emirates, supporters of the Arsenal, have shared a life since before it was legal to do so (homosexuality was de-criminalised in 1967). One assumes that the proportion of gay supporters attending football matches must be similar to the other arenas, but do they have an explicit voice?
It is clearly going to be a very brave young man who is the second active player to come out. I can’t help thinking that whoever is the first will need a lot of support from sympathetic team-mates, but also I do think that once one has spoken out, others will follow, until acceptance becomes the norm.
And I would really love it to be an Arsenal player. I believe the Arsenal of Arsene Wenger would be embracing of such revelations; that the squad are broad minded grown ups who wouldn’t change their behaviour towards a self-proclaimed gay colleague.
As is already mostly the case in wider society, it would be great if, in my lifetime, and that of my old friends, nobody cared any more what a footballer’s sexuality was.