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Soccer and homophobia: why even homophobes are sick of it

It’s been an ugly week in English soccer. Up north, outrage of many persuasions flowed around Paolo Di Canio’s politics. Down south, supporters from Championship side Brighton & Hove Albion presented…

Fans of English soccer club Brighton & Hove Albion have faced constant homophobic taunts over the years - and they’ve had enough. rockjimford

It’s been an ugly week in English soccer. Up north, outrage of many persuasions flowed around Paolo Di Canio’s politics. Down south, supporters from Championship side Brighton & Hove Albion presented the Football Association with a disheartening dossier on the homophobic abuse they constantly suffer.

As media outlets reported on Thursday, Brighton fans - whose hometown hosts one of Britain’s best-known gay communities - are subjected to anti-gay insults in an appalling 72% of their games.

Intriguingly, recent academic research suggests that some of their abusers might well applaud their demands for the game’s English governing body - the Football Association (FA) - to take action.

English soccer’s record on homophobia is lamentable. The history of research on popular culture shows that communities value being reflected in the entertainment they enjoy. When it comes to English soccer, gay fans have two figures to choose from: one quit, and the other hanged himself.

Last week, Robbie Rogers, formerly of Leeds United, spoke of his relief at coming out as gay. The cancellation of his playing contract had given him the chance to achieve something he never felt able to accomplish as a player. However, at just 25, the United States international isn’t sure if he wants to play again. The reason is clear enough: the precedent for gay footballers in England couldn’t be worse.

There’s only one: Justin Fashanu. At the turn of the 1980s, Fashanu seemed unstoppable. Raised by foster parents, the talented heavyweight amateur boxer had transformed himself into a skilled striker, coveted by the top clubs, while playing for the unfashionable Norwich City.

In 1980, Fashanu scored the goal of the season against Liverpool. Back to goal on the edge of the penalty area, the 19 year-old flipped the ball into the air with his right foot, swivelled and volleyed with his left into the net past stunned defenders. If Cristiano Ronaldo did that today, he’d run around the pitch twice, twirling his shirt around his head.

Fashanu simply raised an index finger and strolled back to the centre circle. When his genius was sold to Nottingham Forest, managed by the redoubtable Brian Clough, glory seemed certain.

Justin Fashanu in action.

But the transfer was a disaster. According to human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, things started to unravel as Fashanu came to terms with his sexuality in an unsupportive professional sporting environment.

Famously, after hearing rumours of his star player’s sexuality, Clough told Fashanu:

“Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?,” I asked him. “A baker’s, I suppose”. “Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?” “A butcher’s”. “So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs' club?”

He came out in 1990, playing on for a few years, drifting from club to club with little success. Facing a sexual assault case in 1998, Fashanu committed suicide. Obituaries of the time emphasised that the player had paid a heavy price for his honesty. It’s easy to see why Robbie Rogers has trepidation about a dressing room return.

Recent sociological studies in the UK connect the abuse directed at Brighton fans with the absence of gay players on the pitch. In an internet survey of 3500 supporters, Jamie Cleland and Ellis Cashmore found 93% of respondents think that there is no place for homophobia in the game.

Studies of online soccer communities discovered that homophobic posts are regularly and roundly criticised. Most fans think that the presence of more gay players would help make homophobia a thing of the past. They would welcome this demise.

This data does not contradict Brighton fans’ experience. The researchers acknowledge that ostensibly anti-homophobic fans continue to spew homophobic abuse. Supporters still view this as jocular banter. Clearly, this is something that needs to be educated out of crowds. And the question that must follow is: if there is so much policing of homophobia online, why doesn’t it happen on the terraces?

One answer is that the architecture for action isn’t in place. In their work on racial abuse, Cleland and Cashmore have found that spectators at live games are frequently intimidated out of reporting incidents by officials who don’t want to know.

Fans of German soccer club Hannover 96 display banners as part of an anti-homophobia campaign. English soccer authorities have been reluctant to run such campaigns. FARE Network

Similarly, fans blame the FA, clubs, player agents and the media for building a culture of fear around sexuality. Authorities have been slow to mount official anti-homophobia campaigns, arguing supporters aren’t ready to receive the message.

Supporters in England disagree, arguing that nothing can change whilst gay players are urged by those around them to stay quiet, tortured further with nightmares of lurid media stories and baying crowds who don’t want to understand. Brighton was right to take their evidence to the FA, because the others who taunt them seem to want the authorities to help them help themselves.

Not that these survey responses can be taken entirely at face value. Internet soccer communities now play an important role in the governance of clubs. Online activities often affect things that happen in live games in important ways. So if there really is an anti-homophobic groundswell among English fans, then they do have the capacity to make these feelings known in a coherent and effective way. But they also need leadership from authorities who, the research suggests, largely adopt a fatalistic view that ends up cultivating homophobia.

At any rate, Brighton fans have set an admirable example. Now it’s up to the FA, the clubs, and other fans to follow suit.

Join the conversation

22 Comments sorted by

  1. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Good article- face recognition CCTV would catch the bigots but there is no will to do the right thing by FIFA. They still haven't got goal line technology.
    It is amazing that soccer is the world game. The fans are homophobic and racist and can't sing. The number of scores in a match is few and often none at all. And to be there, live, it's very expensive in Britain anyway.
    The reason it thrives is that the underdog team has a chance to win at the kickoff so their fans have hope. It's like a religion, every Saturday, hope.

    1. David Paton


      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      "The fans are homophobic and racist and can't sing"

      Really? Fans of any sport are a reflection of the society from which they come. Football fans are no more (or less) homophobic or racist than any other sport. In fact, given that Australia, after South Africa, is the most racist nation on the planet (white Australia policy, anyone?) and that football is not the major sport here (though it is played by the most participants) i'd suggest that by default football fans are less racist or homophobic.

      Your "can't sing" comment is laughable. In other codes fans watch or follow their team of choice. In football, fans SUPPORT them.

      At last you balance (somewhat) your criticism by admitting there are fewer "scores" thus making the game far more interesting than other codes.

      When was the last time you were at an A-league game?

    2. Trevor McGrath

      uneducated twit

      In reply to David Paton

      if that be the case why do we have the current problems ... Why do ethnic groups from all over the world want to come to Australia If it as you say it is. You must have taken too much Movicol today

  2. George Harley

    Retired Dogsbody

    Thanks Andy,
    This fine article managed to make me feel sad, angry and hopeful, all at once.
    The fact that there must be thousands of homosexual men playing the game that are forced to keep silent seems like something out of the dark ages.
    Then hundreds of bigots masquerading as fans, combine to scream obscenities from the terraces.
    The British FA had a campaign to Kick Racism out of Football. Le'ts hope they do the same to homophobia.

  3. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    I'd question whether the fans filling out online surveys and watching discussion boards for homophobia are the same ones packing the terraces and slinging the abuse. They would likely be quite separate demographics.

    1. Andy Ruddock

      Senior Lecturer, Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Not true. If you read the studies to which I refer, you'll find many of the respondents who say they want to see an end to homophobia also admit to using homophobic abuse on the terraces. Hence the title.

      There's a growing body of literature establishing that people who go to games are also very active in online communities.

  4. Adam Richards


    This isn't just a problem in soccer, sport in general seems to be the last bastion of homophobia since it seems many countries are moving towards legalising gay marriage, and I am completely discounting religion.

    As mentioned in the article most fans are against the use of homophobic slurs. Sport seems to bring out the extremes in people, both the best and worst. People who could never conceive of using homophobic, racist or sexist language, might in the heat of the moment get caught up and say…

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  5. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    as one of the gay brigade in this forum, i'm ambivalent about a too hard-boiled approach to this issue.

    these soccer fans probably hate every other teams fans with a passion as well as having a go at gays - they are probably racist and probably think that anyone who can string two words together is a poofter.

    i'd also imagine their attitude to women is pretty much defined as shagable or not shagable.

    alcohol is a big player in this behaviour, and the peer pack mentality on top means that its a competition to see who can be the most obnoxious.

    even in australia in the past month there has been attacks from opposing fans, with serious damage done to the image of soccer in this country.

    these people are borderline thugs and will never change their attitude to homosexuality - not saying there shouldn't be an effort, but i wouldn't hold out too much hope.

    i don't lose sleep over these morons.

    1. George Harley

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Hi Stephen
      May I assume from your posts that you are a male, adult homosexual that is comfortable with his sexual orientation?
      If I am incorrect, or if you are otherwise unhappy with my interpretation, please call on the moderator to remove this entry.
      However, if this is still being read, my I suggest that your last line "i don't lose sleep over these morons" is fine when applied to you, but less sanguine when younger, or less secure homosexuals don't just lose sleep but sometimes something far worse.
      But hey, I'm straight and love sports. what would I know.

    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to George Harley

      yes in the first instance.

      i have had my share of abuse both physical and verbal over the years (i'm 63)

      but as i say i don't take it personally anymore........if its not homophobia its racism or misogyny etc.

      look at friday & staurady nights in the melb cbd - young (ish) men with thuggery on their minds and fuelled by excessive alcohol. they take on anybody who just looks at them - you dont have to be gay.

      the indian or asian guys who get bashed not b/c they are gay, but b/c of their identity.

      the women who get bashed b/c of the thugs they are married to or a partner.

      the incidence of rape and associated violence

      so its not a matter of being sanguine, its a matter of its a jungle out there and men are the animals
      who create mayhem and violence against anyone & everyone.

  6. Patrick Pham

    Arts Student

    I'd be interested to see the statistics of homophobia of soccer fans across.

    In Italy there seems to be an institutionalised racism -the newspaper cartoon depicting Balotelli as "King Kong."
    Similar can be said for many Eastern European countries.

    I think the level of homophobia in soccer fans is highly dependent on the social values & ideals of particular countries. Obviously, for England, there is a discrepancy between the fans and the soccer organisations' approach to homophobia.

    Soccer often seems to be viewed as a bastion of hooliganism and right-wing extremism -this gives me an interesting perspective

    Looking forward to hearing more

  7. David Paton


    Another thinly veiled attack on football. Credit to you though for coming up with an original angle.

    You have commented on the coming out of two players. One from 30 years ago. Could you balance that perhaps with examples of the many homosexuals who have come out whilst playing elite football of other codes?
    I can't actually recall any, but i am in no way an expert on the subject.

    So on that very very limited sample i would suggest that football is more accepting than the other codes. Despite their troubles at least those players felt able to come out at some point.
    Unlike other codes it seems.

    Why have you not attacked other codes for their institutional homophobia? Because it is sacrilege to say anything negative about the provincial sport played in your city?

    1. Andy Ruddock

      Senior Lecturer, Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University

      In reply to David Paton

      Hi David.

      I don't mention the other codes because the story, and the research it reports, was specifically about English football.

      The editor did ask me to comment on the AFL, but I can count the number of AFL players I can name on the fingers of one hand. I know nothing about the game at all. If Melbourne needs someone to defend its game, it better look elsewhere.

      As far as being an attack on football supporters, the article draws attention to evidence that they are far more accepting than the game's authorities allow.

      I was lucky to work with a very understanding editor, who allowed me the licence to wax lyrical about Fashanu's goal. My favourite ever goal scored for my favourite team by my favourite ever player.

  8. Dania Ng

    Retired factory worker

    Discrimination is always unacceptable and despicable. In fighting it, it is always useful to rely on facts. This article is not doing this, instead opting for promoting a false image and martyrdom of a despicable and sick man. Justin Fashanu's career and suicide, upheld here as an example of the effects of "homophobia", was not described truthfully here. This sad man was not a hero, but a rapist of young boys, liar, and a manipulator of media for his own gain. He should have been helped, but his homosexualist mates like Peter Tatchell goaded and pushed him into accepting his self-destructive lifestyle as 'normal', and now gloatingly blame the rest of society for his life and death.
    Here's a glimpse into who this tragic man really was:
    Here is an additional story, this time from what can only be described as a sympathetic perspective:

    1. Tracy Heiss

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dania Ng

      Diana, you must be thrilled to have been able to point this out. I would agree wholeheartedly about your take on Fashanu's character if the case that Deer reports on is factual. But like so many of your posts, your own homophobia bursts out when describing a 'self destructive lifestyle'. because, I don't believe for one second you are refering to the alleged rape, but to the 'homosexual lifestyle' over all.

    2. Dania Ng

      Retired factory worker

      In reply to Tracy Heiss

      Tracy, I am not sure what you mean by "homophobia". What is that, do you know? As I see it, you have not provided one iota of evidence that what Deer says is 'false'. Deer was journalist of the year in 2011 and also received the British Press Award among other accolades for his investigative journalism. Forgive me if I place more worth on his credibility at this point in time.
      But even leaving that aside, what about the other article I linked to? It's written by someone who is obviously trying very…

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Dania Ng

      hi dania

      may i quote you

      " sleeping with minors, frequenting 'bath houses', crashing cars, being on drugs"

      i suppose the only one in that list that would worry me is sleeping with minors.....the rest may or may not be relevant.

      bath houses are an expression of gay sexuality that you have a right to an opinion on perhaps "moral" grounds.
      they are not brothels as it is consensual sex and no money changes hands - except an entry fee of course.

      historically b/c of gay sex being illegal…

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    4. Dania Ng

      Retired factory worker

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Thanks Stephen for taking the time to address my comment. I don't care what this person did, except for what appears to have been his attraction to pubescent boys. My motive for commenting was to point out how hollow the story here is when it completely avoids the things I mentioned. Why are they not mentioned? Much of what this author wrote about this sad person appears to have been taken from an obituary written by Peter Tatchell who, as expected,blames the rest of the society for his tragic life…

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    5. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Dania Ng

      hi dania

      fair comment..........

      the issue is as we agree the sex with under age youths - deplorable in either hetero or homo circumstances.

      i'm all for objectivity.

  9. Jim Read


    It is unfortunate that Justin Fashanu’s experience as an openly gay footballer is so often assumed to have been overwhelmingly negative and is associated with his suicide.

    I don’t think either is true. I understand people looking at his career before and after Brian Clough’s bullying and assume he never recovered. But Fashanu showed every sign of getting his form back at his next club, Notts County, until a serious knee injury ruined his chances of ever again succeeding at the top level. By the…

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