With two high-profile Premier League players about to come out, how can we use this to effect real change for gay sportspeople, asks Rob Buchanan?
Social media is abuzz with the news that two high-profile Premier League footballers are about to come out as gay. One of these household names even played for the English national team. They will be the first openly gay players still playing in the upper reaches of the English league to reveal their sexuality since Justin Fashanu in 1990.
While it’s so very tempting to play the speculation game, doing so would be to miss the entire point of the impending event. These specific coming outs could be stage-managed and processed on social media in a way that could benefit LGBT tolerance in sport for everyone. And truth be told, this will be less of a watershed moment in gay visibility in the sports world than it will be a stage two in the movement towards ‘normalising’ the reality that LGBT people are in all walks of life, even Premier League football.
When rumours surfaced that a big reveal of male gay players was on the cards, some of the speculation pointed towards Manchester United player Luke Shaw. This was mainly in the form of Internet trolling and taunts from opposition fans. Shaw’s aggressive response spoke volumes about the whole problem of gays in Premier League football. Although he isn’t even in the top ten speculated players he felt the need to make a statement that he wasn’t one of the players rumoured to be coming out. His reaction was disproportionate, cringe-worthy and disappointing; the type of response you would make if you were accused of a disgusting crime. Once can only speculate on the anxiety that prompted him to make this non-statement.
But who could blame him? He only needs to look at the disturbing and sad example of Fashanu to know where coming out in British professional football has led. When Fashanu bravely came out two and half decades ago, instead of being hailed as a trailblazer and applauded for his bravery and honesty, both the media and the football industry crucified him. His persecution was both shameless and socially approved at that time, and it ultimately led to his suicide. How many terrified, closeted players of his generation laughed and jeered at Fashanu in changing rooms across the UK even as they spent sleepless nights fretting over disclosure of their own secret sexuality?
And genuinely queer players haven’t been the only victims of such abuse. In the late 90s, Graeme Le Saux was wrongly labeled as gay after saying he went on holiday with a fellow player, and his name became by-word for homophobic taunts from the stands.
The more recent coming out stories of former Villa player, Thomas Hitzlsperger and LA Galaxy player, Robbie Rogers might have garnered more positive reactions, but Hitzlsperger waited until retirement before coming out, while Rogers wasn’t playing in the Premier League and the professional environment of US soccer is dramatically different from that in the UK.
So how best to manage the aftermath of two Premier League players nailing their rainbow colours to the mast? Firstly, the LGBT community should try to channel these two men’s personal stories into paving a path for more queer players to come out and more straight players to become allies. We should also be seeking to show how irrelevant sexuality is in terms of playing sports, never mind day-to-day life. It’s by reinforcing this as an ‘non-issue’ and shaming those childish enough to think otherwise that we beat homophobia at its own game.
Let’s have no patron saints of queer sports. Let’s not run away with ourselves in the lionisation of these players. The boomerang of that effect is that we distract ourselves from these players’ skills, and from the sport itself, to focus on who’s shagging who. The breaking down of stereotypes cannot be done not by singling out individuals to praise them for things that are beyond their control. It is by highlighting what they do control in their sports lives and how their personal lives are of little relevance to that talent.