There are gay footballers – and there always have been

Kevin Moore
University of Leicester

There are no ‘out’ gay players in the English Premier League. But of course, there are many gay and bisexual players in it. There have been rumours for a number of years that up to 20 current Premier League players were considering coming out, but were concerned about prejudice and a hostile reaction from fans. So, at present, top-level players only feel comfortable to come out after their career has ended. Liam Davis, a semi-professional player, remains the only male player to have come out during his paid playing career in English football.

This is different in top-level women’s football, where many of the England team have come out, including the current captain, Steph Houghton. But women players have only felt comfortable to do this in recent years. Casey Stoney made 130 appearances for England between 2000 and 2017, was appointed captain in 2012 and also became captain of the newly formed Team GB squad for the 2012 London Olympics. She was appointed as the first head coach of the newly formed Manchester United Women club in 2018. Yet she didn’t feel comfortable enough to come out until towards the end of her playing career, in 2014. Historians have suggested that Lily Parr, arguably the greatest English woman player of the 1920s and 1930s and the first female player to be inducted into the English National Football Museum Hall of Fame, was openly lesbian during her playing career. In many countries, LGBT people face legal punishments and even imprisonment and so cannot even consider coming out. In 2011, the Nigerian women’s football team said that it had successfully banned homosexuality among players.

There have, of course, always been lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender footballers, right from the very beginning of the game. But as the game began in the very socially conservative Victorian English society, with strong prejudice, and even the law against LGBT people, this is a very hidden history. There was great prejudice against women playing football in Victorian England! So, it is very unlikely that we will ever know who the LGBT football pioneers were.

Justin Fashanu, the first black £1 million footballer, was the first professional footballer to be openly gay, not just in England, but globally. He faced appalling prejudice from his then manager at Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough. Fashanu scored the BBC TV Match of the Day Goal of the Season in 1980 for Norwich City, but his career faltered after his move to Nottingham Forest, no doubt as a result of both racist and homophobic abuse. Fashanu came out as gay in the media in 1990. Tragically, he committed suicide in 1998, aged just 37. He had been questioned by police in the USA when a 17-year-old boy accused him of sexual assault. The coroner said the prejudices he experienced, plus the sexual assault charge he was facing at the time of his death, probably overwhelmed him. Justin’s experience is probably why no other player in England has come out since. Globally, it remains very difficult for male professional– and amateur – players in particular to come out, even in supposedly liberal, tolerant societies, so only a very small number of professional players have, perhaps as few as seven. Some players, like Thomas Hitzlsperger, have only felt able to come out after their retirement from the game.

If you’re playing well it will be reported as: ‘The gay footballer is playing well.’ And if you have a bad game it’ll be: ‘Aw, that gay dude … he’s struggling because he’s gay.’ Fuck it. I don’t want to mess with that’.

Robbie Rogers’ story shows just how hard it is for professional footballers to come out, but also how inspirational he has been. In 2013 American player Rogers came out as gay, being only the second professional player to do so after Justin Fashanu – 23 years earlier. Rogers began his professional career in the Netherlands in 2006, before returning to Columbus Crew in Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2007, with whom he won the MLS Cup in 2008, and he made 18 appearances for the USA from 2009 to 2011. He had a brief, but largely unsuccessful spell with Leeds United in England from 2011 to 2013. Weeks after being released by Leeds, Rogers announced his retirement from professional soccer at the age of just 25 and came out, on his Blog, writing ‘I’m a soccer player, I’m Christian, and I’m gay. Those are things that people might say wouldn’t go well together. But my family raised me to be an individual and to stand up for what I believe in … Life is simple when your secret is gone. Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work, the pain from avoiding questions, and at last the pain from hiding such a deep secret’. In his first interview, with the UK’s Guardian newspaper in March 2013, he was asked if he could ever see football’s last taboo being overcome: “Yes. I know things will change. There will be gay footballers. I just don’t know when and how long it will take. The next step is how do you create an atmosphere where men and women feel it’s OK to come out and continue to play? It’s a great question’. Asked if he would play professionally again, he said ‘I’ve thought about that. I might be strong enough but I don’t know if that’s really what I want. I’d just want to be a footballer. I wouldn’t want to deal with the circus. Are people coming to see you because you’re gay? Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: ‘So you’re taking showers with guys – how’s that?’ If you’re playing well it will be reported as: ‘The gay footballer is playing well.’ And if you have a bad game it’ll be: ‘Aw, that gay dude … he’s struggling because he’s gay.’ Fuck it. I don’t want to mess with that’.

Rogers had secured a place on a three-year course at the London School of Fashion. Just a few weeks later he changed his mind. He spoke to a group of about 500 kids at the Nike Be True LGBT Youth Forum in Portland, USA. ‘I seriously felt like a coward. These kids are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I’m 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?’ The following month Rogers became the first openly gay player in the MLS when he played his first game for LA Galaxy. After winning the MLS Cup in 2014, unfortunately Rogers’ career was ended by injury in 2017. But not before he had been an inspiration to many young players.

It is appalling that LGBT players and fans still face prejudice, at every level of the game, and this needs to change. The football bodies must show leadership, but the fans have a key role to play in the professional game. There are positive signs, along with Robbie Rogers. One of the most inspirational examples is that of Jaiyah Saelua, an American Samoan international football player and the first transgender player to compete in a men’s FIFA World Cup qualifying game. Saelua identifies as fa’afafine, a third gender in Polynesian society. Saelua made 10 international appearances, and was part of the American Samoan team featured in the excellent documentary film Next Goal Wins. While an accepted part of Polynesian society, Saelua has faced prejudice playing teams from other cultures in international matches: ‘I have been called names a few times just to put me off my game, but I just tackle harder.’ Of course, it’s a long way from the American Samoan national team (FIFA ranking 190 as at April 2019) to the Premier League, but if Jaiyah Saelua can face the prejudice and tackle harder, here’s hoping some Premier League stars will soon show the same courage. There will be prejudice, there will be hate, from a minority, but most fans I believe will be supportive, and indeed proud of the first players to come out.

Copyright © Kevin Moore 2020

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