Why Are There No Out Gay Footballers?
“Where are all the gay footballers?”
Back in June 2020 on his podcast Grounded, Louis Theroux spoke with Watford captain Troy Deeney about gay footballers… or more specifically, the lack of them. Another Premier League season, and a player is yet to come out. Despite that, Deeney suggested that there was probably one gay or bi player at each club, and both questioned why no footballer had ‘planted their flag’ as out and proud.
While I’m a massive fan of Louis Theroux, and completely respect Troy Deeney’s ability to consistently blast penalties right down the middle of the goal, I couldn’t help thinking that they were over-simplifying coming out. Yes, the first out gay footballer will be a trailblazer, but it won’t be easy.
Some people still struggle with coming out to family and close friends, so why the hell would anyone choose to do it in such a pressurised and tribal environment as football?
While society has progressed and become more inclusive than when Justin Fashanu became the first footballer to come out publicly in 1993, there is a reason that Thomas Hitzlsperger and Robbie Rogers did not disclose their sexualities to the wider footballing community until after they retired.
Let’s explore some of the reasons that could show why there are still no out-gay footballers in the top European leagues.
This one is probably the least concern for LGBT players. Remember, just because the general public doesn’t know about any gay footballers, doesn’t mean that’s the same in the dressing room. Deeney said that while there’d be questions in the first week like “Can we still shower together?” (yes, coming out is not an admission to fancying YOU) by the second, no-one would care about it. He’s not the only top player who has suggested gay players would be accepted in the dressing room either. Another is James Milner, who said in his 2019 book ‘Ask a Footballer’, that he doesn’t think there would be the slightest issue in the dressing room if a player came out.
However, not all footballers have been so supportive of homosexuality. In 2012, when asked about gay footballers in the Italian national team, Milan Striker Antonio Cassano said, "I hope there are none. But if there are queers here, that's their business." Though he apologised for his comments the following day, hearing this could easily put someone off confiding in their team-mates.
Of course, there is still the realistic possibility that there are some closeted footballers. I’ve never found a reason to tell those I play football with outside of my group of friends about my sexuality, but then again, I’m not a professional footballer… yet. With the perceived laddish banter in changing rooms, it’s easy to see why some players may prefer to ‘fit in’ with their straight counterparts.
If you’re on their team, they’ll back you to the hilt, but if you’re an opposition player, they will pick up on anything to throw you off your game.
In I am the Secret Footballer: Lifting the Lid on the Beautiful Game, the narrator (annoyingly I still haven’t worked out who it is), said fans are one very good reason that gay players would keep their sexual ‘allegiance’ firmly in their locker. It’s hard to disagree – I’ve heard things in the Gallowgate End of St. James’ Park about opposition players that have genuinely sickened me. Whether its skin colour, nationality, or anything else the fans can pick up on, why would anyone give them an extra stick to beat you with?
And to the fans who say that their casual homophobia is ‘banter’ and ‘harmless fun’, it isn’t. Not if you’re on the receiving end.
In a 2019 YouGov poll of 1,010 heterosexual football fans, 32% of respondents said they have heard homophobic comments at a football match. Yet in a 2020 survey, a third of respondents said that they did not believe homophobia was a problem in football. That’s the same amount who would be uncomfortable with two men kissing in a stadium.
At least football stadia are becoming more welcoming for gay fans though. There are around 35 clubs in the UK with active LGBT fans’ groups, including the Gay Gooners (Arsenal), United with Pride (Newcastle United), and Pride of Irons (West Ham United). Their visible presence in stadiums may do wonders for any closeted fans (or players) in seeing that they are not alone.
Football has a huge problem with abuse on social media. The most worrying thing is that it seems to be getting worse, not better. In the 2020/21 season alone, Manchester United’s Axel Tuanzebe, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial; Chelsea’s Reece James; and Swansea’s Yan Dhanda are just some of the names who have suffered racist abuse on Twitter and Instagram.
Targeted homophobic abuse towards footballers is nowhere near as widely reported as racism, but it still happens.
“The Gay Footballer”, a Twitter account which purported to be a gay professional footballer in one of the top English football leagues, felt that he was “not strong enough to come out” after death threats and abuse on Twitter in 2019. There has been debate about whether the account was genuine but even so, seeing such a reaction could make players who were/are planning to come out reconsider their decision.
Footballers are some of the easiest tabloid fodder out there. Top (especially English) players are often torn to shreds by the red tops. Raheem Sterling has been the victim of a particularly vicious character assassination by the tabloid press with everything from his cars to his clothes under the spotlight. His quote “I would never touch a gun in my lifetime.” was changed by one media outlet to say “I would never touch a gun again.” … completely transforming the meaning of the sentence.
It’s almost certain that the first player to come out will be hounded by the press. While the attention will be mostly positive at first, the UK’s largely right-wing press are masters at manipulating language without being overtly homophobic.
It’s not like we haven’t seen that in other sports…
Gareth Thomas, the first rugby union player to come out as openly gay, had a reporter asking his parents to comment on their son’s HIV status, before he had chosen to tell them himself. Thomas himself said that the search for the first openly gay Premier League player was a media witch hunt, and that it wasn’t creating an environment where the footballer could feel safe and protected.
Football’s Governing Bodies
The FA says that an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity should never be a barrier to participating in, and enjoying, our national sport. If only it were that simple!
Despite saying he was ‘ashamed’ that gay players don’t feel safe to come out in 2017, former Football Association Chairman Greg Clarke insinuated that homosexuality was a lifestyle choice in November 2020. This, coupled with sexist and homophobic comments, meant that he was forced to step down from his role. With messages like this coming from the top of the game, if you were a gay footballer, would you feel that you had the organisation’s support?
It’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to the FA though. The organisation is involved in a number of campaigns which are designed to make LGBT people feel more welcome in football. The most visible being Rainbow Laces, a collaboration with Stonewall, which takes place in December each year.
So, when is a footballer going to come out?
It’s impossible to know. All things considered, football has become a more inclusive sport in recent years for players and fans alike. However, it could still be a while before we see an out gay footballer in the Premier League. When that does happen though, I believe society has moved forward enough so that the voices of those cheering them on will drown out the rest.
This article was written by Daniel Hall. Daniel is a freelance writer from Newcastle upon Tyne and as well as writing on LGBTQ+ issues, he is a travel journalist and English teacher. Follow him on Twitter here.