The underrepresentation of the LGBTQ+ community in football

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In a meeting discussing the Online Safety Bill, which aims to establish a new framework to tackle online abuse, former England footballer Rio Ferdinand told the committee of MPs and peers about a conversation he had with a gay footballer. 

In this conversation, it was revealed that the unnamed footballer was advised to remain silent about his sexuality. This advice came due to fears regarding the scrutiny of potential press coverage.

The advice from the player’s lawyer is insensitive but is unfortunately probably the only action that could be taken given the present condition of LGBTQ+ representation in men’s football. 

There are currently no open members of the LGBTQ+ community playing in English men’s football, meaning that the press coverage for the first openly gay footballer of the present in England would be immense.

Any player coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community as a male footballer in England would mean being the first in the modern game and becoming the current face of gay footballers – a position that would be highly scrutinised within English football.

The lack of LGBTQ+ footballers in Britain is statistically unlikely. The Office for National Statistics claims that in 2018, 2.2% of the UK population identified as either homosexual or bisexual, with another 0.6% claiming that they were neither heterosexual, homosexual nor bisexual.

The fact that there are no members of the LGBTQ+ community currently playing men’s competitive football is therefore difficult to believe, a thought which members of the footballing community have expressed.

In an episode of Louis Theroux’s podcast “Grounded,” released in June of 2020, Theroux addressed the issue of homosexuality in sport to former Watford Captain Troy Deeney. Theroux asked, “Where are all the gay footballers?” to which Deeney responded, “They’re there. They’re 100% there.”

Deeney went as far as to comment, “I would go on record and probably say there’s probably one gay or bi person in every football team.”

Issues of abuse are still prevalent in the sporting world.

Despite the footballing world undoubtedly having gay members, coming out openly is a frightening prospect given the present culture within English football.

Openness for those in the public eye can be deemed to be dangerous. Historically, football fans are not renowned for their sensitivity towards diversity, and players’ personal lives are often intensely scrutinised; potentially with disastrous results.

Justin Fashanu, who in 1981 became the first million-pound black footballer when he signed for Nottingham Forest was ostracised for his sexuality. Manager Brian Clough went as far as to ban Fashanu from training when of his homosexuality was revealed.

Fashanu would come out as openly gay in 1990 and received swathes of abuse from fans. Sadly, he would later go on to commit suicide in 1998.

Despite an undoubted progression in tolerance since then, issues of abuse are still prevalent in the footballing world, with recent racial abuse being rampant following England’s loss in the European championship.

In such a sensitive area as sexuality, the first openly gay footballer in the modern game would differentiate themselves from the rest of the footballing world and would understandably fear the abuse that is present in today’s game.

Despite campaigns such as the rainbow laces campaign, for true representation of the LGBTQ+ community in football, a player would have to come out and be the first to do so. Deeney claims that “Once the first comes out there’ll be loads.”

However, to be the first would take incredible bravery considering the amount of intolerance in today’s game.

The loud minority of English football fans who express intolerant and ignorant views are unlikely to accept homosexuality in the game until it is commonplace, a prospect which limits the effectiveness of campaigns which aim to increase tolerance amongst football fanbases.

The Online Safety Bill is, however, a step in the right direction. If football fans are punished for hate, then it is likely that all forms of hate will be reduced and ultimately eradicated from the game.

In the current climate, it is unfortunately understandable that no one has come forward as the first openly gay male footballer in Britain. However, campaigns that raise awareness, working alongside harsher punishments for hateful speech, means that it is only a matter of time before the LGBTQ+ community gains more meaningful representation in the footballing world.

Image: Don Barret via flickr

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