Tuesday, 8 February 2011

GUEST BLOG: Challenging homophobia on the terraces

Nick Holden is a Leicester City fan who experienced homophobic behaviour from his own fans at a recent game with Sheffield United in the English Championship. Here Nick talks about his own views of the incident and how it affects his view of the beautiful game.

Last week, as we often do, my 12 year old son and I joined 2,000 or so Leicester City fans in making the short trip up the M1 to Sheffield for a game at Bramall Lane. It wasn't exactly a classic, but Andy King's cracking volley in the fourth minute was enough to steal all three points for the foxes, so we mostly went home happy.

Besides a seeming over-reliance by both sides on aerial attacks and a pitch that wouldn't have disgraced a potato farmer, only one thing spoiled the evening.

Midway through the first half, with Leicester already in the lead but the football less than enthralling, the away fans began the customary baiting of the home crowd. There were indeed empty seats, and the ground was too big for them, and given the weather and the standard of the football, it was understandable that the visiting support wanted to go home. Then they spotted a new target.

Sitting in the South Stand, not far from the away support, was a chap in his mid to late 20s wearing a pink sweater. Pink! That could only mean one thing, right? Before long, a sizeable chunk of the away fans were directing their hostility in his direction - from straightforward homophobic name-calling, through suggestions he indulged in anal sex, to a strangely polite "we can see you holding hands" directed at him and the chap sat next to him.

To be fair, the Blades fan in the pink didn't seem to be upset by the chanting - if anything he revelled in the attention, conducting some of the chants, waving his rear end at us in response, and smiling broadly as he returned to his seat for the second half to a chorus of "he's just been for a bumming".

But that's not the point.

Unlike football ground racism, the victims of homophobia on the terraces are often not those who are the targets of the abuse, but those fans of either team who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. And since the victims are not so obvious, it is also harder for them to speak out, to challenge the intolerance or to end it.

In both stands, amongst both sets of supporters there would be young men and women struggling (to a greater or lesser extent) to come to terms with their sexuality in a society that tolerates sexual differences only barely at best. To a young gay man, or even a young man who thinks he might be gay, the sustained homophobic chanting that night will have had only one message: you're not welcome at football, sonny, you don't belong here. Even worse, some will feel under peer pressure to sing along with the bullying and the intolerant, for fear of being singled

When I first watched matches at the old Filbert Street, racist and sexist attitudes pervaded football. Female programme sellers would be treated to a barrage of wolf-whistles, and "he tackles like a girl" would never raise an eyebrow. Black players expected, and received, monkey noises and banana skins, and the only reason there was no anti-Asian racism was the almost complete absence of Asian faces - even in Leicester - from both pitch and terraces.

Over the past couple of decades the situation as regards sexism and racism has improved dramatically. As women and ethnic minorities have won greater equality in society, football has tagged along, sometimes positively but often reluctantly. Andy Gray's comments about female officials now draws swift retribution but in his playing days such attitudes would have been commonplace. Racism on the terraces has retreated, although the growth of the EDL makes clear that the battle is far from over. Nowadays outright anti-Black racism is rare, although I've never yet watched a long-haired player put in 90 minutes without being asked where he left his caravan - gipsy and Romany people remain the 'legitimate targets' for racists in football, just as Baroness Warsi suggests muslims are in wider society.

But homophobia continues to rear its ugly head. Anyone who challenges it is accused of "not getting the joke", or asked to define their own sexuality before their views are considered, as I was when I raised the issue on an internet radio show phone-in the day after the game. You can't imagine someone being asked "why do you object to racism, are you black?" any more, although in the 1970s such an enquiry would have been commonplace. It's now widely understood (outside the ranks of the scapegoat-chasing EDL and their ilk) that everyone, black and white, has reasons to object to, and directly confront and challenge, racism and racists. The same cannot be said about homophobia.

Homophobia won't be eradicated from football until it is eradicated from wider society. But football doesn't have to lag so pitifully behind the curve of social progress as it is doing right now.

People talk about the need for gay players to come out in order to challenge homophobia but I think this misses the point. Openly gay players would certainly help, both in terms of making fans question their homophobic attitudes and in providing positive role models for LGBT football fans. But making gay footballers the driver of change, we actually let everyone else off the hook. Every single footballer, coach, manager and fan - whether in the Premier League, or Sunday pub team - can play a part in getting homophobia out of the game. We shouldn't have to wait for the next Justin Fashanu.

I didn't challenge the homophobic chanting at Sheffield last week. There were too many of them, and I was too scared. I stood quietly and shook my head in sadness, but I lacked the courage to speak out. If the Justin Campaign and the Football v Homophobia day on February 19 can give other fans the courage to speak out against homophobic chanting on the terraces then all of us, gay and straight, will be able to concentrate on the important stuff on the field: like getting the mighty foxes back into the top flight where they belong.

This blog post sparked a debate on Foxes Radio, an independent Leicester City radio station which ran for a week in February. To read more of Nick's work visit http://4glengate.net/

1 comment:

  1. Not much to say other than I thought this was a great article. Thanks.