Monday, 23 June 2014

"I chose freedom over a constructed prison." Football and homophobia.

"Although many major sports in the world have witnessed a liberalization in which gay competitors have felt emboldened, or at least comfortable in revealing their sexual orientation openly and without fear of embarrassment or censure, football has not. Gay players have typically remained secretive during their active playing careers. Some have talked openly about their sexuality, but usually only after retiring." (Cashmore & Cleland, 2014).

Elton John playing football (1976) via

Football is called a refuge for outdated notions of "true masculinity", a sphere of "male culture, male bonding, and male power". In other words, it is a place where sexism and homophobia meet. Men who do not play well, for instance, are called "girls" or "faggots" while women who play well are called "viragos" or "lesbians". "Homophobia and sexism are often understood as being part of the cultural logic of football. Racist, sexist, or homophobic forms of behaviour are intended to provoke, insult, or humiliate the opponents and their fans and as such become legitimate strategies for winning the match." (Walther, 2006). In women's football the situation is said to be slightly different (via).

Aston Villa return to Birmingham with the cup in 1957. via

Due to this "football culture", coming out becomes rather difficult. For a long time, English footballer Justinus Soni "Justin" Fashanu (1961-1998) was the only professional footballer to come out as gay. He publicly came out in 1990, became a target of abuse and took his life eight years later (via). Fashanu became a "symbol of the continuing problems faced by gay men and women in sport" (via).
British semi-professional footballer Liam Davis has been out for four years: "I just got to a stage in my life where I had no reason to hide who I was." (via).

Villa fans on the terraces in 1975. via

In 2013, US-American Robbie Rogers striker/winger came out of the closet and became the second professional male footballer in Britain to do so (via and via). He announced that he was gay after leaving the club: "You're afraid to tell people and be open with stuff and so it's hard to just change. A lot of gay men and women who aren't out and don't really accept that they're gay, live with a bit of self-hate." "So I had to be so blunt about it, but hating yourself is very damaging." Rogers came out when he was 25: "I always heard homophobic things in locker rooms, on soccer fields, you know, before training, after training." "Whether it was joking or whether it was malicious, I just heard so many different things that scarred me and made me think that there's no chance I'm ever going to come out - ever - to anyone." (via). Rogers received more support than he had expected. Among others, FIFA president Joseph Blatter thanked him for his courage (via).
US-American football player David Testo came out of the closet in November 2011: "I really regret not having said publicly earlier. I fought with it all my life, my whole career. Living the life of a professional athlete and being gay is incredibly difficult. It is like wearing a secret in his bags but never yourself. It saps all your energy to you, in addition to having to perform, having to play." (via).

Aston Villa footballer Ron Wylie playing football with his son Nigel in the garden of their home. 15th June 1968. via

German midfielder Marcus Urban was a "rising star" in the 1980s who was unable to continue his career since he was terrified to be outed and living a double life was unbearable: "I hid 24 hours a day, I adjusted." "It was an almost unbearable pain, a great sacrifice, a painful price to pay to achieve my goal of becoming a professional footballer." By his early 20s he was burned out. Urban retired from the game when he was 23: "I realized that if I became a professional footballer, I would suffer as a man. I chose freedom over a constructed prison." (via). He came out in 2007 (via).
Heinz Bonn, an aspiring German talent in the 1970s, also decided to hide and suffered from anxieties. His life ended tragically in 1991 (via).
German midfielder and high-profile footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger retired last September and came out this January to break the taboo. He is the first German football professional to come out and received widespread support (via). Former colleagues twittered their respect, the Deutsche Fußball-Bund (German Football Association) promised to give him all the support needed, politicians and the German government praised his choice (via).

Terraces: Villa supporters in September 1978. via

In 2009, French football player Yoann Lemaire took a sabbatical from his amateur club FC Chooz because one of his colleagues had made homophobic comments. When he wanted to return to his club he had spent 14 years with, team managers refused to register him again to avoid "trouble" with his teammates (via). French football striker Olivier Rouyer came out in 2008 after having retired (via).

A crowd of Aston Willa supporters await the teams arrival with the FA cup outside the Town Hall. May 1957 Credit: Mirror Pix. via

Norwegian U19 football defender Thomas Berling ended his career before it really started because of the homophobic atmosphere (via).
Anton Hysén was the first (and so far only) Swedish semi-professional football player to come out (via) in March 2011. Despite the mostly positive reactions he said that he could not generally recommend a coming out (via).
Dutch football player John de Bever, Belgian Jonathan de Falco, ... the list is not exhaustive but there are probably not that many football players to add who have come out publicly. And certainly even fewer ones if only those are considered who did so before retiring. Compared to the past, however, more football players seem to choose "freedom over a constructed prison".

Villa fans on the terraces in 1970. via

Homophobia in football seems to be more openly and widely discussed. Clubs, managers and fans have started to show support. Quoting Roy Hodgson, manager of the English national football team who supported the "Football v Homophobia" campaign last year: "I can say from experience that football is a game that transcends different cultures and religions and it's a sport that lends itself to things like diversity and inclusion because of the worldwide appeal." "Like anything, education is the key to progression and creating an atmosphere that allows everyone to enjoy the game we’re all passionate about." (via).

Michael Caine and Bobby Moore via

- Cashmore, E. & Cleland, J. (2014) Football's Dark Side: Corruption, Homophobia, Violence and Racism in the Beautiful Game. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
- Walther, T. (2006) Kick it out. Homophobia in Football. european gay & lesbian sport federation (via)


  1. Great read. Killer photographs!

  2. Again, great gallery!!!

  3. Abbie Winterburn24 June 2014 at 09:18

    Many thanks for taking the time to putting this together, Laura!

  4. It was quite a challenge to find photographs I like, this time. Happy to hear you like them them, too. Thank you for your kind feedback, Derek, Tim, Wim, Karen, and Abbie.