After Patrice Evra’s remarks about cases of closeted homosexuality in the Premier League, I decided to take a brief look at the history of the LGBTQ+ community within the beautiful sport and where we find ourselves now.
Patrice Evra’s Revelation
In an interview with French newspaper outlet Le Parisien a few days ago, Patrice Evra revealed that there are a number of footballers who are keeping their true sexuality concealed from the public and the rest of their team.
Patrice Evra made over 250 appearances for Manchester United, winning 5 Premier League titles and a Champions League. He also went on to star for Italian giants Juventus, adding 3 Serie A’s to his trophy cabinet. You can place bets on teams like Manchester United and Juventus at bet-delaware.com
In his experience at Old Trafford, he claimed that players were too scared to come out due to their teammates’ homophobia.
“Some of my colleagues’ said ‘it is against my religion, if there is a homosexual in this locker room, let him leave the club.
There are at least two players per club who are gay. But in the world of football, if you say so, it’s over.”Patrice Evra via Le Parisien
His words encapsulate the sad truth. In the UK, it is reported that 6.6% of people aged 16 to 24 identify as gay or bisexual, a ratio of approximately 1 in 15 (stats according to the Office for National Statistics).
When one considers that Premier League clubs register 25 players, that would see every team in the English top flight possess at least one or two players identifying as gay or bisexual. A total of around 33 players in the league.
The known number? 0
In fact, in the thousands and thousands of professional footballers not just in England but around the world, there as been a sum of five players that have come out during their careers. 5
Justin Fashanu (English – Norwich, Nottingham Forest, Notts County), Robbie Rogers (American – Columbus Crew, Leeds United, LA Galaxy), Antonio Hysén (Swedish – BK Häcken, Utsiktens BK, Torslanda IK), Collin Martin (American – D.C. United, Minnesota United, San Diego Loyal), and Joshua Cavallo (Australian – Melbourne City, Western United, Adelaide United).
A number you can count on one hand…
It is also worth noting that Thomas Hitzlsperger (Germany – Aston Villa, VfB Stuttgart, West Ham) opened up about his homosexuality a year after his retirement from football.
In fact, former chairman of the PFA, Clark Carlisle, reported that eight professional footballers had personally come out to him. And the number is likely far higher.
There are a few reasons why this shockingly distorted figure might be the case, all of which paint the world of football much less elegantly than we perceive it.
The first, and obvious, is the fear of “coming out”, which many people part of the LGBTQ+ community experience- whether professional athletes or not. As a gay man myself, this was the biggest and toughest obstacle to overcome. I could not imagine the same situation but with the nation and media as an audience.
As Evra mentioned, the environment in which these athletes find themselves is hardly a breeding ground for acceptance and approval. Many in these situations would have experienced their teammates’ bigotry first hand- whether a result of a religious belief, or simply a discriminatory worldview.
There could also be a psychological side to this. Football is, at the heart of it, a team sport- perhaps some feel they will be left out of the pack by taking such a step?
A far more cynical possibility raised by Peter Clayton, chairman of the FA’s “Homophobia in Football” group, is that many Premier League teams may actively encourage their players not to come out, in fear of reducing their transfer value.
In a world where money talks, there’s a very likely and heartbreaking possibility there is truth to this claim. After all, why would a club reduce the likelihood of a Middle Eastern club swooping in with bags of money for one of their ageing substitutes?
These scenarios are of course also joined by a multitude of other personal and religious reasons only adding to the unease these players experience at the thought of being able to be open about their sexuality.
In a sport where there is still such a toxic “laddish” attitude and only now are athletes feeling comfortable to talk about their mental health. It’s hardly surprising that few are happy to speak out.
Justin Fashanu: An Under-Appreciated Trailblazer
Justin Fashanu broke through the ranks at Norwich City at an early age, making his league debut at 17 years old in 1979 and soon after becoming a regular. A year later, he won Goal of the Season award for a beautifully struck volley vs Liverpool.
He left Carrow Road in the summer of 1981, after a total of 103 appearance and 40 goals for the Canaries, 19 of which came in the final season as Norwich were relegated.
“Fash”, as he was lovingly nicknamed, went on to sign for Nottingham Forest- who had just won two European Cups back-to-back under Brian Clough- for £1,000,000. He became the first black footballer in Britain to be signed for over a £1 million, and subsequently the first gay footballer also.
This was far from the ideal move, however, as relations between the forward and Brian Clough dramatically deteriorated after rumours of Fashanu frequenting gay clubs surfaced. Clough was notably homophobic.
In fact, in his autobiography, the man hailed as a hero in Nottingham seemingly found his distasteful and discriminatory encounters with the trailblazer comedic.
“‘Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him. ‘A baker’s, I suppose.’ ‘Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’ ‘A butcher’s.’ ‘So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?”via Clough: The Autobiography
Things only got worse when Clough had heard about Fashanu’s sexuality, barring him from training with the Forest squad, even involving the police in 1982 when the player attempted to defy the ban and join his teammates. Looking back, this appears more and more like a hate crime.
This led to his exit from the club, to city rivals Notts County for £150,000- a fraction of what the Reds had paid for his services a year prior.
He came out publicly in 1990, while playing for Hamilton Steelers in the now disbanded Canadian soccer league, shortly after leaving Leyton Orient who then resided in the Football League Third Division (now the EFL League One).
His brother, John Fashanu- part of the Wimbledon “crazy gang” in the 80s & 90s- publicly scolded his sibling for opening up about his sexuality, labelling him “an utter stranger”. There are even reports he offered to bribe his brother in order for him to keep his sexuality quiet.
John has since retracted his remarks and become a trustee of a foundation made in his brother’s name.
According to The Athletic, “one club insisted he take an HIV test as part of his medical”.
Justin’s story is heartbreaking, and resulted in his suicide. All from the fear of an unfair trial by virtue of his sexual orientation. A trial taking place due to “sodomy” and “perverted practice” among other unfounded offences (homosexual acts were criminalised in the state of Maryland).
He was 37 years old.
This tragedy took place merely 24 years ago, in 1998. 5 years prior, The Daily Mail- Britain’s most popular newspaper at the time- published a piece titled ‘Abortion hope after ‘gay genes’ findings’. A publication exalting the prospect of killing babies before their birth because of their perceived “abnormal” sexuality.
“Isolation of the genes means it could soon be possible to predict whether a baby will be gay and give the mother the option of an abortion.”via The Daily Mail
This sparked rumours of “finally finding a cure”, or removing the gene “once and for all” by the British public. A rather terrifying ideology that seems more fitting in 1940s Germany than it does in this country just 28 years ago.
It isn’t unreasonable that Fashanu didn’t feel he would be given a just trial.
Joshua Cavallo: History Maker Leading the Way
Josh Cavallo came out as gay in October of last year, the only current professional footballer and first to do so in 10 years. His vocalising of the issue within football is paving the way for others to follow suit.
“I hope that in sharing who I am, I can show others who identify as LGBTQ+ that they are welcome in the football community.”via The Guardian
A poignant message that I could not affirm any more strongly. The courage shown by Josh is an inspiration for young men around the world who can now see him as someone to look up to not only for his profession, but also his sexuality.
I dearly hope that this may spark the start of other footballers feeling that they are not alone and give them the bravery to speak out about their orientation.
However, his story is not all positive. Just last week, Cavallo found himself at the end of homophobic chants as his Adelaide United played away against Melbourne Victory. He also received abuse on Instagram after the game.
“I’m not going to pretend I didn’t see or hear the homophobic abuse at the game last night.
As a society this shows we still face these problems in 2022. I will never apologise for living my truth and most recently who I am outside of football.”via @joshua.cavallo on Instagram
Thankfully both clubs are investigating into the matter.
Newcastle United: A Step Back in Human Rights
Alas, it would appear that as money in football has progressed, individualism has become more and more constricted- all because of one shared purpose: Sportswashing.
The notion of “Sportswashing” is a phenomena that is becoming more and more of a normality in the beautiful game. Sportswashing is the use of a major sport to improve one’s reputation, usually utilised by tyrannical nations, sizeable corporations, and disliked individuals.
The most blatant examples include Formula 1 racing Grand Prix’s in the Middle East, FIFA hosting the next World Cup in Qatar despite a multitude of logistical and ethical concerns, and- of course- the ownership of Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, and Newcastle United by the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia respectively.
The Middle East is by far the most dangerous and hateful region when it comes to the treatment and rights of the LGBTQ+ community, mainly as a result of the dogmatic Sharia Law. Yet, as a nation that considers ourselves “unprejudiced” & “open-minded”, we have accepted these homophobic tyrants into our country with open arms.
Of course I am not pinning the blame on the Geordies, they have no control in who buys and owns their club. But their reaction is far from progressive.
We’ve seen fans bring Saudi Arabian flags, wear tea towels on their heads, chant support for the Public Investment Fund (PIF), all the while people like Suhail al-Jameel are sitting in a Saudi Arabian prison for… *checks notes*… ah that’s right, taking a picture with his t-shirt off.
It is also the case that the BBC has accepted a considerable amount of money from the PIF (the sovereign wealth fund chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman) for advertising. A lovely touch from the national broadcaster of the United Kingdom.
What is even more horrifying, despite the owners governing a nation where “cure therapy” is a commonly accepted practice, and people like myself are incarcerated, stoned, and, in some cases, even killed, the “United with Pride” Newcastle United LGBTQ+ group Tweeted this after confirmation of the takeover:
They start positively, stating the fact that Saudi Arabia is “one of the least tolerant for LGBTQ+ and gender rights anywhere in the World”. A fact we sadly know to be true. However, this takes a turn as they attempt to justify these conditions.
“However, the engagement and investment in international business and sport… could be viewed as an opportunity for decision makers in Saudi Arabia to witness how other cultures treat their minority groups.
There is potential to be a positive influence to improving the conditions for the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia…”via @UtdwithPride on Twitter
You would be forgiven for thinking your eyes had deceived you at first glance. What we see is a simple brush off of the harrowing discrimination directly affecting the United with Pride group, which the PIF stand for.
Perhaps the chance for an upturn in their footballing fortunes has softened their stance.
The perfect opportunity to strike up a dialogue with these monsters in an attempt to lessen the pain and suffering that people just like them, just like me have to endure on a day to day basis 4000 miles away.
Instead, we are left with a pathetic plea of ‘oh well’ highlighting the group’s intention to throw themselves into a Quietist acceptance of the disturbing reality.
It certainly seems money over morals take precedent in Tyneside.
What Can We Do Better?
What am I attempting to achieve with this piece?
I’m not asking every reader to commit themselves to LGBTQ+ allyship, or to wearing a rainbow flag as a cape on your next away day.
Instead, I’m looking for a simple change for fans to take on that would make a world of a difference for all facets of bigotry within football.
If we are able, as fans, to make watching football a less toxic environment, an environment where everyone feels welcome and valued, then maybe- just maybe- we may see more players building the courage to take that heroic and commendable step in finding their voice.
So, the next time you hear someone in the stands scream at the top of their lungs “rent boy”, or “bender”- something of the sort- challenge them, or, at the very least, question whether it’s right to join in.
Don’t boo the Rainbow Laces or Stonewall campaigns because “it has become all too political” and “politics has no place in football”, when the reality is it is simply upholding human rights- the human right to love- at its heart.
It’s also important to consider that many of the fans sitting all around you will be part of the LGBTQ+ community, whether out or not. So, ask yourselves, if you were on the receiving end of such abuse, or they were targeted towards you, how would it make you feel?
Perhaps then, eventually, we may find ourselves in a climate where more and more professional footballers feel comfortable to be open about their sexuality. Just as Justin Fashanu did.
If you liked this article, check out my twitter for much more @lukereevey
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images