Written by Jen Offord

Health

Homophobia in sport

New British drama The Pass opens in cinemas today, focusing on homophobia in the hyper-masculine world of football. It’s been a long time coming, says Jen Offord.

Men of the match: gay footballers Jason (Russell Tovey) and Ade (Arinzé Kene) in The Pass. Photo: Lionsgate.

Men of the match: gay footballers Ade (Arinzé Kene) and Jason (Russell Tovey) in The Pass. Photo: Lionsgate.

A new film, The Pass, tells the story of two ‘closeted’ gay footballers. Starring Russell Tovey as Jason, and Arinzé Kene as Ade, it charts their progression from teenagers on the cusp of a breakthrough match that will define their careers, to grown men living with the decisions they made after one fateful night.

Aside from it being a powerful film, featuring strong performances from Tovey and Kene – both of whom may be the proud holders of an Evening Standard film award by the time this is published – it shines a timely light on the issue of homosexuality in football.

The film shows the torture felt by central character Jason, who spends an entire career repressing his sexuality, something you assume isn’t uncommon in the real world. Particularly given the statistics: despite the fact that Office of National Statistics data reveals two per cent of men in the UK identify as gay, there is not one openly gay footballer in the top four flights of English football.

There’s a lot to unpick here, enough probably for a series of essays rather than just one article. For a start, why is it necessary for a footballer to come out? I don’t have to come out as straight. Surely it’s on society to understand sexuality as well as gender as more fluid concepts?

That said, clearly the increased visibility of gay men and women – and particularly in communities and industries dominated by or perceived as ‘belonging to’ specific genders, or indeed sexes – is a desirable and beneficial thing. It would also be of use to those within the game and outside of it feeling pressure to ‘conform’, for want of a better word.

LGBT charity Stonewall is currently working to highlight this problem. Speaking to Standard Issue, a spokesperson cited some shocking statistics: “Homophobia is a serious issue in sport – on the pitch, in the terraces and in the locker rooms. For example, we know that 72 per cent of football fans have heard homophobic abuse at a live sports event.”

They added: “We have also learned from our research that attitudes in sport need to change before everyone feels free to be themselves, both on and off the pitch. Two thirds (60 per cent) of young people said openly LGBT players would have a positive impact on the culture of sport.”

When you look at the statistical improbability of the absence of openly gay footballers, there are questions to be asked. But one of those must also be why then, in the women’s game, is it that society almost assumes athletes will be gay?

“Let’s be clear on this: if you’ve been using your genitalia for any sport outside the kind practised between consenting adults in the bedroom, you have been doing it wrong.”

A cursory Google will reveal pretty quickly that sport is still, undeniably, perceived as a man’s world. For a start, you’ll be hard pressed to find any coverage of women’s sport at all in the mainstream media – and why would you when that valuable space could be filled by a story about Anthony Joshua picking up some weights with his teeth, or a picture of a Chelsea fan in her bikini (as it was on the Mail Online’s website while I was writing this).

It’s easy to conflate the issues, because they are undeniably intertwined. The issue of homophobia in football boils down to two key societal fallacies alongside this perception of sport as an overtly masculine world: gay men are not ‘real men’ and gay women are not ‘real women’. This contributes to the acceptance or lack thereof of both groups on the pitch. These are assertions that, in 2016, need to be addressed in the strongest of terms because they are clearly bullshit.

These assertions make sport a more hostile environment for everyone, not just the demographics directly implicated, who could otherwise be enjoying its myriad benefits. Young girls, in particular, cite the perception of sport being ‘for boys’ as a reason why they drop out of physical education, as so many do in their early teens.

Let’s be clear on this: if you’ve been using your genitalia for any sport outside the kind practised between consenting adults in the bedroom, you have been doing it wrong.

Stonewall’s campaign is focussed on tackling the issue of homophobia in sport, so that it becomes “everyone’s game” – something where we all, but particularly the gender equality lobby, should stand beside the LGBT community.

Sport, and football particularly, presents a ridiculous paradox that’s as damaging to heterosexual men as it is to any other section of society. It is celebrated in terms of traditional standards of masculinity, while at the same time overtly demonstrating characteristics defined by society as ‘feminine’.

For example, why is it somehow more acceptable for a man to show emotion during a football match than it is in everyday life? Just look at the sunburned guy in the England shirt, smudging the St George’s flag painted on his face as he weeps over whatever tournament his team just crashed out of.

Rather than being seen as the bastion of homophobia, what if football actually played an active role in challenging perceptions of sexuality and gender identity? Now that would make it a beautiful game.

Find out more and support Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign here.
The Pass is on general release from today.

@inspireajen

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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen