t is a cold March night at MacDiarmid Park. St Johnstone have just salvaged a draw against Hibs with an equaliser in the 83rd minute. As the referee blows the full-time whistle, the exasperated breath of a few thousand Hibees meets in the air above our heads. We stand up, almost in unison and, clutching programmes and scarves, we begin the trudge out of the stadium. Despite the scoreline, I am happy.
This is the first football match I have been to in years and, as we file towards the turnstiles, I try to remember what’s kept me away. I miss spending time with my brothers and my dad. I miss the palpable tension, the songs, the beauty and the rage apparent in a Friday night league game late into the season. I miss the scalding innards of a macaroni pie devoured too quickly. I miss, more than anything, the football. The depth of camaraderie that comes with following a team, particularly one whose fortunes seem to fluctuate year upon year.
As we leave we can see Ally McCoist in the punditry booth, elevated in the corner of the ground. A group of men start chanting “Ally, Ally, gies a wave!” and soon enough at least 100 people have joined in. Ally obliges with a big grin, knowing that this adoration is only fleeting. Still, the crowd cheers, happy to be acknowledged. Then from some unidentifiable source in the throng comes the shout “Aye, ya fuckin’ poof!” and suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so difficult to remember why I’ve never been a season-ticket holder.
The comment doesn’t provoke much of a reaction. I, personally, am not even particularly offended by it in the moment; I just forgot that this was what it was like, that despite the years of rainbow laces and captain’s armbands, Scottish football – that is, men’s Scottish football – still has a problem with homophobia.
According to a 2016 survey by Stonewall Scotland, of the people who had witnessed anti-LGBT abuse at a sporting event, 82% had witnessed it at a football game. Indeed, just over half of Scottish football fans surveyed by the Equality Network in 2017 reported witnessing homophobic behaviour at a football ground. While rugby fans are praised for the welcoming atmospheres they create at Murrayfield, the same cannot be said for the crowds that gather weekly in the grounds of football stadiums across the nation.
The zero-tolerance approach of clubs towards racism has been commendable. Empowering fans to report instances of unacceptable abuse has yielded real results, such as the two Hearts fans given indefinite bans in 2018 because their fellow supporters alerted the club’s staff to the racist abuse they had been spouting from the stands. And yet while the policies against homophobic language remain as stringent as that against racism, the reality of enforcement is different.
This is, I think, partly because of the way homophobic language has imbedded itself so deeply into the Scottish vernacular as to seem almost innocuous. Once, while I was working as a tour guide, an older bloke I worked with jokingly called a straight colleague a “poof” in front of me. Quickly realising his faux pas, he proceeded to profusely apologise: “You know I didn’t mean it in that way,” he said. And he didn’t, not really. In all my dealings with him he had never said an unkind word or treated me in any way differently because I was gay. The word just slipped out. He meant to good-naturedly tease my colleague for being a “wimp” or a “coward”. The trouble was he ended up inferring that those were immutable characteristics of, well, me.
Because the problem isn’t really that fans are aiming to make football grounds an inhospitable environment for LGBT people. It’s just, in football, abuse of all kinds has traditionally come with the territory. Just listen to the language hurled at referees and officials (or observe their dwindling retention rates, particularly of those working in amateur leagues). Most football fans, you would guess, don’t want referees to take their insults to heart; it is just part of the game, the passion for the team they love expressed in a verbal tirade against a dubious decision.
Referees at least know what they are signing up for. Gay people are largely treated as collateral damage. Chances are, if you attend enough matches, you will hear someone called a “poof” or a “buftie”. And even if they don’t mean it in that way, the words carry a different potency when they have been used as a weapon to beat you with. I can easily distinguish the subtle differences of a word’s meaning through the intent and context of how it is used; but the point is that I shouldn’t have to. I just want to watch the football.
Many people point to the notable absence of any openly gay football players in a major league as proof of the inhospitable environment. The tragedy of Justin Fashanu, who was recently inducted into England’s National Football Hall of Fame, no doubt hangs over the head of any professional player that might contemplate going public about his sexuality. Fashanu’s suicide occurred in the limelight. He hung himself after being accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy in the state of Maryland (where all homosexual acts were, at that time, illegal).
As his suicide note stated: “I realised I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family.” However, I think it is fair to say that football clubs themselves are more welcoming places to gay players than they ever were in Fashanu’s time. It may seem that rainbow laces have had little tangible effect, but the very fact of their visibility signals a promise of acceptance that has been long overdue. Even if the presence of Malky Mackay as the SFA’s performance director – a man with a known history of casual homophobia – is hardly heartening, the environment for homosexual players is undeniably more welcoming than it ever has been.
Perhaps, then, it is not so much the fear of discrimination that keeps players from sharing who they really are, but fear of the fanaticism and intrusion they would face should they choose to tell the media. A gay football player would not only have to deal with the inevitable heckling of the opposition fans, but also wider society’s need to celebrate them for an attribute they never had a say in; a facet of their character that, unlike their skill as a player, didn’t take years of graft and training. The dilemma any prospective gay footballer faces is that their career would be overshadowed by their story. Whoever chooses to become the first openly gay professional male football player in the UK would be falling on a sword that would bleed them of their privacy. By coming out they would destroy any chance of being known solely for their talent as a player rather than a personal life that the tabloid newspapers would undoubtedly feast upon.
And yet, it is necessary. Because until young gay players can see themselves in the Premier League all but the strongest-willed will hang up their boots prematurely. Young players have to deal with the fierce competition of getting scouted, the stress of negotiating contracts, of possibly uplifting their lives year-upon-year just to maintain a career. Any other added stress increases the chances of failure. Nobody should have to sacrifice their personal comfort in order to prove that a gay player’s life doesn’t have to end in tragedy. But until they do the absence of a role model will continue to damage not just individual players but the game as whole. How much talent has already been squandered due to fear of prejudice? How is anyone expected to report homophobic language when the victims of its damage remain anonymous?
I stopped playing football when I was 12 years old. And despite what I told my parents I didn’t stop because I didn’t enjoy playing any more; I stopped because the boys on my team made me feel as if I didn’t belong there. Though I never exactly minced into training humming a show tune, children are so readily trained in the prejudices they inherit from those around them that I couldn’t dodge the accusations. Even if I barely spoke it was as if my silence proved something, something that I wasn’t even sure of myself. So, I quit because it was too hard to get bullied and play football. Too anxiety-inducing an experience for a 12-year-old to cope with. A gay footballer might have given me hope. He would, at least, have shown me that the secret I harboured within me wasn’t incompatible with success in football.
In all likelihood I would never have amounted to anything as a player (I was, at best, a serviceable right winger). Yet the commonplace consequence of discrimination is that we will never know how many goals have gone unscored or trophies unlifted. Senseless prejudice robs the world of talent. And until we see it – until that talent can walk onto a pitch and not fear the slurs or the chants or the cheap journalistic jokes about what happens in the showers at full-time – we will continue to be impoverished. An openly gay footballer wouldn’t just benefit the LGBT community; it would benefit football.