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LGBT football supporters’ groups on the rise

January 23, 2017 in News & Features

In 2014, Proud Canaries was launched and became the second officially-recognised lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) football supporters’ group in the country – the first was Arsenal’s Gay Gooners.

Since then, the group and its chair Di Cunningham have gone from strength to strength. Proud Canaries has raised awareness of LGBT fans and challenged homophobia as well as other forms of discrimination at Norwich’s Carrow Road home.

LGBT supporters’ groups are on the rise; there are now over 20 around the country, including 11 in the Premier League.

Fans from several LGBT supporters’ groups get together at a pride event

Cunningham has even set up the Pride in Football supporters network, which had its first formal meeting with the Football Association (FA) last year. The next scheduled for March 2017.

The groups are formed of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans supporters who work alongside their clubs to make attending football matches a safer place for everyone, by challenging homophobia and other forms of discrimination.

And since Proud Canaries was established, Cunningham has certainly seen a change. “In the 2014-15 season there were five incidents of homophobia and this was Norwich fans reporting Norwich fans”

“People didn’t report it before, partly because they didn’t think it was something to report, that it was normal behaviour at a football ground, and partly because they didn’t think anything would happen.

“Both of those issues have been raised by our launch and solved due to the awareness of Proud Canaries; there are LGBT fans in the crowd and that person sitting over there may be LGBT.

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Proud Canaries logo

“The fans can see the club are committed to Proud Canaries, that they will take action. No-one was banned or had season tickets removed, they were ejected from the ground but all five people are on their last warning and there’s been no reports since.”

The Proud Canary added that Carrow Road is now more of a “welcoming place” and that “more people are aware of not being homophobic,” she stated “you certainly get that impression from other LGBT supporters groups as well”.

The challenges of homophobia in football

The challenges of erasing homophobia from football stadia are clear.

The worry, however, is that there is no data to show exactly how many reports have been filed regarding homophobic abuse, at what clubs and what action may or may not have been taken, be it by police or football club.

If homophobia amongst football crowds was no longer a problem, we wouldn’t have police warning fans about potential discriminating behaviours; see Aston Villa’s police liaison officer’s tweet below – I didn’t wan’t to share the homophobic comments that followed in the Tweet trail…

 

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Hertha Berlin’s anti-gay banner read: ‘WH96: Rather a mother than two fathers’

Often, homophobic abuse at football grounds, such as Brighton fans being taunted by the away supporters’ song ‘Does your boyfriend know you here?’ and Hertha Berlin’s recent banner jibe at Cologne (pictured) is labelled as ‘banter’, but Cunningham rejects this outright.

“I just don’t think any of it is banter; you wouldn’t hear it if it was racist, you just wouldn’t. Mocking anyone’s race is racist and anything mocking anyone’s sexuality is homophobic.”

The chair of Pride in Football explained the difficulties of reporting homophobia and the aim going forward. “What we are trying to do, as part of pride in football, across the country, is to get some kind of unified reporting system in place

“A set of data that shows how many reports there have been, at what clubs and what action was taken as a result.

“This just doesn’t exist at the moment, as there are so many different ways of reporting; be it through the club or the police and then it just ends, it’s been reported and nobody knows what happens as a result”.

Setting up Proud Canaries

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The late, openly gay Norwich striker Justin Fashanu

It was a personal experience that led Cunningham to set up the Proud Canaries, an experience of which many LGBT fans can sadly relate to.

“I had two season ticket holders who sat behind me, almost every home match would say something homophobic in some way and it began to really get to me.

“On Justin Fashanu’s birthday [Former Norwich striker and the first openly gay footballer who tragically hung himself in 1998] we had been handing out stickers from the yearly Norwich pride event, and that day I just turned round and said ‘Can you just not’.

“Shockingly they both had young sons they brought, so I did kind of confront of it, but I did feel bad for moving seats and not dealing with the problem.

“A friend of mine knew someone from the Gay Gooners group, so we thought we would set up the LGBT Proud Canaries.”

The club responded, and provide constant support for Proud Canaries. Norwich’s latest fans’ forum stated the following points:

  • Signage at Carrow Road is being reviewed and will be updated to incorporate reference to homophobia.
  • Reporting mechanisms for supporters to report abuse – more prominence to be given to contact details in match day programme.
  • Proud Canaries would like to offer their services as an educational resource as part of any anti-discrimination work the Club is undertaking, including through the Community Sports Foundation

You can see Di Cunningham’s video animation story explaining the beginnings of Proud Canaries by clicking here

Parliament committee’s and FA struggles

“Credit to the Premier League who gave us some money to have a planning away day, they’ve met with us regularly. The FA wouldn’t meet with us at first”

Chairing the group has even lead to Cunningham being asked to speak at a recent Culture, Sport and Media parliamentary committee, she said “It was brilliant, I was really pleased. Fans are usually the last in the list of people to be consulted by anybody”.

The FA Chairman Greg Clarke has twice been called to the committee and Cunningham explained that they’re getting somewhere. “Clarke has responded really well and after being called to two of the committee’s, we had a meeting with the FA”

The Premier League were supportive of the Proud Canaries last season, but the FA didn’t want to know.

Di Cunningham (left) pictured with local Police Commissioner Stephen Bett

“We had been banging on the door of the FA to give us a meeting, but credit to the Premier League who gave us some money to have a planning away day, they’ve met with us regularly. The FA wouldn’t meet with us at first.”

Although Cunningham admitted nothing is “concrete” as of yet, “progress is being made”.

There has been some fantastic work off the pitch, charted by the rise of LGBT fan groups and brilliant campaigners like Di Cunningham.

On the pitch we can only be closer to seeing a professional footballer, in England, confident enough to come out with his sexuality.

It’s likely the rise of LGBT fan groups could play a major role. Cunningham explained she’d “like to think” the supporters groups could help on the way to a footballer being open with their sexuality, but admits there’s still many challenges on the way for LGBT fan groups.

“LGBT fan groups have been in the absence of anything official from the FA, so we haven’t got the signage, the steward training and you still hear homophobia at many grounds and in the absence of that, we are a do-it-yourself movement.

“But it now looks like the authorities are going to act. I think it’s that awareness of the LGBT support groups, that there are LGBT fans around.

“It’s the fact the six percent of the population are LGBT. The next difficult thing to achieve is to make games more welcoming for transgender people.”

You can read more here: Pride in Football and Proud Canaries

‘Openly gay footballers? It’s a long way off’

November 3, 2016 in Interviews

“My sexuality and football are equally important in my life… it’s just a shame that the two can evoke a lot of conflict”

Sadly, being openly gay in football, as a fan or player, is to risk the homophobia that has run through the game for years.

Attitudes are gradually starting to change. A handful of footballers have come out as gay – mostly in retirement – and someone like Neil Beasley is able to tell his story, which is simply a must-read.

book cover 2Coventry City fan Beasley, also the player and chairman of Birmingham Blaze from the Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN), talks honestly about growing up gay in the game and fighting for his right to enjoy the sport he loves without prejudice.

The author describes his opportunity on telling a story from a point of view that hasn’t been told before.

“There are grassroots players who are out and nobody ever talks about them,” he told me. “Nobody talks about their lives and no-one cares or asks what it’s like for lesbian, gay, bi and transsexual (LGBT) fans.”

His story, which took two years to write, touches on Beasley’s youth, playing football, coming out to his team-mates and the macho culture that views gays as weak and somehow not masculine enough to play a ‘man’s game’.

The book also raises awareness about the GFSN and the ugly homophobic abuse that still dogs the beautiful game at all levels.

As well as his own struggles, Beasley’s book offers views from a former Premier League professional, an openly gay non-league manager and a current gay non-league footballer.

“It wasn’t too hard to be open with my feelings telling the story. Trying to get hold of a professional player to talk, now that was hard!” Beasley said.

“We tried lots of people and lots of football clubs to get help. It was difficult, when it came to the subject hardly anyone wanted to talk and when we finally got somebody they didn’t want their name put with it

“The reason we think the professional didn’t want his name in the book was because of what happened with Matt Jarvis, who appeared on front of Attitude gay magazine and got a lot of abuse.”

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Matt Jarvis appeared on the cover of Attitude magazine in 2013

Jarvis, who is heterosexual, appeared on the cover of Attitude magazine in January 2013 whilst at West Ham and gave an interview stating that gay footballers should be open about their sexuality.

In the book, the anonymous Premier League player discusses his views on homophobia and how he played for a team with an openly gay footballer in the set-up.

“I never would have known that he was gay if he hadn’t come out. It makes me wonder if I have played with other players who are gay. I must have.

“The courses that organisations like the FA are running, coupled with campaigns such as Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces are improving peoples’ awareness and understanding,” he adds.

Are we close to having openly gay footballers?

In 2016, we are yet to have an openly gay footballer across all professional leagues in England, and Beasley told me that he believes it won’t happen for a while yet.

“There will gay footballers right now. When do we think they’re going to come out? I think we’re a long way off

“There would be quite a distance between one and two coming out but between two, three, four etc, they’d come quite quickly”

“Every time we get somewhere, somebody else says something stupid. You can’t go more than six months without someone bringing it to a negative light

“I don’t know why you would want to come out. Life would be difficult, if you were having a bad game, the fans are going to hate you and what’s the first thing they look for? Weakness.

“Being gay is always seen as a weakness, not being macho, it’s the first thing they’re going to go for.

“People say it’s no different from when the black people played in the 80s. Yes, it is – you could see that they’re black.”

Coming out

Most football fans are familiar with the case of former Nottingham Forest striker Justin Fashanu, who in 1990 came out as gay. No-one else followed suit. The first black footballer to command a £1 million transfer fee tragically hanged himself in 1998.

However, the author of Football’s Coming Out believes in 2016 there would be a chain reaction if one high-profile footballer came out.

“We would see an initial delay because everyone would want to see what would happen.

“What would happen if you went and reported someone for making homophobic comments to a steward or police? Nothing”

“There would be quite a distance between one and two coming out but between two, three, four etc, they’d come quite quickly.”

Being open with his sexuality to fellow team-mates at Non-League Heyford Athletic was courageous of Beasley, but for him a situation which, bizarrely, he found “disappointing”.

“People ask what it was like coming out to team-mates, they’re after a meaty story but I always say actually nobody really cared!

“In a roundabout way it was a real disappointment! In my mind I was going to get kicked out of the club,” joked the author.

But he remains adamant there have been no real improvements in relation to homophobia in the sport.

“What I think there is, is a media interest that was never there before, trying to push a positive spin on it. From a fans point of view, it’s not a great deal different.”

Abuse from the terraces

In the book, which was nominated for the prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, Beasley describes how we still hears homophobic abuse on the terraces today; specifically at a recent England World Cup qualifier.

“Outsiders enter a football stadium with this fear of hooliganism, and their fears are often compounded through the aggressive, hostile atmosphere at games.

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Beasley kisses the Birmingham Blaze badge

“And when the outsider is gay? Well, they’re definitely going to be pretty fearful of the hateful, often homophobic, attitude.”

Beasley recalls Tom Cleverley having homophobic abuse hurled at him at Wembley.

“Fans love a scapegoat, and this idiot picked out Cleverly, the reason for the midfielder’s underperformance was that he was a ‘faggot’

“The vocal fan carried on with a volley of aggressive homophobic abuse as the game continued. Inside, I was seething”.

Beasley said the homophobic abuse we hear at football matches needs to be questioned.

“It needs to be challenged. If you stood there and shouted something racist, it would be challenged by other supporters

“What would happen if you went and reported someone for making homophobic comments to a steward or the police? Nothing. That’s what I think would happen.”

Emergence

A recent BBC 5live survey showed that 8% of fans would turn their backs on their team if they had an openly gay footballer. A percentage that Beasley believes is worryingly “high”.

“They say, on one hand, they’re fanatical about supporting their club. On the other, if you get a gay player which doesn’t affect you in any way shape or form, in fact makes no difference to your life whatsoever, you’re just going to quit supporting your team? It seems barmy to me.”

Until the Football Association have an openly gay player to support, Beasley believes it’s always going to be tricky for them

“It’s difficult for the FA, I’m always kicking them, always! But it is difficult and always will be till they have a gay player to support. At the moment it’s all just words.”

But the Birmingham Blaze chairman remains positive: “Things will change, maybe not in the near future, but they will.

“We’re seeing now an emergence of LGBT fan groups at various clubs and with this, we may get a different response down the line.”

Football’s Coming Out is published by Floodlit Dreams Ltd (£9.99 Amazon)

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