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Vienna | 23.10.2008 | 16:39 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

The Final Frontier of Football
  I've just got back from a trip to England, where the fight against homophobia is making a rare appearance in the back pages of the newspapers.

This comes after Portsmouth and England defender Sol Campbell was confronted with a barrage of foul abuse about his alleged homosexuality from large sections of the fans of his ex-club Tottenham Hotspurs.

Sol Campbell's actual sexual preference doesn't matter, nor does it interest me, but the vitriol has, at long last, begun to interest the authorities that have traditionally turned a deaf ear to what has been trivialized as mere "harmless banter".

This time it was impossible to ignore. Partly because of the viciousness of the chanting against Campbell, as well as the sheer number of fans involved. Literally thousands of fans bellowed out jibes that Sol Campbell was HIV positive and expressed a wish that he might soon die.

The English FA has launched an investigation. There is loud talk of fines and matches played in front of empty stadia.
Cauldren of Intolerance
  That action is being taken is news. That is homophobia is rife in European football is not.

The Sol Campbell incident is an extreme case of a cauldron of intolerance that has been simmering away for years across Europe. I've heard first hand, homophobic chanting in stadia in England, Austria, German and Italy.

Even in the oh so tolerant world of the FM4 community, I had to cut out two of my reports from the WUK about this summer's Euro2008 clash between Austria and Germany because they were drowned out by melodious chants of "Michael Ballack ist homosexuell!".
Harmless Banter?
  Can homophobic chants be mere harmless banter? Am I being overly politically correct?

After all, I dare say Ballack would shrug off the abuse.

But put yourself for a minute in the shoes of football fan Chris Basiurski. A decade ago Chris was a teenager coming to terms with the realization that he was gay.

It's a tricky period for any teenager in that position, of course, but for Chris it was even more difficult, since every week he was surrounded by his friends and fans on the terrace singing anti-gay songs. "It feels terrible," he says, "and it makes it very hard to come to terms with your sexuality."

When he finally did come out he was quickly ostracized from his local amateur football team: "They didn't say I couldn't play, they just made the atmosphere intolerable for me, so that I no longer wanted to play."

By that stage in the development of modern day Britain, Chris says, the colour of your skin mattered little in amateur football, but being a gay man and being into football wasn't considered compatible.

Sadly, he says, it still isn't - neither on the terraces nor on the playing fields.
  Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatschell thinks that that he knows part of answer as to why that perception lasts:

"If you look at the whole history of football, it has not just been a male dominated sport but quite a macho and aggressive one, and I think that that has played into a certain male psyche that has tended to be quite homophobic."

And that is despite the hugging and kissing and shared baths that Tatschell describes as "somewhat homoerotic".

Being Gay and Liking Football
  Interestingly when Chris "came out" his new gay friends told him he could drop his "ridiculous straight front" as a football fan.

But he didn't want to. It wasn't a front. He had loved football all his life and it was a large part of his social life. He just happened to be gay. Why is that such a big surprise? Why are the two worlds presented as being irreconcilable?

Chris has found a new home in the UK based Gay Football Supporters Network , of which he is now a spokesman. The Network runs its own national league, which it claims to be unique in the world, where gay (and straight players should they wish to) can play in prejudice and discrimination free atmosphere and organized the recent gay football world cup.

Chris is somewhat unusual in wishing for the downfall of the organization that he represents. If homophobia didn't exist, then there would be no need for such a refuge, and the world would be a better place.
Anti-Racism inspiration
  But how do you rid the game of homophobia?

Peter Tatchell has demanded that all clubs should agree to introduce a five-year ban on players and fans who indulge in racist or homophobic insults. And he is calling on the Football Association to hand out stiff financial penalties to clubs who fail to keep homophobic supporters away.

But he admits that fines and sanctions for clubs should clearly be only a last resort. They don't get to the roots of the problem.

Not surprisingly the gay football fans look to the fight against racism as a source of inspiration. That is a battle that is far from won sadly, but it is an area that has seen a great amount of progress, particularly in the Premier League.

In Britain in the late 1970's and early 80's fans would shamefuly hurl bananas at coloured players. But if you chant racist slogans on a football terrace in Britain, you are likely to be silenced by the outrage of your fellow fans.

That, says Chris Basiurski, is less because of the threat of sanctions and more because of a high profile, decades long campaign led by leading players. It would be nice, he says, to think the same thing could work for homophobia - but there will have to be a change in attitude amongst players first:

"We are quite certain that if you asked a player or a team to pose in front of a banner saying 'kick racism out of football' they would all do it. If you were to ask those same people to wear a badge or be photographed with a banner saying "kick homophobia out of football" we don't think they would be so willing to do it."
A big taboo
  In terms of prejudice, homophobia seems to be the final frontier of the world's most popular sport.

Perhaps that's partly because homosexuality in top league men's football remains a taboo. You can't hide the colour of your skin, but, according to Peter Tatchell, gay players have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide their sexuality, visiting the UK's top publicists who relay stories in the press to convey a heterosexual image in the media.

There are over several thousand professional football players registered in Britain. Not one of them is openly gay.

Left Behind
  And who could blame them? The sort of abuse that Sol Campbell has had to endure is enough to deter the bravest man from outing himself.

And why should gay public figures out themselves? It's a question that REM's singer Michael Stipe satirically poses here.

It's a good point, of course, but the very invisibility of homosexuality in football has made its acceptance so slow to catch on. It's a vicious circle. No player dares out himself because of the lack of tolerance, but nothing would do more to normalise the acceptance of homosexuality in football that if a respected player outed himself and proved being gay is nothing to be ahamed of.

It is, after all, the year 2008.

As England goalkeeper wrote in a strong article in the Guardian, "Football, it seems, is one of the last professional environments where you can't be out and proud."

This is sad. It sometimes seems that on this issue Western society has moved on rapidly in the past generation, but football has stayed put. In Britain boys dare tell their school friends that they are homosexual; something Chris Basiurski says was unthinkable a decade ago, but men usually wouldn't dare tell their teammates on the football pitch.
Top Support
  Both Chris and Peter Tatschell believe that if they could persuade high profile players, regardless of their sexuality, to speak out loudly against homophobia, they would be a massive step in the right direction.

David Beckham, a man who has made it socially acceptable to wear sarongs, advertise facial creams and appear on the front cover of gay magazines, springs to mind as an obvious candidate.

"There are people who are willing to make efforts and are willing to speak out," says Chris Basiurski, "but we need more of it. And if David Beckham or someone of his stature came out and helped us, we would be absolutely delighted."

Beckhams' England team-mates, like David James, are showing the way. And, in the light of the Sol Campbell abuse, stand-in England captain Rio Ferdinand, rapidly becoming the improbable candidate for the wisest man in football, spoke out against the routine hate-chants in the stadia of the Premier League:

"There are young kids present who want to be entertained, not hear someone a couple of rows back slagging players off."
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