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'I feel like it's going to happen when it happens. We're in Ireland and it's very accepting of being gay'

Members of the Dublin Devils and PFAI general secretary Stephen McGuinness on the lack of LGBT representation in football.

The Dublin Devils are an LGBT-inclusive team.
The Dublin Devils are an LGBT-inclusive team.

LAST JULY, AN anonymous Twitter account caused a major stir.

A user of the site claiming to be an anonymous Championship footballer suggested he was intending to come out as gay.

On account of the ensuing publicity, @FootballerGay attracted over 50,000 followers and a date for the press conference was set.

A number of high-profile personalities from the game, including ex-England striker Gary Lineker, showed their support for the player, who The Guardian reported “is believed to be under the age of 23 and currently playing at a Championship club”.

Yet at the last minute, the individual in question performed an apparent u-turn.

“I thought I was stronger. I was wrong,” read the first tweet.

Call me all the names under the sun, belittle me and ridicule me, a lot will, and I can’t change that, but I’m not strong enough to do this. Just remember that I’ve got feelings, without coming out I can’t convince anybody otherwise, but this isn’t a hoax. I wouldn’t do that.”

The account was promptly deleted and naturally, some sceptics doubted its veracity.

But regardless of whether or not you choose to believe it was initially set up with good intentions, the story provided a sad reminder of the stark lack of LGBT representation in football.

And unfortunate as it is, perhaps it is not surprising when you consider the beautiful game’s frequently unsavoury treatment of any minority group.

Justin Fashanu remains the only English-based player to have publicly come out while playing in the Football League, making the announcement in a newspaper interview in 1990.

The former Norwich star was a regular target of crowd abuse following his admission, while he also recalled being the butt of dressing room jokes owing to his sexual orientation. Moreover, in 1998, he died tragically by suicide.

It was, of course, a different time, and societal attitudes towards homosexuality have evolved in the intervening years. But the sport still has some way to go, judging by recent events.

French football, in particular, has come under the microscope of late. Earlier this year, former Manchester United player Patrice Evra attracted controversy over his use of a homophobic slur, while already this season, there has been more than one instance of a Ligue 1 game being halted, after discriminatory banners were displayed in the crowd.

On the other hand, the outlook is not entirely bleak. In his new book, ‘The Age of Football,’ historian David Goldblatt writes that the LGBT community have been “challenging football’s deep and historic relationship with homophobia; Thomas Hitzlsperger, the German international who retired in 2013, is the highest profile footballer to come out, if only after retiring. Invisible on the pitch, the community has made its presence known in the stadium with the establishment of dozens of LGBT fan groups, from the Gay Gooners at Arsenal to Leipzig Pride in Germany, where an entire Queer Football federation of groups has emerged.”

Irish football is no exception to the general lack of LGBT representation on the pitch. There have been signs of progress lately though.

katie-mccabe Ireland and Arsenal star Katie McCabe has been open in discussing her sexuality. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Last June, national team captain Katie McCabe and team-mate Ruesha Littlejohn spoke publicly about their relationship for the first time. 

There is a clear discrepancy between the men and women’s game, however. In the latter, a number of stars, such as USA World Cup winner Megan Rapinoe, have been entirely comfortable opening up about their sexuality. Asked about this contrast recently, Arsenal star McCabe said: 

“In the women’s game, everything’s just chilled. I don’t know what it is with the men and people coming out, or why people are so obsessed about it.

“I feel like men’s footballers are so in the public domain all the time, maybe they just want to keep themselves to themselves. And that’s totally up to them, each to their own.

“But in terms of women’s football, you don’t have to come in and tell everyone your sexuality. You’re just accepted for who you are and I think that’s the way it should be in men’s or women’s football.”

One club who hope to help instigate change at a broad level are the Dublin Devils — an LGBT+ and inclusive club formed in 2005. An amateur team, they offer social games encompassing both 5 and 11-a-side leagues.

“It originally came about when one of our founders put an ad in Gay Community News just looking for some guys to have a kickabout,” club chair John McAree tells The42. “I think maybe eight or 10 lads met up. That sort of continued and from there, the club was founded officially. It formed a constitution and everything.

“We don’t discriminate against anybody. Even tonight in our league match, we have a couple of straight guys playing with us.

“We do want to encourage gay men, lesbians or bi to play football. Obviously, it’s a great sport, we’re all big football fans. The physical and mental health benefits of sport can really have a positive effect on your life — that’s certainly one thing that we want to encourage.” 

In addition, McAree points to the numerous instances of homophobia in football as having a seriously detrimental impact on any hopes of progress.

I think there’s a lot of eagerness to see an openly gay player at a high level. Not necessarily Premier League, but certainly at a very high level, just because of the global influence the game has historically and culturally. [There is a] feeling that football is very homophobic. You do see that in the stands. Say for example, teams that are playing against Brighton and Hove Albion. Because Brighton is seen as a gay town and the club has a lot of gay fans, their fans in general would be receiving a lot of homophobic abuse.

“There’s been a few news stories recently in France. The referee stopped the game after some homophobic banners were unfurled.

“Again, part of that has been down to some of the new laws that are coming in and their equality minister pushing things. There’s pushback against it — whether it’s intentionally homophobia or not, it still is homphobia. That sometimes can be the worst part — the people doing it probably aren’t homophobic at all — they see it as trolling, part of the culture or ‘just banter’. That is meaningless. At the end of the day, it’s homophobic plain and simple.”

om-press-conference-marseille Patrice Evra caused controversy after making a homophobic slur earlier this year. Source: Chagnard Guillaume/ABACA

McAree was one of those sceptical in relation to the aforementioned story involving the supposed Championship footballer.

He adds: “Something like that does so much to hurt our cause. Because if somebody does take it to heart — they see ‘this guy feels he wasn’t strong enough to do it,’ they might think ‘how am I different from them?’”

While any reasonable person would hope a football dressing room would be fully supportive of any player who decides to come out, it would be naive to assume that the general public would be similarly unequivocal in their acceptance of this individual.

In recent weeks, Manchester United star Paul Pogba has been racially abused on social media after missing a penalty. Ireland international Cyrus Christie has endured similar discrimination online following the team’s World Cup play-off defeat by Denmark. Would it be any different if an openly gay player suffered misfortune on the pitch?

“I think the majority of people who are doing it see it as trolling, but what they’re doing is spreading racism and hatred. The same would apply if it happened to any gay player who came out and missed a penalty and he received that kind of abuse online. It does feed into the whole attitude that football culture is inherently hateful, that any gay player playing at a high level would probably think: ‘I’d be crazy to come out.’”

As in England, the League of Ireland is another environment where openly gay players are conspicuous by their absence.

The Dublin Devils do have a partnership with Shelbourne FC as part of the latter’s ‘Shels in the Community’ programme, which has facilitated several games involving the two clubs in recent years.

Yet overall, there is still considerable progress to be made on these shores.

“I’d go to some League of Ireland games myself. I’m a Bray fan. It would be great to see somebody coming out, even at our level.

“You’ve got players in the GAA — Donal Óg Cusack, Valerie Mulcahy, Nicole Owens, David Gough, the referee, as well. 

There are players and officials at GAA level who are out, and there are no problems that I’m aware of. They would say that doing that has been a big help to accepting themselves. Any gay person who comes out would hopefully say the same thing.

“All of our stories are different, but when you come out, it can be a very freeing moment, and when you’re part of something like this, it’s huge. You’re surrounded by people who are just like you.

“So it would be great to see someone in the League of Ireland coming out, even at semi-pro level. I do feel here in Ireland, it’s a little bit different than the UK. I do think there would be more support. In my experience of League of Ireland grounds, I’ve never really heard anything too hateful being shouted.”

donal-og-cusack Former Cork hurler Donal Óg Cusack is among the GAA's LGBT representatives. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Diarmuid O’Riordan, a player with the Dublin Devils, strikes a similarly positive chord.

“I was working in London for four-five years. I then moved on to Cork to do a bit of farming, then moved back up to Dublin about three years ago.

“I had no contacts in the gay community. I’m very much interested in sport and wanted to stay true to that. I got on my Google search and found the Dublin Devils.

“I came around and was instantly welcomed. Suddenly, I had someone not only to play sports with but to go out with and someone to meet in any of the grounds and people to find common ground with.

“There are South Americans [on the team] and the story is still the same. It’s looking for that community. So we’re catering for the community.”

O’Riordan is also optimistic that an openly gay footballer will be playing at a high level of the men’s game sooner rather than later.

“I do think it’s going to change. It’s not something I dwell on. I feel like it’s going to happen when it happens. We’re in Ireland and it’s very accepting of being gay. From the youngest to the oldest, people in the country are fine with it. In other countries, it’s just not the same. I think that’s part of it. It’s very multi-cultural, high-level football.

“I think it’ll happen. It’s not bothering me. It’s only a matter of time.”

Stephen McGuinness, the general secretary of the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland, is confident an openly gay domestic-based player would have no issues with colleagues.

“In society, we’ve made huge strides in the last number of years [in relation to] people’s sexuality. When you see the marriage referendum, it is okay. We don’t have an issue in this country with it.

I would be very confident that players in every dressing room in the country would be supported, whether it’s team-mates or opposition players. I’d be confident that we’ve moved on, and that people are mature enough to handle any situation internally. I think there’s always been a healthy respect between players. We haven’t had issues where players have needed or felt the need to be critical of another player based on religion or the colour of their skin.”

He continues: “I think we have to ensure [in terms of] the greater public and the fans and the club itself — that structure and support is there. 

“I would reflect on it similarly to the mental health stuff. For years, people didn’t feel the support was there and were reluctant to look for help. At times, people feel it will affect their career in a negative way and we have to ensure that isn’t the case and that players are looked on the same, it doesn’t matter what their sexuality is.

“And it has been part of our club meetings and part of the wellness piece of the organisation. We’ve got a player development manager in place now that not only looks after players with regard to their career, but looks after their wellness. Part of wellness [encompasses] religion, sexuality, mental health, that they’re comfortable to come out, speak about it and have the support structures there that are private and confidential until the player wants to make it public. 

“Maybe publicly we don’t talk about them, but definitely privately within dressing rooms, our structures are there for the players.” 

Gavan Casey is joined by Andy Dunne and, from Japan, Murray Kinsella ahead of Ireland’s Rugby World Cup opener against Scotland.


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Paul Fennessy

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