Rugby league player Keegan Hirst gave a passionate speech at this month's Stonewall Equality Dinner about coming out as sportsperson, taking time to address the rumours about the lack of any out and proud Premiership football players.He talked about how it isn’t our job to ask why, when or who, and that we shouldn’t be hounding footballers to come out. Our duty, he said, is to make society a safer place to come out.
An important part of this work, Keegan noted, was our Rainbow Laces campaign. We kicked this off again a couple of weeks ago with Arsenal and Manchester United. Both clubs made a public show of their commitment to kick homophobia, biphobia and transphobia out of sport by exchanging a pair of giant Rainbow Laces before their match at Old Trafford. The Premier League tweeted in support, players and managers got involved, and so did many Arsenal and Manchester United fans.They showed the commitment of a real team, rallying around to ensure everyone feels included. This was something Keegan said was crucial to his coming out.
But for every comment cheering on this issue there was also the inevitable sneering. We expected it, we always do. It’s a guarantee that as soon as ‘gayness’ goes near a football pitch old slurs will pop up on comment boards and social media. As soon as we relaunched Rainbow Laces accusations of pushing an agenda were quickly thrown our way. These amuse me more than anything because they suggest that treating people equally is in some way sinister, and that there isn’t an agenda already (more on that later). Then there are the shouts of ‘no one cares’. Sorry to break it to you, but you do care. You’ve taken time out of your day to tell the world about how not bothered you are. Your actions betray your words.
Then there is outright homophobic vitriol. As soon as Michael Carrick and Laurent Koscielny walked on pitch with the Rainbow Laces, bile was spat out on our social media feeds. The beautiful game once again showed its ugly underbelly.
One comment stood out to me as it encapsulated the problem. A fan had tweeted about the fact that their support was for ‘a sporting outfit, not a progressives/social club’. And here is the nub of the issue. To honestly believe that football is just about players kicking a ball around shows a complete lack of awareness about the huge social impact that the game has, and the very strict, albeit subconscious, social rules that govern who the playerscan and can’t be.
Such unwritten rules are forcing people to hide who they are, either on the pitch or on the terraces. That’s not equality. And anyone who says ‘why do people have to come out, no one cares what you do in your private life’ is talking utter tosh. All of the abuse on social media and on the terraces proves how ignorant this viewpoint is. Many people, unfortunately, do care. They write to tell us they don’t. But if they really didn’t care, if we were all treated equally, if people could fully be themselves in all walks of their lives, LGBT people wouldn’t feel excluded from sport.
Imagine the fear that grips players who are LGBT. As they graduate through the game, every selection causes anxiety because they know the spotlight on them is going to shine a bit brighter. They know their secret is in danger of being discovered. The culture surrounding football at the moment is too narrow, and some of the taunts levelled at players so anti-LGBT, that players can never forget the rules, and how important it is to fit in, even at the expense of their own well-being.
The aim of our Rainbow Laces campaign is to get rid of the ugly underbelly that currently exists. We’re not pushing an agenda into the game, we’re trying to push one out.
And believe it or not, if we succeed, this will actually make for better football. It’s not only unacceptable for people to behave like this, it’s illogical. Players who feel they may not be accepted for being themselves, or who are playing in a game that excludes – even implicitly – people like them, won’t perform as well as they could. Concentrating on the game is quite tricky when your head isn’t it. When you’re LGBT and you’re forced to hide it, your thoughts, your actions – your abilities even – are stymied by persistent paranoia that you’re going to get found out.
If our campaign succeeds, it will also make the game feel more welcoming of LGBT fans, many of whom stay away as they do not feel welcome on the terraces or in the pub.
We are calling on people up and down Britain to put on a pair of Rainbow Laces to show their commitment to kicking homophobia, biphobia and transphobia out of sport. We need people to do this small gesture because, as Keegan said in his speech, we need to work together as a team and shoulder the responsibility for creating a world where it is OK for footballers to come out. They can’t – and shouldn’t – be forced to do this on their own. They need all of us to make a very public show of how much support there is and that, despite all the vitriol on social media, there is a team who will be there for them when they are ready to come out.