Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kick It Out?: What do we mean by "It" when we talk about homophobia & football?

England's Football Association is apparently developing a campaign targeting football's homophobic culture. This isn't the first time the FA has made gestures in this direction, so pardon my cynicism about the depth of this organization's commitment to the topic. That said, the current campaign is being generated by Kick It Out, the FA's anti-racist program, which seems fairly successful in its consciousness-raising efforts.

Interest in the prevalence of homophobia in the English football world (something that hardly makes Brits unique) has peaked due to an October incident. Tottenham fans, who obviously had nothing good to say about their own team at the time, sang vile homophobic and racist chants at the Portsmouth player and English international Sol Campbell (long the target of such abuse, partly animated by resentment about his move from Tottenham to Arsenal).

I obviously have a lot to say about this subject: homophobia is a defining element of sports culture. It is deeply ingrained, and is a form of hate to which many leading figures in the sport feel perfectly entitled (like Chelsea's Scolari, who has said he'd kick any gay player off his side). Homophobia animates hostility towards the women's game - so much so, it is indeed hard to tell the difference between it and simple sexism. (For women in many parts of the world - including England - just playing soccer is enough to make you a "dyke" and target of homophobic abuse.)

The homophobia of English football is a reflection of its homosociality and - dare I say it? - we will have homophobia in the game as long as we have sexism in the game. The two are absolutely linked.

The term "homosocial" comes from sexuality studies, and describes single-sex spaces in patriarchal culture (like the military, the US Senate, fraternities, and sports teams) - these are environments defined by the exclusion of women. Defined, too, by the exclusion of all things feminine, effeminate, womanly, gay, or queer.

Clubs have made some interesting gestures towards gay and lesbian fans (see this story). This is a huge step in the right direction. But I'm going to say that just as important to changing things is the active support of women's involvement in the game, the elimination of baldly sexist advertising, and general consciousness raising among the people who work behind the scenes and in front of the camera about how to show respect for all of the people involved in football culture.

I am not saying the only way to get rid of homophobia is to have co-ed football. But we may not really get rid of homophobia in the game until we get rid of hostility towards women. Flip-side, too, is that we won't see an honest embrace of the women's game until we see a celebration of the lesbians who play it.

I just find it really hard to imagine how sports culture is going to make homophobia unacceptable without changing attitudes about not just sexuality, but gender too. The two go hand-in-hand.


  1. Howdee,

    -The chants directed at Sol Campbell are vile and disgusting, but it is the minority of Spurs fans who chant them. Where Campbell is concerned booing is acceptable, but most fans especially ones that attend the games with kids really don't like them.

    In the same game against Portsmouth, Jermain Defoe played, who had recently moved from Spurs. He's also black but there were no chants directed at him whatsoever. Campbell was worshipped by Spurs fans-he was on the greatest players ever for the club and went to their deadly rivals, some Spurs fans chant racist/homophobic chants at him because they know its what's going to cut him really deep. Sadly though there will always be fans who enjoy this aspect of the game more than others.

  2. Do you think it helps or hurts to have women's team from the same athletic club or franchise as a men's side? I'm a women's basketball fan and it seems like the fledgling pro leagues outside the NBA umbrella had a much healthier approach, a kind of barnstorming minor league quality that seemed to have equality built right into the mix. The WNBA teams in the same cities as the NBA and things like Arsenal Ladies FC seem to have inferior and second class built into the mix.

    OT: There are some excellent YouTube clips of the US U-17 Women's National Team at the first ever U-17 Women's World Cup in Auckland. I thought you might enjoy the clips.

  3. I think that the results speak for themselves. The countires that dominate women's soccer are also the ones that practice the least sexism in the rules and leagues.

    Until England and the FA figure out that there is no such thing as separate but equal and no reason to prohibit co-ed soccer, they won't be able to win at international level.

    There can be benefit to a club having both men's and women's teams (like Arsenal), but not if they are treated differently. My English women's league team plays against other teams who play on park pitches because their club reserves the club grounds for "the first team". In other words, the men's team. Who are clearly more important in other aspects of club life such as money, coaching, training facilities, access to the club physio, etc. Some clubs are better than others, but I don't know any who give their women's team equal rights, support, and interest with the "first team".

    -Yankee footballer in Britain

  4. Er, countries, even =)

    -Yankee footballer in Britain

  5. re "I am an Associate Professor in the English Department at UC Riverside, where I teach courses on American literature, gender studies, and the politics of visual culture."

    So what did you think of that Amanda Bynes movie about college football?

    please forgive me, I came here via Russell Brand.
    Do you link to his Guardian football column?

    I do agree with you that 'the politics of visual culture' need to be addressed more than they are.

    People don't actually want to be faced with actuality, and would not tune in to Desperate Housewives if the cast looked like any six random women chosen off the aisles in a supermarket.

    peace, love and good luck.


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