Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Let's ask the FA to come out of the closet (about its own homophobia)

The FA announced recently that it was delaying the official debut of its attempt at an anti-homophobia campaign.  That project was to have been inaugurated with a viral video about fan behavior.

The video shows a "typical" English fan - white, male, presumed straight. He appears to be going to work, but as he does so, he heaps homophobic insults on everyone around him - the objects of his bile and the witnesses to the abuse all recoil in disgust. As the narrative transitions from our hero's ordinary work-life like to the stadium, we see him direct his homophobic insults to the field "You queer! Hope you die of AIDS! You scum, you poof!" As the video moves from work to the stands we are given the following message: "This behavior is unacceptable here (at work), so why should it be acceptable here (in the stands)."

Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has been involved with the FA's recent efforts to raise awareness about homophobia within football culture, and comments on the state of affairs at the FA in a recent article for The Guardian ("Football homophobia stays in play"). Tatchell had proposed an "MTV-style" ad, featuring celebrity players and an attention-grabbing soundtrack but had been outvoted by those who wanted a more aggressive narrative featuring abusive behavior and a negative message. When confronted with the video that the FA itself had commissioned, designed around the message that it had requested, they felt the need to go back to the drawing board.

Tatchell writes that the FA is totally unprepared to support this ad. It would be a hard message to deliver even from within a well-articulated gay rights campaign.  The organization is hardly a bastion of progressive thinking and behavior when it comes to gender and sexuality.  Tatchell reports that the FA made no serious effort to educate the leading public figures in English football to support this project. Nor did they make a serious request to those people who might have lent their faces to a campaign, or prepare those likely to be asked to speak publicly in support of the FA's efforts.

In fact, Tatchell tells us that the FA disbanded its existing anti-homophobia working group, which was responsible for effecting some meaningful policy changes (eg rules encouraging clubs to ban fans for homophobic behavior), and replaced it
with a hand-picked, much smaller and less representative number of members. It no longer includes all interested stakeholders. Many relevant lesbian and gay groups are not included. This does not inspire confidence. Even now, the FA will not explain why the old group was disbanded, nor has it made public who is on the new working group.
I don't think it's cynical of me to suggest that homophobic FA administrators might have had a hard time working with the gay and lesbian activists who were part of the original working group.

John Amaechi, a former NBA player and the only English athlete in the NBA's hall of fame, has been speaking out about this video and the fiasco of the FA's efforts (check out his terrific new blog, Dear John).  He points out in an editoral for The Times that some seem stuck on the notion that only gay athletes can be the face of such a campaign - the leaders in the sport seem to be waiting for a player to come out of the closet and show everyone else the way.  Amaechi well knows this sort of pressure, having come out of the closet only after his retirement from professional basketball. (See The Telegraph's profile.)

Of course it would be great if Cristiano Ronaldo, John Terry, and, let's say, Fernando Torres started to wave rainbow flags and speak about the terrible pressures of staying in the closet while leading very public lives. It would be awesome if they could, say, quote Oscar Wilde as they spoke in eloquent but accessible language about the terrible impact that homophobia has had on their development as men and as athletes. Should we all sit on our hands and wait for that day?  Of course not. To ask athletes to come out and fix everything for the footballing community is ludicrous and unfair, especially if the leaders of that community do nothing (and worse) to make such a coming out possible.

If no EPL player has come out in recent years, it has much more to do with clubs, and with the integral place of homophobia in sports culture than with the behavior of the worst fans. Think about it: If a club were really behind the issue, it could certainly make homophobia unwelcome.  It might make players who have been taunted feel supported. It could embrace gay and lesbian members of its administrative staff, stop homophobia where it starts - in its youth academies, for example. Clubs might proactively, publicly embrace their gay and lesbian supporters. They might lend support to LGBT organizations in their neighborhoods, get involved with queer youth programs.

The problem with homophobia in football culture can't and shouldn't be reduced to the most obvious, bigoted behavior of a few people in the stands.  That is what this guy represents - not the behavior of FA administrators, managers, agents, players, team staff, and the media who recoil in horror at the idea of being accountable to gay men, lesbians, and transgendered people who are members of the footballing community. That guy doesn't represent the institution that tolerates women's football as long as no one mentions the L word (homophobia was absolutely one of the engines behind the FA's 50 year ban of the women's game, and continues to impact attitudes about the women's game). It doesn't address the vigorous reproduction of a sexist and phobic environment within the workplaces, within spaces of play, and certainly in the global media phenomenon built around the EPL.

The ad's biggest weakness, in other words, is that it isn't actually addressed to the mainstream. As a story, it doesn't address either the passive tolerance of homophobia, or the anti-gay attitudes that don't make people recoil in horror - that are accepted as "boys will be boys" behavior, or as support of just what's "natural." It also doesn't show a single person standing up to the homophobic asshole.

Imagine rewriting that ad so that instead of showing people recoiling in horror, but doing nothing we see his abuse stopped, we see people stand up against his behavior - on the tube, at work, and in the stands? What if we see him shamed? Why not say to the video's audience: You should not tolerate homophobia anywhere, from anyone. Period. 

Amaechi points out that the ad is too limited in its scope - homophobia isn't bad because it's bad for gay people.  It's toxicity impacts everyone. He writes,
In school, for a boy, being clever and interested in academia is gay, being kind and thoughtful is gay, being respectful to a parent, authority figure or woman is gay.

For a man, being sexually considerate - that is, not sleeping with everything female that moves - is gay.  Having non-sexual friendships with women is gay.  Being nurturing and considerate is gay.  Having a friend who is gay, is gay.  Choosing not to drink until you puke is gay.  In football, even reading the guardian or using words with more than three syllables is gay.

We still socially reinforce industrial revolution-style gender identity on our boys and men so that to be a "real man" you must be the opposite of anything even remotely considered feminine.

We wonder why violence against women is rising?  Why our boys run away from academic pursuits in school?  Why they rebel against authority and steel themselves from the true expression of emotion despite the consequences? (John Ameichi, The Truth: homophobia hurts straight people too.)
It's a terrific point. And a consciousness-raising campaign that aimed to make those connections, and which left an audience with a shared sense of responsibility towards changing things might actually have an impact.

I leave you with an example of fierce visual art/activism which does just this - from Gran Fury's anti-homophobic campaign "Kissing Doesn't Kill."  FA officials need to look to the inspired work of queer/LGBIT activist organizations - this one dates back to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, and is not only pointed but sexy. It can be done.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"The Black Arrow", Gil Scott-Heron's Footballing Dad

The great musician Gil Scott-Heron is touring with an album (I'm New Here). He's stirring up all sorts of excitement in fans of "the godfather of rap," who are thrilled to hear new music from the genre-defining/bending artist who has struggled in recent years with addiction.

The artist behind "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" has a rather cool soccer connection: his Jamaican father, Giles "Gil" Heron was the first Black player at Celtic, and played for Detroit teams in the North American Soccer League and the American Soccer League.  ESPN published a good profile on the athlete: "Heron the forgotten pioneer of US Soccer" by Frank Dell'Apa. Dell'Apa explains that Heron belonged to a generation of talented Black footballers of Caribbean descent who played in the US in the 1940s and 1950s (e.g. Haitian Joe Geitjens and Cuban Pito Viallanon). He was scouted by the Celtics while playing in American leagues - an interesting fact in and of itself as we tend to think of the current crop of Americans in the EPL as the leading wave of talent scouted from these shores, but of course that isn't true. As one might imagine, the experience was mixed - he had a fantastic record (playing mostly for the reserve squad), but his place on the team and experiences on the field were mediated by racial prejudice. Gil Heron died in December, 2008, sadly.  The Guardian's obituary offers a nice portrait of his accomplishments. In addition to being an athlete and a referee, Gil Heron was jazz musician and poet.

Below, a track from his son's album, I'm New Here.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The John Terry Affair (why we should, and shouldn't care)

John Terry's found himself in the news for all the wrong reasons - cheating on his wife with the girlfriend of a teammate. The Final Third defends the defender - pointing out the inevitability of Terry's public disgrace, coming as it does after months being built up as a media darling. 
The grandstanding over Terry's affair is a lot of stuff and nonsense. Most of these players have been raised by football itself, which is, especially in England, a deeply regressive patriarchal space that can't imagine women as anything but ornamentation, things look at and to use. The media is perhaps the worst culprit on this issue. Such rhetoric masks the degree to which it in fact embraces and celebrates sexism and machismo in football, and reproduces the assumption that football can't in fact survive without it.  Terry is sacrificed here, in a seasonal rite washing an entire culture of its responsibility in making the world worse.

Let's put such media attention to Terry in perspective by glancing quickly at a few of cases in which women athletes have been disciplined for their behavior.

Darnellia Russell was a nationally ranked high school basketball player when she sued her state athletic association so that she could play with her team during her last year, the year when she would be scouted to play NCAA ball. Why had they barred her from the court? Because she had a baby. She won the suit (ever heard of a male athlete banned from a sport for the same reason?). The whole process was such a scandal to athletics organizations, however, she never got that college scholarship. No school would touch her – although she took her team to a state championship and played even better post-pregnancy than before. (A male player of her caliber might have been drafted right into the NBA – the rules for female athletes & the WNBA on this point are different.) Her story is profiled in the wonderful documentary, Heart of the Game.

In January, 1995, the BBC aired a documentary about the Doncaster Belles, the dominant women’s team in the country and also the longest continuously running women’s club in the UK. After the documentary aired, the FA kicked a number of their players off the national team and removed the captaincy from Gill Coultard. Why? Because these working class footballers, uhm, were shown going to their local pub – DRINKING, and SWEARING! Not behavior suitable for a “ladies team.” (Let’s bear in mind that none of these women received any money ever for playing football.) The FA's chief executive wrote that the documentary was
regrettable in its content and timing, unacceptable for its language and behavior and a disincentive to parents and teachers.  (See Pete Davies's I Lost My Heart to the Belles.)
After that, the team was afraid to be interviewed or filmed.
Hope Solo was banned from the US lineup for months, and pilloried for speaking out after a WC match about her confidence that she could have played better than her teammate had in a crucial match (Brianna Scurry had been placed in goal, although Solo had been performing brilliantly – Scurry gave up 3 – or was it 4?). She wasn’t allowed into even the stands to support her teammates in the 3rd place match, she was made to fly home on a different plane, and scapegoated in the press.

Women athletes are expected to play in an airless space. They are supposed to be so grateful for the mere opportunity to play, that they are required to play along. They are expected to be virtuous in all regards. They are expected to be polite, and humble; heterosexual but not too sexual; chaste and self-effacing.  This is why so much marketing around women's sports is so repulsive - as if guided by a conduct book for girls, written in the 1850s.

I wish for more peccadillos for all athletes! Regardless of the genders of either the athlete, the spouse, or the lover!
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