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.


  1. So, I think the onion is getting its ideas from your blog...

    Gay Marriage Passes In 9 States After Area Homosexual Dunks On Regulation Rim
    February 18, 2010 | Issue 46•07

    MONTGOMERY, AL—A two-handed slam dunk by an openly homosexual man set off a chain of events this week that culminated in the legalization of gay marriage in nine states, including Mississippi and Alabama. "When I saw that dunk, I was like, 'Whoa!'" said Alabama state Sen. Hinton Mitchem, adding that his office was flooded with calls and e-mails from constituents demanding legal recognition of same-sex marriages following the slam. "A guy with nasty moves like that should be entitled to the same fundamental rights as the rest of us." On Thursday, the New York State Senate passed a resolution declaring that it would take a pretty sweet roundhouse kick from a gay mixed martial arts champion before it would allow homosexuals to marry


  2. it's really unfortunate the "superstars" pulled out of it. at the moment that FA ad is too much of a caricature of a "hooligan/homophobe".

    compared to racism in soccer it's interesting. it seems that it is only fairly recently that racism is actually almost completely out. and there were a number of ads "kick racism out of football" with superstars in them.

    on another note:

    wanted to say that i was invited to a graduate seminar class taught at cca on football and art and we looked at your Municipal de Futbol book. it's really great! really cool art object, beautiful design and box and everything inside.

  3. Taha! Great to see you here - I'm in Ohio, prepping for a roundtable about art & sport at the Wexner Center. They have a gorgeous installation of Zidane: A 21st C Portrait - dual channel, spine tingley sound.

    Who was teaching Municipal? That's awesome - JD

  4. Great post, and thanks so much for the links too. Blogrolls Dear John

  5. That ad you cite is vile and tacky.

    The problem is with what is seen as high handed lectures coming from on high which are rightly seen as patronising. Given the experiences of rugby in Britain and societal changes in general where even poor areas like where I live there are plenty of out gay people who walk the streets unmolested, not to mention whenever you switch on the TV or half your record and film collection.

    Did anyone stop going to Watford because they had a gay chairman, or refuse to associate with Beckham because he has gay friends. Or footballers who wear gay designer's clothes?

    I think it would be a big thing for a footballer to come out because of the english media, but only because they are fixated on english footballers' sex lives anyway, hetero or no and they'd hype the situation to death. As we've seen in other working class activities it's no big thing, suggesting it's a media problem more than a cultural problem (gay footballers fear press scrutiny and harassment and rightly so.)

  6. This is a great blog, Jennifer. Intellectual sports writing is so hard to come by!

    I just posted this video on my Facebook, as in an article about my favorite sport this week I read this sentence, about a slanging match between players and coaches of rival teams: "The club also acknowledged that Milne helped to provoke Friday night's ugly incident by calling Malthouse old and wrongly accusing assistant coach Paul Licuria of being homosexual."

    Apparently on an Australian Rules field that's still a "wrongful accusation"! Drives me crazy.

    Toby (Villa Carona) tobyburke.com


Feedback? Let me know what you think. Just an FYI: all comments posted to this blog are recorded, whether I publish them or not. I do not publish generally hateful comments - whether they be directed at me or at players and teams or other readers. I appreciate reader feedback, especially from those whose contributions add nuance and complexity to the story.

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