By Gian Paulo Paglinawan

Before the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off last November, former Spanish professional football players Iker Casillas and Carles Puyol exchanged tweets in October about coming out and sharing the world their [love] story. As sports icons in association football or soccer, coming out gay in public is a brave act, sending a strong message that football, after all, is a  sport for everyone regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. But hours later, Casillas deleted his tweet and apologized to the LGBTQ+ community for the coming out joke; however, instead of owning up to his mistake, he made an excuse that someone “hacked” his account. In a separate tweet, Puyol apologized for the clumsy joke and expressed his solidarity message to the LGBTQ+ community. As a genderqueer who had to deal with coming out twice, it is a daunting experience any gay person may go through. One can wonder why elite football players can easily joke about coming out? Defenders of the football stars believe that their tweets are not necessarily homophobic. But I beg to disagree. As the openly gay Adelaide United football player said, making fun of coming out in football is insensitive and beyond disrespectful. Homosexually-themed statements perpetuate the silent culture of hypermasculinity1, heterosexism2, and homophobia3 in football. It is about time to kick them out of the sport!

Homosexually-Themed Language and Homophobia

Homosexually-themed chanting at football games is considered homophobic (Caudwell 2011, 127).4 As recent examples, Ecuador fans at the 2022 FIFA World Cup opening match against Qatar made homophobic remarks against Chilean fans. And during the Mexico versus Poland match, Mexican spectators cheered, “Eh, Puto!” when the Polish goalkeeper took a goal kick in the first half of the game. “Puto” is a Spanish colloquial word for a male prostitute and a “faggot.” While some would argue that homosexually-themed chanting is only fans’ way to establish dominance against rival football clubs, I still find it problematic. It can hurt the self-esteem of closeted players and fans, who struggle to come out publicly because their suppressed gender identity and sexual orientation are targets of mockery by peers. Imagine how would young and closeted LGBTQ+ football fans and players feel hearing these homophobic fan chants. They come with their families and friends to enjoy the games and support their national teams, only to end up in a closet as big as a stadium. It’s like a header5 to their face by the harsh reality that the homophobia they experience and witness in locker and shower rooms even happens in larger football spaces. 

On the contrary,  some research suggests that homosexually-themed remarks, such as “That’s so gay,” “Hey, gay boy,” or “my lover,” are permissible when used only as banter with friends, as a “cathartic expression of dissatisfaction, or as a form of male-bonding.”6 In another study that interviewed 35 openly gay male youth about their experiences of using or hearing such phrases, the participants viewed it positively due to their friendship with people using the term. They noted that such a view would be different if used by a stranger.7 Nevertheless, it does not remove the fact that homosexually-themed statements can have a detrimental effect on gay, bisexual, or transgender people.

Negative Impact of Homophobia and Homophobic Language

Homsexually-themed banter as part of bonding among male athletes may be harmless at first, but normalizing it makes it harder to soccer punch homophobia in football. According to the 2019 OUTSPORT Survey funded by the European Commission, 82 percent of respondents have witnessed homophobic language in sports over the last 12 months. The loud “gay” jokes in shared locker rooms and communal showers will continue to silence closeted players, and what happens when gay or bisexual athletes cannot take it anymore? They come out. It takes great courage to do so, especially for professional football players whose career is on the line, not to mention the fear of being rejected by loved ones and your community. What’s the worst that could happen? Let’s remember how homophobia claimed the life and career of Justin Fashanu, the world’s first openly gay footballer

A group of LGBT footballers at the Pride London parade. By Tom Morris via Wikimedia Commons. 

Inclusive Spaces for LGBTQ+ People in Football

Although the EU has tackled homophobia in sports, incidents of homophobia in football within the Union are still rampant. Even in a country like Spain, which is at the forefront of fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, addressing homophobia remains benched. Recently, the national team captains of eight European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, England, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Wales, Sweden, and Switzerland) planned to wear the OneLove armband at the FIFA World Cup in Doha. The OneLove campaign was the initiative of the Netherlands to promote nondiscrimination and equality through the sport. But campaigns like this remain lip service without concrete actions to address problems like homophobia in football. Stricter rules must apply. Referees shall issue a yellow or red card for homophobic remarks inside the pitch and record these cases in the match report. Football officials should also have stronger sanctions against fans chanting antigay slurs during matches. European football teams can learn from the Royal Belgian Football Association’s “Captains of Change” project, which aims to create a welcoming and inclusive football environment for LGBTQ+ people. 

To adhere to the true spirit of football, that it is a sport for everyone, football players, coaches, associations, and fanatics must create a safe and inclusive space for all individuals, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, by restricting homosexually-themed language. It is a perfect goal to win over homophobia, hypermasculinity, and heterosexism in football. Inclusive Football-1. Homophobia-0!


Notes

1. “Hypermasculinity” refers to the outdated notions and perceptions of what it means to be a “man”, preventing players from admitting or showing vulnerability.

2.Heterosexism” is a belief system that views heterosexuality (being ‘straight’) as a natural and normal sexual orientation. Any deviation, i.e., non-heterosexuality (homosexuality, bisexuality, etc.) is considered strange and abnormal.

3.In this essay, the word “homophobia” is used as a catch-all term for homophobia, biphobia, and other forms of discrimination, hostility, and aggression on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. 

4.Jayne Caudwell, ‘Does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ The spatiality of homophobia in men’s football culture in the UK, Leisure Studies 30, no. 2 (April 2011): 123–138. 

5.This is a term used in association football or soccer, which refers to the method the player uses to control the ball using their head.

6.Mark McCormack and Eric Anderson, “The re-production of homosexually-themed discourse in educationally-based organised sport,” Culture, Health and Society 12, no. 8 (November 2010): 913–927; Mary Louise Rasmussen, “‘That’s so gay:’ A Study of the Deployment of Signifiers of Sexual and Gender Identity in Secondary School Settings in Australia and the United States,” Social Semiotics 14, no. 3 (September 2008): 289–308.

7. Mark McCormack, Liam Wignall, and Max Morris, “Gay guys using gay language: Friendship, shared values, and the intent-context-effect matrix,” British Journal of Sociology 67, no. 4 (July 2016): 747–767.

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References

Caudwell, Jayne. “‘Does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ The spatiality of homophobia in men’s football culture in the UK,” Leisure Studies 30, no. 2 (April 2011): 123–138. 

Gil-Quintana, Javier, Angelica Maria Saenz-Macana, Elena Lopez-Cañada, Joan Ubeda-Colomer, and Sofia Pereira-Garcia. “LGBTQ people in physical activity and sport in Spain,” in Sport, Identity and Inclusion in Europe: The Experiences of LGBTQ People in Sport, ed. Ilse Hartmann-Tews (New York: Routledge, 2022), 132–133. 

Magrath, Rory. “‘To Try and Gain an Advantage for My Team’: Homophobic and Homosexually Themed Chanting among English Football Fans,” Sociology 0, no. 0 (November 2017): 1–18.

McCormack, Mark, Eric Anderson. “The re-production of homosexually-themed discourse in educationally-based organized sport. Culture, Health and Society 12, no. 8 (November 2010): 913–927.

McCormack, Mark, Liam Wignall, and Max Morris. “Gay guys using gay language: Friendship, shared values, and the intent-context-effect matrix.” British Journal of Sociology 67, no. 4 (July 2016): 747–767.

Rasmussen, Mary Louise. “‘That’s so gay:’ A Study of the Deployment of Signifiers of Sexual and Gender Identity in Secondary School Settings in Australia and the United States.” Social Semiotics 14, no. 3(September 2008): 289–308.

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