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Does the footballing world really care about kicking homophobia out?

By Hannah Ryan, CNN

There are just a handful of top level men’s football players in the world that have come out and have felt able to be open about their sexuality. Few have done so while still playing.

But it’s not just football stars who worry about acceptance within their world — it’s fans, too.

If Wales qualify for the 2022 World Cup, it will be a dream come true for James Brinning.

As a longstanding fan of the national team, Brinning would like nothing more than to see Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and company make it to international football’s biggest tournament.

But if The Dragons do find themselves on the world stage next year, for the first time in more than sixty years, then Brinning faces the possibility of not being able to travel to watch any of the team’s matches in person — not because of any coronavirus restrictions but because he is gay and this World Cup is due to be held in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison.

“To be able to watch Wales play at the World Cup would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Brinning told CNN Sport. “But, honestly, I just don’t know if I’d be able to go because I wouldn’t feel safe. And that’s really upsetting to think about — because I should be able to be a part of such a huge moment in Welsh football history if it happens.”

In July, Qatar World Cup organizers told CNN that it will not stop anybody from entering the country based on “sexual orientation,” or indeed any other aspect, including their “race, religion, creed.”

“This World Cup is open for everybody.”

However the decision made by FIFA to host the tournament in a nation where LGBTQ+ fans potentially do not feel welcome is just one aspect of a wider problem facing football right now, in which LGBTQ+ supporters feel that homophobia is on the rise within the sport and the ruling bodies of the game aren’t doing enough to address it.

In a statement to CNN, a FIFA spokesperson said: “As laid out in the FIFA World Cup Sustainability Strategy, Qatar as a host country is fully aware of its responsibility to adhere to FIFA’s expectations and requirements on human rights, equality and non-discrimination.”

“Qatar is committed to ensuring that everyone will be able to enjoy the tournament in a safe and welcoming environment, to building bridges of cultural understanding and to creating an inclusive experience for all participants, attendees and local communities, including from the LGBTIQ+ community,” the spokesperson added.

“FIFA is confident that all necessary measures will be in place for LGBTIQ+ fans and allies to enjoy the tournament in a welcoming and safe environment, just as everyone else.”

Brinning’s concerns are not just limited to football’s most prestigious occasion.

LGBTQ+ fans, he says, find themselves often having to research what the attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people are in particular nations when events such as the Euros, the Europa League and the Champions League are held before they travel overseas to support their teams — just to know if they’ll be safe to step foot in stadiums.

In the UK, Brinning also points to the deeply disheartening experience of hearing homophobic chants sung by fellow fans of the same club.

“I remember watching Spurs [Tottenham Hotspur] play Chelsea in the FA Cup and I was so excited,” recalled Brinning. “And then, that familiar ‘Rent Boy’ chant came about and I was so disappointed, not just because I had to listen to homophobic language — but because it was coming from other Spurs fans.

“It just takes away from the camaraderie that you’re supposed to share with your fellow fans.”

The chant Brinning refers to is a derogatory song that’s deemed deeply offensive to the LGBTQ+ community and which has been used for years to mock Chelsea.

In a statement on the subject of discriminatory abuse at the start of the new season, Premier League Chief Executive Richard Masters said: “I think we’ve made it very clear that tackling discrimination is a priority for the Premier League, and so have all of our clubs.

“We’ve introduced a league-wide ban, so if you are caught then you’ll be banned from not just your own club but all other Premier League clubs as well […] and with fans coming back, we’re working with stewards to help them to deal with some of these issues should they arise.”

Masters also said that the Premier League are “working with fan groups, with fans, to help fund some fan education so people can fully understand the impact of discriminatory abuse.”

Under the Football Offenses Act — first introduced in the UK in 1991 — there is no mention of homophobic chanting or the use of homophobic language in stadiums as offenses. Even under the section of the Act that deems it an offense to engage in chanting of an ‘incident’ nature, there is no specific reference to homophobic language or homophobia as ‘indecent’ behavior.

Are football’s ruling bodies really trying to eradicate homophobia?

In August, the Professional Footballers’ Association — a union for former and current footballers across English leagues — released an analysis of online abuse aimed at football players between September 2020 and May 2021.

It found that almost a third of all abuse directed towards players was homophobic.

In December 2020, this particular kind of abuse reached a peak — in the same month that the Rainbow Laces campaign, dedicated to showing support for the LGBTQ+ community across sport, runs throughout English football.

The PFA analysis came just a month after Euro 2020 drew to a close — a competition that, for all the joy it brought, also served as a site of discrimination towards LGBTQ+ football fans at times, too.

On June 23, Germany faced Hungary in a game that was coated in an atmosphere of tension and deep discomfort as LGBTQ+ activists made clear their concerns about not feeling especially welcome at the clash.

Ahead of the match, LGBTQ+ fans, allies and German officials, including the Munich mayor Dieter Reiter, had made a request to UEFA — the governing body for European football — for permission to light up the Allianz Arena in rainbow colors.

The request was made in solidarity with Hungary’s LGBTQ+ community, following the introduction in the summer of legislation in the country that banned any material in schools that authorities believe to be guilty of ‘promoting’ homosexuality or gender-change.

The legislation is one of a string of divisive policies championed by Hungarian leader Victor Orban, a hardline nationalist who has previously railed against LGBTQ people and immigrants. “It’s not about homosexuals, it’s about the kids and the parents,” said Orban in June of the legislation.”

UEFA declined Reiter’s request and issued a statement claiming that the decision was due to its ‘political context,’ as it reminded the world that the body itself is a ‘politically and religiously neutral organization.’

But UEFA’s refusal to allow an act as benign as lighting up a stadium with the colors of the rainbow flag not only left a number of LGBTQ+ football fans feeling pushed aside and dismissed — it also further raised the question as to what exactly football’s governing bodies are doing to protect and empower lovers of the game who aren’t heterosexual or cisgender.

All of this has led LGBTQ+ football fans, clubs, and players to ask: Does the footballing world care about eradicating homophobia from the game?

Lou Englefield, Director of Pride Sports and a key leader in the global Football v Homophobia campaign, thinks there is much more that football’s governing bodies could be doing to combat this kind of discrimination.

“This year, UEFA licensed the European Championship [the Euros] in countries that prohibit LGBTQ+ displays of pride and solidarity,” she told CNN Sport.

“And then they didn’t stand by the community when they needed to and they allowed nations which are fostering increasingly homophobic sentiment to run riot. And this actually directly opposed UEFA’s principles of protecting and upholding human rights.”

Englefield points out that there is a question reverberating amongst LGBTQ+ football supporters as to whether or not they actually have a voice in the governance of the sport — as their concerns about the presence of hostility and homophobia across the game so often go unaddressed:

“Ahead of the Euros, for example, several LGBTQ+ football organizations and initiatives put forward a letter to UEFA to express our worries about the homophobic rhetoric and environments that could be found in some of the host nations,” Englefield said.

“And we never received a reply. To this day, we still haven’t received any acknowledgment of the letter.”

CNN has reached out to UEFA for comment but did not receive a response.

To Englefield, UEFA’s lack of response to this letter indicates a “failure” on their part to protect LGBTQ+ fans.

“We know that there are complications when it comes to hosting major footballing events in nations with their own legislation and attitudes towards LGBTQ+ rights,” she said.

“But there are ways to deal with the state-sanctioned homophobia that some nations perpetuate — and UEFA did not deal with this well during Euro 2020. Not at all.”

As for the ways to deal with the task of ensuring LGBTQ+ football fans feel safe and welcome at matches held in environments that are home to stringent homophobia, Englefield is quick to suggest what UEFA and FIFA could and should do.

“When the last World Cup was held in Russia, for example, FARE — the anti-discrimination network for football in Europe and further afield — used two venues, one in St Petersburg and one in Moscow, called ‘Diversity Houses,’ she explained.

“And those houses held workshops and showed informative films intended to encourage solidarity with LGBTQ+ people and to raise awareness of the plight that LGBTQ+ people so often face in Russia.”

“This was such an impactful way of providing support for LGBTQ+ football fans — it didn’t require us to boycott the tournament but, instead, it established safe spaces for us and encouraged others to learn more about our community, our struggles and our pride,” she said.

“It allowed us to use the tournament to highlight the fact that LGBTQ+ people exist in football and to encourage allyship.”

Englefield was disappointed that, when Euro 2020 matches were held in nations where homophobic sentiment can be found in almost every corner, there were no similar ‘Diversity Houses’ or initiatives designed to support LGBTQ+ football fans established by UEFA.

‘Football has to evolve to include minorities — or the game will die’

Rory Magrath is a Professor of Sociology at Solent University, in Southampton, whose work revolves around LGBTQ+ identity in football, acceptance of homosexuality amongst football fans, anti-discrimination policy, and sports media representation.

“While there has been an increase in LGBTQ+ visibility in football over the past decade, as Rainbow Laces has taken off and as prominent players such as Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson wear rainbow armbands during Pride month — it still isn’t enough,” Magrath said

“The Rainbow Laces campaign only lasts for a few weeks at the start of the season, so what then? Players aren’t wearing rainbow armbands all year round. What happens to visibility for LGBTQ+ football fans when it isn’t Pride?”

Magrath thinks more should be done to combat homophobia in the sport at all times of the year, not just when we celebrate the community in certain months.

He says that the problem lies in part with another of football’s major governing bodies, too and its tendency to “react” to social issues, rather than take the lead on them.

“The FA [the Football Association — responsible for overseeing English football] are typically reactive rather than proactive when it comes to confronting homophobia,” Magrath told CNN Sport.

“While we have seen increased visibility in recent years, it’s come as a result of external pressure and campaigns by LGBTQ+ supporters groups led by fans of clubs that the FA have responded to — rather than internal initiative.”

In a statement, an FA spokesperson told CNN:

“The FA stands firmly against all forms of prejudice and we’re committed to tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia at every level of English football […] we’re striving to ensure that football at all levels is a welcoming, inclusive and safe environment for all.”

The FA also specifically referenced the subject of LGBTQ+ visibility at Euro 2020.

“We believe that role models and allies are key to increased visibility and we were proud to stand in allyship with LGBTQ+ communities around the world during England’s UEFA EURO 2020 fixture against Germany this summer,” the statement read.

“We welcome the Pride flag at all England fixtures at Wembley Stadium and continue to show support for the Three Lions Pride supporters group, while delivering role model and allyship programmes for our employees, in partnership with Stonewall.”

Away from English football Magrath thinks that, in choosing to host major competitions in nations that punish same-sex relationships and acts, FIFA and UEFA are sending mixed messages to LGBTQ+ football fans.

“On the one hand, fans see prominent players wearing rainbow armbands which makes them think there’s a place for them in football,” Magrath said. “And, on the other hand, the next World Cup is being held in Qatar — where LGBTQ+ fans know they face consequences if they express themselves in public while they’re there.”

Magrath feels that UEFA and FIFA fail to properly stand in solidarity with LGBTQ+ football fans by arguing, as they did during the Euro 2020 match between Germany and Hungary, that they don’t want to be part of any “political acts or statement” — allowing them to avoid taking major action on the state-sanctioned homophobia seeping its way into football.

“When they don’t put on displays of support for the community, such as in their refusal to light up the Allianz Arena in rainbow colors, they’re trying to depoliticize football,” Magrath said. “As if there’s never been any politics in sports ever before!”

Across his research Magrath has found that, while many LGBTQ+ fans feel that football is becoming inclusive, almost all of the ones he spoke to still don’t think that football is a welcoming space for them.

And, as the sport’s most influential governing bodies are accused of failing to show support for the community when it is needed the most, homophobia continues to course through the beautiful game.

“Fans still feel that they have to display a heteromasculine demeanor to fit in,” Magrath claimed. “Despite positive shifts in attitudes we’ve seen over the past few years, there’s a disparity between perceptions of LGBTQ+ visibility in football and the experiences of fans themselves.”

As the most powerful institutions in football are met with suggestions that they are indifferent to the homophobia that so clearly exists within the sport, Magrath warns that — unless serious action to tackle the problem is taken — the game is at risk of fizzling out in the future.

“Football has to evolve to include minorities and LGBTQ+ fans — if it doesn’t, it loses those fans forever, and it excludes a great number of people,” Magrath said.

“If we don’t improve the culture in football to make it a safe space — and if its governing bodies don’t do enough to ensure that — then the game will die.”

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