Queer footballers and the politics of coming out

With the media suggesting that Premier League footballers are set to come out, Marcus Stow looks at the politics of coming out and asks what our allies are doing to support us


Every once in a while there’s  a media storm about the imminent coming out of Premier League footballers, and reams of analysis about how the game and fans would react ensue. There’s always reference to the sad tale of Justin Fashanu, who came out a whole generation ago, and how the game has ‘moved on’

Judging by the guessing games by fans on Twitter, and one footballer tweeting a ‘no homo’, it suggests there is some way to go, not to mention the very real issue of homophobic abuse from fans. The otherwise scrumptious and delightful Thierry Henry thought that a player coming out would be ‘great for the game’ and he would himself be supportive of a fellow gay (they never refer to bi or trans) player. Lord Ouseley, chairman of Kick It Out, was quoted in the Telegraph:

“Unless you test the waters, you can’t be certain. But I think there are enough people in the game now that would be willing to see their organisations demonstrate support for people being able to express, in an open way, their sexuality.”

Testing the waters is one thing, but there does seem to be a discourse in the media and amongst the public that the visibility of Premier League gay footballers is the panacea “the game” should seek, to the potential detriment of player safety and personal choice. Most of the mainstream commentary on this issue, did appear to be cisgender heterosexual men, who have not had to come out in any way, which begs the question, what are they doing to make football a supportive space?

“I think they mean well, but they should think about whether they will put the work in to make a supportive place for queer people in that industry. I’m all for more queer people being visible in the mainstream, but if you aren’t going to support them then it is kind of selfish to put themselves in the crosshairs, even if they are a football player and thus more cushioned against some effects of queerphobia like homelessness. But it is still a risk for them as money and status wont protect them completely” – TurboQueerJC

In general, coming out has long been seen as a tactic to increased acceptance of LGBTQ+ people by visibility. However many societies in Africa and Native American nations accepted gender and sexual diversities, before they were forced into the rigid gender binary by violent colonialists and missionaries. In this context, what we would know term as LGBTQ+ people did not have to “come out” as it was accepted as on the spectrum of human behaviour.

Testing the waters is one thing, but there does seem to be a discourse in the media and amongst the public that the visibility of gay footballers is the panacea “the game” should seek, to the potential detriment of player safety and personal choice.

In a Western context, the German homosexual rights advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs introduced the idea of self-disclosure as a means of emancipation one hundred years before the Stonewall Riots. Since then, the concept of “coming out” has passed into the mainstream, with a National Coming Out Day held every year, the publicity for which declares:

“When people know someone who is LGBTQ, they are far more likely to support equality under the law. Beyond that, our stories can be powerful to each other. In honor of National Coming Out Day, HRC honors all who have come out as LGBT or as a straight ally for equality – that takes bravery, and we commend you.”

While there is a need to raise the profile of such an event by making cisgender heterosexual people feel included, is reaching basic standards of not being homophobic, biphobic and/or transphobic to be considered as “bravery”? And It is this positing of coming out as “bravery”, the infers the reverse, that those who have not made the decision to come out are not heroic and are indeed cowardly.

While there is a need to raise the profile of such an event by making cisgender heterosexual people feel included, is reaching basic standards of not being homophobic, biphobic and/or transphobic to be considered as “bravery”?

There’s also a train of thought that coming out is no big deal any more. On National Coming Out Day LGBTQ+ folk on Twitter noticed the strange phenomenon of cisgender heterosexual people jokingly coming out as straight or even tweeting “so what? Who cares these days” at LGBTQ+ people.

In 2015 it is indeed still the norm that LGBTQ+ people have to come out in a world where the vast majority of parents assume that their little darlings – even Guardian reading liberals – are going to grow up to be heterosexual and cisgender along the strict gender binary, aided, abetted and rigorously policed by society at large. From gendered clothes and toys to the rigid gender divisions in schools, and the little darlings’ negative reactions to anyone perceived as different, it’s still a struggle.

And for us mere mortals not being paid £100k a week with a high media profile, the act of coming out is not a one time thing. There is still society’s continuing assumptions that the default is cisgender and heterosexual, so for many coming out is an ongoing process. This can range from slightly annoying – the pause and surprise when I correct customer services and tell them my wife is in fact a husband – to the triggering and distress, such as the misgendering of trans people, to overt queerphobia. It may even affect health outcomes when we sit in front of a doctor:

“Fundamentally, I feel that (our allies) don’t understand wider repercussions of coming out and that coming out is not just one event, but a series that changes depending on who you’re coming out to and it changes as you discover more about your gender identity and sexuality. These are all very personal things and it’s more of a journey than one event. Every time I get a new therapist I have to explain my gender identity and they immediately try to diagnose me off the back of it.” – @PaytonQuinn

And for us mere mortals not being paid £100k a week with a high media profile, the act of coming out is not a one time thing. There is still society’s continuing assumptions that the default is cisgender and heterosexual

So allies in society at large, and indeed football, have a lot of work to do before coming out can be considered as some kind of joke. Try for example, not assuming everyone you meet is cisgender and heterosexual. Work to make safe spaces for us, even in your home with your kids, challenging homophobia, biphobia and transphobia even when we’re not there.

An understanding of the reasons why people may choose not to come out is essential, and that we can be out in some spaces and not others. LGBTQ+ people may decide to be out amongst close friends, but not to colleagues at work for example. It’s not cowardice when there’s our health, safety and even a roof over our heads potentially at stake.

In the midst of the “so-what” tweets and general dismissiveness from supposedly liberal allies on National Coming Out Day, I got a message from a friend who has not yet come out to his family, colleagues and most of his friends.

“To be honest – I am a bit offended that so many people are making light of coming out day. It’s not easy for people who are not out yet, so making light of it just makes us feel worse. Some people can’t or don’t want to come out and the idea that it’s cowardice is what hurts. Some of us are dealing with enough guilt – from religion for example – to be scorned, sometimes by the LGBT community too. I think some understanding and support is what we need.”

Follow Marcus Stow on Twitter: @marcusjdl

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