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That’s science, right there – pitch

The Rise of LGBTQ+ Participants in Professional Football

On pride day in the UK, celebrated July 5th, an anonymous professional football player under the Twitter name The Gay Footballer tweeted what might become a historic moment in men’s professional football. He wrote that he was a twenty-three-year-old gay player in the Championship — the second-highest league of professional football in England. He announced he was beginning conversations with his club on coming out before he would reveal his identity. When he does, he will become the first openly gay footballer in the history of England’s professional league.

This anonymous tweet coincided with the English Football Association participating, for the first time, in the London Pride parade. Previous English professional footballers came out only after transferring to leagues outside of England or post-retirement. Most famously, Justin Fashanu came out in 1990, after moving from the English league to Canada, and then tragically committed suicide in 1998. Few professional male footballers are openly gay, but that may be changing.

Professional men’s football has not been an environment open to the spectrum of sexual orientation. Historically, being openly gay compromised players positions on teams as well as their careers and not to mention the ubiquitous homophobic and hostile attitudes towards the subject. While sexual attitudes are changing, there are still over seventy countries where being gay is policed under the charge of criminal deviance. In Qatar — the host country of the 2022 Men’s World Cup — it is still illegal to be gay, and punishment can be up to seven years in prison. What does it say about FIFA, a world federation that is willing to award the coveted title of World Cup host to an openly homophobic country?

In the 2019 Women’s World Cup there were forty open LGBTQ+ participants (thirty-eight players, one coach, one trainer); there were no open LGBTQ+ players in the 2018 Men’s World Cup. The Women’s World Cup as a space where players can openly kiss their partners after winning a championship might seem like a distant future in the men’s game. The focus of disparity between the two games is on the pay gap with the US women’s team — four-time World Cup champions — earning 40% less than the trophy-less US men’s team and the exorbitant difference in World Cup prize money. But numbers of LGBTQ+ participants show there are also cultural differences that separate these two games on and off the pitch.

How we see beauty in the beautiful game is endless — it’s in those moments and sounds Nike captures (so well?) in their inspirational ads, moments which make you regret quitting sports, because, for a few seconds, you imagine yourself with silver-pink hair, celebrating a goal in a glorious pose. But that’s the romantic side of the game, which overlooks the virulent side of football culture rooted in machismo, racism, and xenophobia. Infamous fans, known for their hate speech and slurs which clubs have allowed to go unpunished for far too long, make the Rapiones’ and The Gay Footballers necessary and commendable leaders at the forefront of defining the modern athlete: diverse identities that challenge the tropes of masculinity.

The political and cultural attitudes around gender and sexuality are dramatically shifting in certain countries. According to Ipsos Mori, 88 percent of babyboomers identify as heterosexual, and this number drops to 71 percent among millennials, and again to 66 percent among Generation Z. Another shift toward inclusivity found by an Ipsos Mori study is, “70 percent of Gen Z is comfortable with homosexual relationships, as compared to the 43 percent of Baby Boomers.” A more inclusive generation will hopefully give rise to players, teams, and fans that mirror this change.

While we wait for the identity of The Gay Footballer, we can mull over the “fact” that there are no gay male football players while contemplating the more plausible truth that, “you can’t win a championship without gays on your team — it’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there.”
-Megan Rapinoe

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