Moira Gordon: Football must play its part in ending gay taboo

Minnesota United midfielder Collin Martin has come out as gay. Picture: Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via AP
Minnesota United midfielder Collin Martin has come out as gay. Picture: Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via AP
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I admit it. When Minnesota United midfielder Collin Martin revealed that he is gay and the club shared images of support for their player and used the hashtag #SoccerForAll, I found it hard to be tolerant. After all, when will the Americans accept that the sport we all love is football. Not soccer.

Other than that, seriously, what is there to be riled about? The only other thing that should offend us about the whole situation is the fact that so many other sportsmen, and footballers in particular, find it so difficult to be honest about their sexuality.

Not because I care who they sleep with – no-one should as it’s what players do on the pitch that matters – but because, on a human level, they are living in fear that someone will out them, fear that they will be the focus of abuse from the stands, fear that their career may stall or endorsements may quickly disappear. That’s not sporting. It’s wrong. And football, as a cultural influencer, can play in normalising things and teaching tolerance. Instead, it is still viewed as the sport’s last taboo.

As things stand, there are no publicly gay footballers playing in the top leagues in Britain. Not openly.

Previously, Clarke Carlisle, the former chairman of the Professional Footballer’s Association, stated he knew of eight players who were hiding their true orientation, while, in the past year, newspapers have written stories about bi-sexual and gay players playing in the English Premiership and at international level, protecting their identities but detailing their anguish and the lengths they have gone to to keep their secret life secret.

Add to that the revelations of former Leeds United managing director David Haigh, who is openly gay and last season claimed that at least 20 football stars are gay but “afraid” to come out saying they are worried that fans would not accept them.

The fact is, many fans would. In a survey conducted in the build up to the World Cup in Russia, over 50,000 fans across 38 countries were questioned on their attitudes towards gay and bisexual male players and homophobia in football.

Conducted by Forza Football, in conjunction with the LGBT charity Stonewall, it found that overall a promising 76 per cent of the fans who took part in the poll said they would feel comfortable if a player in their own national team came out.

Among British fans, that tally was even higher, at 80 per cent.

But what about the remaining 20 per cent? For every fan who responded to Collin Martin’s revelation with a “so what?” or celebrated the fact he felt empowered enough to be true to himself, there will be others who can’t resist an adolescent and ignorant “joke” about dropping soap in the showers and others who will be far more forthright in their prejudice.

But those numbers are dwindling and it seems that players have even fewer hang ups about it than fans. With Minnesota United holding a Pride Night at their home game against Dallas, Martin said the time was right to be open about his sexuality. Making his announcement on Friday, he said his family, friends and team-mates were already aware but he wanted to show others that there was nothing to fear, insisting that he had “received only kindness and acceptance from everyone in Major League Soccer”.

Martin follows in the footsteps of compatriot and former Leeds United player Robbie Rogers, who came out in 2013, and became the first openly gay professional footballer. Rogers retired in 2017 after winning two MLS Cups and 18 caps for the US and has tweeted Martin, referring to him as “so, so inspiring”.

“June is Pride month, and I am proud to be playing for Pride, and to be playing as an out gay man,” said Martin, left. “I want to thank my team-mates for their unconditional support. In light of who I am I want to encourage others who play sports, professionally or otherwise ,to have confidence that sport will welcome them wholeheartedly.”

And that was in the US, where fans polled in the recent survey proved less tolerant than those in the UK, with 63 per cent saying they would be unperturbed by the prospect of a bisexual or gay players in their national side.

So maybe the fears are unfounded? Maybe British football fans would surprise everyone by proving to be more grown up, open-minded and tolerant than common perceptions would suggest.

That has been the case in other sports in the UK. Tom Daley remains a national treasure despite coming out, while there are openly gay swimmers, cricketers and cyclists. The Olympic diver said he was “terrified” about the response he would get but has said that it was “a massive weight lifted off [his] shoulders”, as he no longer had to worry about being outed.

Even in the macho world of rugby, there were shock waves when former Wales captain Gareth Thomas spoke openly about his sexuality. But the response was mainly positive or neutral and that was almost a decade ago.

For him and many others it is about normalising something that has no bearing on the sport. It is about simply being true to themselves. “I don’t want to be known as a gay rugby player. I am a rugby player, first and foremost. I am a man.”

Things to seem to be shifting, with the narrow-minded now likely to find they have less of a platform. Even at the World Cup in Russia, a country with a poor track record when it comes to gay rights, there has been a more relaxed view and the spotlight will soon be turned on the next hosts Qatar, who are just as intolerant.

While “who cares?” may be a valid response to Martin’s revelation, it may be even better to let him and others know that we all care. We care that they feel comfortable being themselves and will support them. Even if they refer to our beautiful game as soccer.