Saturday, March 20, 2021

"If you think it's society's problem you will never, ever change football"

For a fan of the beautiful game, Gareth Thomas' recent interview with the Guardian's Donald McRae makes for grim reading. The former Wales and British Lions captain, now a vocal campaigner on homophobia in sport and HIV awareness, suggests that little has improved within football - or within men's football, at least  - since Justin Fashanu's day: "You might want to perceive that football's evolved but the reality is that nobody could say you would be free from abuse if you came out."

Gay Hibs supporter Ross Hunter is more positive, arguing in an article published last year that "the environment for homosexual players is undeniably more welcoming that it ever has been" - but he still acknowledges the existence of an ingrained homophobia on the terraces, where "abuse of all kinds has traditionally come with the territory".

Hunter notes that, "while the policies against homophobic language remain as stringent as that against racism, the reality of enforcement is different". For Thomas, it's critical that the formal legislation on racist abuse is extended to cover homophobia - something that seems like an obvious move, and something for which he's been pushing for years, only to find himself repeatedly banging his head on a brick wall.

As with responding to and eradicating racism, meaningful change has to start at the top. Thomas is quite understandably exasperated by FIFA awarding World Cups to Russia and Qatar, countries that are openly hostile to LGBT people - a decision that makes the organisation's positive initiatives seem like merely token gestures.

And yet, as Thomas' own experience proves, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that homophobia is also rife - if less overt - at home. And it still exists on pitches as well as in stands. It's up to everyone to call it out: the authorities, players and management and backroom staff, the media - and supporters like myself.

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