Last week saw the news that former Everton, Aston Villa footballer and German Thomas Hitzlspergerinternational Thomas Hitzlsperger had come out and announced that he is gay.  In response to this announcement Hitzlsperger has received support from politicians including David Cameron and Angela Merkel and people connected to the game of football such as Justin Fashanu’s niece and our own favourite ex-player and tweeter Joey Barton. Thomas was also the subject of a mature and enlightening interview by Gary Lineker on Football Focus.

All of this would be all very well and good, if it weren’t for two things. Firstly, Hitzlsperger has felt that he has had to await until his retirement before coming out and secondly such an announcement is still being described as ‘brave’. The reason for this of course is that accepting gay people, or transgender people, as footballers or even spectators, is perhaps breaking the game’s last taboo. Although, as highlighted in this blog a couple of weeks ago, racism can sadly still be seen in the ‘beautiful game’, great strides have been taken to move towards a time when the scourge of racism is finally eradicated from football.

The same cannot be said of homophobia or for that matter transphobia. These are still forms of hatred and discrimination, which all too many find acceptable. Despite Hitzlsperger’s announcement, we still have not seen a single high-profile footballer coming out as gay, whilst still playing. I cannot believe that this is simply because there aren’t any. Statistically, it is simply too unlikely to believe.

This is all the more surprising given that the arguably even more macho game of rugby union has had a high profile gay player coming out, in the form of Gareth Thomas, who is the the third highest capped player in Welsh international rugby history. And then of course, there are all those old black and white photographs from days gone by, of footballers sharing a communal bath together and all happily smiling away….

It is still the last taboo because homophobia is still too widespread within football to make it easy for those playing football who are gay to be allowed to be who they really are. If you think about it, this is a quite shocking indict mention the game we all love. It is surely one of the most basic human rights for all of us to be able to live with integrity, to be who we truly are, as long as in so doing we do no harm to others. It is time that we accepted that when it comes to sexuality, there is no ‘normal’, that rather is a huge spread of different sexual inclinations and that people are just who they are and, so long as they are not harming others, they should be accepted as they are. As the posters say, ‘some people are gay, get over it’.

The truth about discrimination and gay-bashing is of course that it is another form of scapegoating and hatred. If anybody feels it is alright to make a jeering remark about someone’s sexuality at a match, or a more serious anti-gay remark anywhere, anytime, then they would perhaps do well to remember how gay people were treated by the Nazis. As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January, which will be the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it is worth recalling that thousands of gay people were done to death by the Nazis, along with Jews and gypsies, two other groups who have been wrongly scapegoated down the centuries. Let us never forget that the road to Auschwitz is the kind of path discrimination can lead us down.

Those who make jeering homophobic remarks must do it for a reason. Only they will know, but I can’t help thinking that homophobia, like any discrimination, merely reflects the insecurities and inadequacies of those who indulge in it. I cannot think of any logical reason for people to hate others, who they don’t know and who wish them no harm. We are not born with hatred. It is learnt, usually when people with an agenda promote it for their own ends, by exploiting the insecurities we all have. This kind of false prophet must be rejected every time they appear.

Homophobia is also caused by ignorance. A vast amount of scientific evidence suggests that a person has no more control over their sexuality than the colour of their eyes. You surely wouldn’t discriminate against somebody on the basis of the colour of their eyes, so why do so on the basis of their sexuality. Following from this, why should somebody else’s sexuality bother anybody ele anyway, if it isn’t directly affecting their life? Homophobia simply doesn’t make sense.

These are interesting times regarding gay rights. In many places in the world gay rights are advancing, with more gay people being given the basic human right of being able to marry and discrimination and prejudice are disappearing. We even have a pope, who has said that gay people should not be judged, a welcome change in stance to his two immediate predecessors, as well as being more in line with Jesus’ teaching. However, we are also seeing backward steps in countries such as Russia and in Uganda, where the brutal anti-gay laws will see people condemned to death, simply for expressing their love for each other.

If the world’s biggest sport, football, was to lose the homophobia which still surrounds it and build upon the positive response to Thomas Hitzlsperger coming out, then it is possible that it could be a real force for tolerance and fairness, when it comes to gay rights. It is therefore all the more disappointing that  FIFA has been not been more forceful in showing its disapproval of discrimination and homophobia. This is particularly important as, after Brazil this year, the next two World Cups are in Russia and Qatar. As mentioned above, discrimination against gay people is being reflected more in the policies of Putin’s government, while Qatar is a country where homosexuality is still seen as a crime punishable with a prison sentence.

After waiting a day, FIFA did release the following statement:

“FIFA and the FIFA President support Thomas Hitzlsperger’s decision to publicly announce his sexual orientation. Unfortunately, prejudices still exist within football. FIFA is working hard to tackle these and hopes Thomas’s statements will encourage greater respect and understanding in football and beyond. For many years, FIFA has taken a firm stand against any form of discrimination, including regarding sexual orientation, as stated in its Statutes and recently reinforced by the Resolution of the FIFA Congress on the Fight Against Racism and Discrimination.”

Whilst this statement is certainly better than nothing, it does come across as merely going through the motions. It would surely be good if FIFA could make a stronger stand against homophobia and threaten the same kind of punishments it has belatedly introduced with regards to racism. At the end of the day, mealy mouthed words and fines of a few thousand pounds to megabucks clubs whose fans act in homophobic ways, by chanting or attacking gay people, are not going to be enough to end discrimination in football. Docking a serious number of points, whilst admittedly unfair on those fans who are not prejudiced, might change attitudes.

Whatever does happen, all reasonable people can only hope that football does truly become ‘the beautiful game’; a sport where all people are accepted as players  and spectators, regardless of their colour, creed, gender, gender identity, sexuality, or any other superficial differences, which should never be allowed to divide us as humans. It can then hopefully help to create a fairer, more tolerant and civilised world.

© Peter Sagar January 2014