Fighting homophobia around the sports world

By Dan Woog

The OutField

Justin Fashanu is known for several things. In 1981 he became Britain's first million-pound black soccer player. In 1990 he became the first professional soccer player to come out as gay.

And in 1998 he killed himself.

In 2010, English soccer is filled with black stars. But Justin Fashanu stands alone as "the gay professional."

Little has changed in 20 years - and prospects look dim for the next 20. International soccer is a tough place, both physically and mentally. In hopes of speeding things along - or at least making the soccer world less homophobic - a group called The Justin Campaign went to work.

Their goal is to "challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions that exist around gay men in (soccer) and work toward a future where the visibility of gay and bisexual men in professional (soccer) are both accepted and celebrated."

During the past two years they sponsored two tournaments, for players of all sexual orientations. The Justin Campaign hosted an evening talk in Brighton, around the topic of homophobia in soccer. They played a prominent role in the first-ever Pride Festival in Norwich - Fashanu's hometown. They met with officials of the Football Association, Britain's governing body.

Then, with a website (www.thejustincampaign.com) and some committed volunteers, they targeted a day in the middle of the soccer season (and Britain's LGBT History Month). They hoped clubs, players and fans around the world would unite on Feb. 19, bringing communities together "in opposing hate and intolerance in the world's favorite sport."

The day kicked off in Norwich. The Justin Campaign's own soccer team was there, along with Fashanu's niece and the president of the Norwich club. Two members of Parliament blew whistles to start the matches.

In Liverpool, the Merseyside Marauders - a gay club - celebrated. So did Edinburgh's gay HotScots.

There was a flashmob-style photo op in Manchester, organized by PrideSports and Queer Youth Network. Other events took place in Sussex and Exeter.

Internationally, the Justin Campaign spurred a match in Barcelona (with speeches from local politicians), while in Mexico City the Tri Gay Mexico team played the semifinal of their city's gay soccer tournament under the "Football vs. Homophobia" banner.

The Justin Campaign suggested that professional clubs display the Justin Campaign logo with a message of support on their websites, put the logo on scoreboards during games, include the logo and information in match-day programs, and post signs condemning the use of homophobic language. But despite their efforts, the response from top teams was a pronounced silence. Not one player volunteered to appear in a planned video campaign against homophobia.

Gordon Taylor, president of the 4,000-member Professional Footballers' Association (the British players' union), responded to newspaper reports that players feared being ridiculed by opponents - as well as fans - if they participated in the video.

Taylor said: "Everybody assumes (soccer players) are full of confidence, but it is not easy on issues like this. Remember, there was a time when even black players did not feel they could talk about race."

English soccer is "a beacon of diversity with players from many backgrounds, countries and continents," Taylor added: "It is unacceptable for them to be subjected to abusive chanting, be it racist or homophobic whilst they play. I applaud the ongoing work in this area."

Peter Clayton, chair of the FA's Homophobia in Football advisory group - and openly gay - placed the blame on agents and clubs. "A player coming forward to appear in it would feel he might ignite more vitriol," he said.

Closer to home, a similar campaign is gathering steam. Canadian-based "Speaking About Silence: Homophobia in the Sports World" is part of a broader-based International Day Against Homophobia, set for May 17.

Its bilingual website (www.homophobie.org) lists a number of activities across the country - but only a few involve athletics.

In New Westminster, British Columbia, the Douglas Students' Union will speak to college sports science classes. Members will also hand out brochures, water bottle stickers and pins to raise awareness of sexuality and athletics.

Across the nation in Burlington, Ontario, the Halton Organization for PRIDE and Education has involved local sports figures to attend their International Day festivities. Manitoba's Civil Service Commission will host a lunch-and-learn session on homophobia - and transphobia.

Many of the International Day efforts are non-sport-specific. Gay-Straight Alliances will hand out information, hang posters and conduct seminars. The Alberta Teachers' Association plans to distribute posters and pamphlets to educators. Edmonton's' Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services is screening "Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride." Information will be displayed on the main floor lobby of the Winnipeg Tax Centre.

Individually, all this may not sound like much. But that's not the point. Knowledge is power.

And who knows what Justin Fashanu's life might have been like if - back in the day - he'd come across just one of those posters, information tables or presentations?

Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, gay activist, and author of the "Jocks" series of books on gay male athletes. Visit his website at http://www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.
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