Monday, 30 January 2012
Gay ex-footballer talks openly to A Scottish Liberal
Dave (not his real name) is a retired football player in his late 30s who played for a number of English lower-division and non-league clubs in the 1990s and early 2000s. He is gay but has never felt the need to be open about his sexuality, for reasons which he explained below in this interview with me.
A lot has been made about the lack of openly gay footballers, and a BBC3 documentary tonight explores this and the potential reasons behind it. I spoke with Dave on the phone yesterday to ask for his views on the matter, why he has never "come out" and how he thinks LGBT representation in football can be improved.
Dave is a personal friend of mine (we met at a charitable football match) and agreed to the interview on the premise that he would remain anonymous. For this reason, all people and clubs referred to are given pseudonyms.
AP: Joey Barton has recently come out (excuse the pun) in support of gay footballers, and said that his uncle is gay. Do you think this kind of contribution will make a difference?
D: I'm not sure. The more high-profile players who make this kind of gesture are sending out a signal that it's Ok to be gay and a footballer. That's a message we need to get out. We've got to make it easier for young footballers to be Ok with who they are than it was when I was starting out. It's a different world now but football seems not to have moved on enough. I think what [Joey] has done is right but it's also well overdue, you know the clubs need to take a bit of a lead on this instead of just leaving it to players. But if this can help change attitudes and the culture within the game then I'm all for it.
AP: What would make more of a difference then?
D: Look, there are quite a lot of gay footballers. They're not all playing in the Premier League but they're out there. I was one of them. There have always been others.
D: Yes, I knew of some when I was playing, I can't believe that there haven't always been gay men playing. Now, I know what you're going to ask, and that is could people like me coming out make a difference. It's a good question to ask, but I think what first has to happen is for the whole lads culture to change, for it to be easier for young guys to come out. You know, football isn't actually a very glamorous game - at least it isn't when you're playing [for a League 2 club] and people forget that for a lot of young men, who just happen to be footballers, they're just that. Young guys, away from home for the first time, trying desperately hard to both fit in and develop a career in what is a bloody difficult environment. It's literally a survival of the fittest environment, you know, it's OK to say that gay people should come out but unless these people are confident that they'll be accepted and understood why should they? If we-
AP: No, I understand that. I want to come back to that in a moment and yes, you pre-empted my question! What do you think could be done to change football to make it a more gay-friendly environment?
D: Yes, I'm wanting that to happen but you see it takes time. Obviously Joey is right to make the points he has and it would be good to see more gay footballers come out. As I said though it's not that easy and we can't expect it until things change. You know I'd like to see more clubs doing something to actively reach out to the gay community, not just with anti-homophobia campaigns but to embrace us. Get more LGBT people employed by clubs, working in community coaching and that sort of thing, that would help. Another thing is to challenge fans culture, as we saw with the Liverpool [v Manchester United] match racism isn't tolerated and quite rightly but go to any ground and you'll here homophobic comments being laughed off as banter. You see, it's acceptable to call a referee "gay", but have a go at him for being black and you've crossed the line.
AP: Do you think that racism has been effectively consigned to history then?
D: No, I'm not saying that and you know I'm not but you've got to admit that a lot of progress has been made. True, black players like Cyrille Regis, Viv Anderson and Brendan Batson helped change attitudes but there are still racists out there. There will probably always be homophobes too. But there's been a difference to how the FA and the clubs have responded to racism while next to nothing's been done about homophobia until now?
AP: Do you think the media has a role to play?
D: (brief pause) Yes. Yes, but not for the reasons you think. Justin Fashanu's been in the papers again recently, I think it's so many years since he died. The amazing thing is that when he came out as gay all of a sudden everybody forgot he was black. Interesting, eh? Make what you want of that. It's funny that since then nobody's had anything more interesting to say about him than his sexuality - pretty disgraceful for someone who appeared in cup finals and who scored for fun for Norwich City in the top flight. And whose fault is that? The papers of course. That's one reason why it would be so ****ing difficult for a player to come out- think of all the press interest. Once a few have done it they won't care any more but why should any player have to go through that? You know, all the media intrusion. If you're a Premier League footballer then you probably learn to deal with that kind of pressure, but I think some people think that's part and parcel of being a pro footballer and it's not.
AP: Do you think the media can help to challenge the lads' culture you mentioned before?
D: No, it works the other way round. The papers reflect society's values-
D: and that's how it is. Papers won't say anything about race now because they know they'll get hammered for it. When no-one cares who's gay and who's straight any more then the papers will have to talk about other things apart from someone's sexuality. You know, like maybe they're a good footballer.
AP: Yes, it's this I'm trying to get at. How do we normalise gay participation in football?
D: Well, it is normal. Have a look at women's football. No end of lesbians playing the game. Fact. So it's not the game that's homophobic, yeah?
AP: But it's not "normal" in men's' football. And to many people, that's what matters.
D: Yeah, big difference. Same game, different cultures - know what I mean? Of course it's normal to be gay. It's not about normalising it, it's about breaking down barriers and tackling prejudice. There's two problems as I see it - the barriers making it difficult for people to come out, and the second one is the media's obsession with sexuality. So it's not about information, or normalising, or educating people. It really is about tackling prejudices and giving players the confidence to be themselves - and I mean in a lot of ways, not just their sexuality.
AP: So why didn't you come out?
D: There's a lot of reasons. You know, it was a different era. It wasn't easy to be gay in the late 80s, whether as a footballer or not. It was a ****ing cruel world, sometimes it still is but it was worse then. I know some people will think I probably should have, but they don't know how hard it was. For starters, I'd not just be coming out to the club or even the fans but the whole bloody world. I wasn't even ready to come out to my dad! I wouldn't want to do that to my family, imagine them finding out that way. But what I really wanted to do was play football and what I did in my own time was my business. I know some of the other players thought I was a bit anti-social but as far as I know no-one ever guessed.
AP: Did you not feel a bit isolated socially...?
D: Yeah, dead right but that's what being gay was like then. So that was my main reason. But there were others too, which I only understand looking back. I was a very young lad when I signed for [football league club]. I was, what, 18. You don't really know who you are at that age. I don't even think I was comfortable with who I was until late 20s when I met John (current partner). But even then, when I was playing at [North West Counties league club] I didn't want to come out. Why not? Well, it's none of anyone's business but you have to think, what will be gained by this? Probably not very much. I mean, if a Premier League player like John Terry was to come out, well - that would be great wouldn't it? But me - not really. And I wouldn't want to anyway because I was never that good.
AP: That's not true!
D: Whatever, I wasn't good enough to come out. Because you'd have to be bloody damned good to be able to be the icon or role model you'd have wanted to be. Yeah? Because otherwise all the papers would do is see this one guy playing at [English lower league club] and think that this "only" gay player is shit, he plays for a shit team. What good would that do? It would put a load of pressure on me which I can be doing without and it could have negative consequences for gay rights in football. Might look like tokenism. So if you want to make football more tolerant, you either need a load of players coming out and making it look "normal" or you need a big name player. I just don't think it's fair to put so much pressure on a young kid, footballers have a lot to deal with without all that. I mean, can we expect them to be so emotionally mature as to handle the media attention, all the interest in their sexuality and everything that goes with it. You know if I was a manager I wouldn't want any of my players exposed to that kind of shit-
AP: Yes, but do you not think coming out now might be useful for challenging the attitudes you clearly feel are holding progress back?
D: I don't see what would be gained. People would naturally ask why I didn't do it earlier. In any case, I've been out of football for many years and I played something like 30 football league games in five years and then went to non-league. No-one will remember me and if anyone does I'd prefer it if they remembered me for [a particular] goal I scored and not for being a gay guy who was too scared to some out. Mind you, I don't hide who I am and I know there are a few people who know, including some of my former team-mates. I just don't see the point making a big deal out of it. I'm not the only gay man ever to kick a ball about you know.
AP: I know you care a great deal about LGBT rights though. Looking at the broader picture, how do you think greater LGBT rights can be achieved?
D: Yeah, I'm glad you're thinking like that. Football is only a small piece of the jigsaw and of course I don't like to see how it hasn't moved forward but things will change and if football doesn't then it will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Key thing is to change attitudes. You know, look at the equal marriage talk coming out of you guys [political types, I think!] and you know that couldn't have happened 20 years ago. I mean, the Prime Minister saying that kind of thing. And when that happens people wake up, they listen, they realise that being gay is normal for a lot of us and they become less hostile. Most people now are perfectly happy for us to have rights that for years were denied [e.g. marriage, adopting children, giving blood] and because of that we're moving forward. That's been happening for a while. And so we see a lot more gay-friendly clubs and pubs, and people in different professions feel more comfortable coming out. What's happened in wider society simply needs to happen in football.
AP: Looking back at your football career, do you have any regrets about not coming out or doing more to challenge homophobia?
D: Andrew mate, I didn't have a football career, I was a bit part player trying to get ahead in a game I loved. And no, I don't have many regrets because I think at any point if I'd come out I would have brought on myself so much attention that would have been more than I could deal with. I do have one regret though: I'd wanted to go into coaching but was concerned that if I was ever outed then that would be the end; I mean who would want a gay guy working with kids? I let fear get in the way and that was stupid but that's how I was thinking at the time.
AP: You mentioned attitudes, but mainly about supporters and the media. What was your perception of attitudes within the game?
D: You mean other players and managers? I don't think they really care. Yeah, I think if you were "out" there's be a load of banter but I'd imagine it would be more friendly than hostile. There was a player I liked called Liam, he was definitely gay - came to us for a few weeks on trial but wasn't really any good, quick but no positional sense, but I don't think his sexuality was a problem to anyone. I've experienced a lot of homophobia in my life but never actually in football circles, which is a bit strange considering. You know, I think it's a cultural thing. There's this cultural hostility, like an assumption that football's a bit of a lad's club but that's more with fans and the media. I know there are gay footballers out there who don't come out and that's not really because of their clubs or team-mates but because of the media.
I am very grateful for the time Dave spent talking to me yesterday. I have attempted to honestly re-create the conversation here although some personal information has been removed and some sections adapted for clarity. Please do not attempt to contact me for information in respect to Dave's personal information or contact details.