Homophobia in football is an issue which has captured the hearts of many. From the tragic circumstances of Justin Fashanu to the ray of light that is Robbie Rogers and Thomas Hitzelsperger, this is one topic never short of opinions. Last month you may have been one of five million viewers who tuned in to watch The One Show as presenter Richie Anderson produced a truly inspirational feature on the subject in which he also came out to his Sunday league team mates. This week, I got to ask him all about it.
Hi Richie, tell us first of all what inspired you to do the feature? I’m a massive football fan and have played the game at grassroots level for the last 20 years. As a gay man I’ve been struck by the lack of gay professionals in the game and how at grassroots level it’s assumed everybody that plays is straight. So I wanted to highlight to the nation this isn’t always the case. I’ve been in plenty of situations where I’ve heard gay slurs passed off as ‘banter’ in the changing room and I’ve had to sit there quietly or laugh along. So I see this as making a stand against that! Also, coming out is a very difficult part of being gay, so I wanted to show how accepting most people are in 2018. When I was 19 and was worried about coming out it would have really helped me. My team mates probably aren’t aware of the positive impact they’ve had with their incredible reaction and they should be so proud!
In the feature you referenced LGBT friendly teams playing in a gay league, as wonderfully positive it is that such things exist is it a sad state of affairs that there was a need to differentiate teams in the first place? I myself have played in LBGT friendly leagues and I joined one not long after coming out when I didn’t know many gay people, so it’s certainly a great way to socialise and meet other like-minded people. Sadly, there are some gay footballers who play in these leagues because in a straight team they find it hard to fit in with the dressing room culture. In my film I met a gay footballer that came out to his straight team and was made to feel so uncomfortable he left which is an issue that The FA needs to deal with, that was so sad to hear. I think it’s nice there are LGBT leagues because it caters for all abilities but the issue is the fact people are playing in those league because they haven’t been made to feel welcome elsewhere. It would be nice if more of those LGBT teams were given the opportunity to play friendlies against straight teams or were allowed to get involved in more mainstream leagues.
Even I felt nervous as you were making your way to the dressing room to tell your teammates you were gay, what was going through your head as you were walking off at full-time? In my heart of hearts I knew they would be fine with me being gay because they’re a great bunch of lads. My biggest worry was that they would feel deceived that I hadn’t told them sooner and obviously we had a camera crew filming us which they thought was for a film about grassroots football so I was scared they would feel misled and react badly. Also, because I was coming out I was hoping they would react positively because I knew it would be watched by 5 million people and if the reaction was negative that could impact on people all over the country who were struggling with their sexuality. I had a really bad game because I couldn’t concentrate and I was even subbed off with 20 minutes to go so I guess the big moment was playing on my mind, I managed to score but I was certainly distracted. When I actually sat down and made the announcement it was daunting to sit there in front of 18 men and open up and be so personal. My heart was pounding!
I don’t mind admitting that I was almost a little bit choked up by the reaction from your teammates, for anyone who hasn’t seen the feature tell us what the reaction was and how much it meant to you. When I came out as gay they all applauded and hugged me and the nice thing was when the cameras stopped rolling we all went back to the pub and they were asking me lots of questions about me and my partner which was nice they were so interested. We also have a group chat on Facebook and they have been so supportive in that. It meant the world to me, it’s a big deal to open up about something so personal and if the person or people you open up to take it badly it can be soul destroying. I felt so relieved and humbled. Coming out as gay isn’t something that’s associated with football changing rooms so it was nice to break that barrier and challenge the norm.
There are constant rumours of high-profile players being on the verge of coming out, if this were to happen what impact do you foresee this having? Is there potential for a domino effect? I think it’s only right for professional players to come out when they’re ready to. I do wonder with all the media scrutiny how it would affect them mentally. Say if you’re a low-key, mid-table Premier League player, doing something like this will catapult you into the public eye. I would like to think if a player came out they would be very much supported by the fans. I think the rumours don’t help though, it’s effectively the press proving they’ll be like a pack of wolves when a player does finally come out.
Given the positive reactions to some well known Rugby players coming out, are you surprised this didn’t have more of a knock on effect in football? Football crowds are very different to rugby crowds. The etiquette in football is very different to rugby. Rugby players, barring the ones at the very top, aren’t open to the scrutiny Premier League players are. The Gareth Thomas situation was fantastic, wouldn’t it be amazing if that happened in football!
The more I look at the issue of homophobia in football the more respect I have for LA Galaxy’s former Leeds United star Robbie Rogers, does this guy get the credit he deserves? I have a lot of time for Robbie Rogers, he was very brave to come out whilst still playing. It would have been very easy for him to have waited until he retired. It’s a shame he didn’t stay in England for longer but I love the fact he’s been so embraced. I think because he’s American and plays in the States the media over here haven’t given him too much publicity for what he did, but it’s 2018 and being gay shouldn’t be a massive issue. If he was English I wonder if his whole private life would have been splashed over the tabloids? He’s certainly a role model and I thinks it’s nice he’s allowed to just play football and not be labelled as ‘the gay one.’
Is there more that footballing bodies can be doing both locally and nationally to tackle the issue? Certainly at grass roots level. I think referees at that level need to be making the point that homophobia is treated on par with racism and if anybody is guilt they’ll be banned and fined. I respect what The FA has done with rainbow laces etc but again I feel that as a mixed race football fan I won’t hear racism at a match because fans know they’ll get the book thrown at them. I recently went to a match between West Brom and Brighton and a couple of WBA fans (literally one or two) started a homophobic chant and nobody batted an eyelid. Thankfully nobody joined in!