Gay rights in Football: Why aren't more players coming out?
In a world where most western countries are celebrating and championing diversity, it seems slightly incongruous that professional sport (and football in particular) seems to be almost devoid of gay men. There is some debate on the statistics of what proportion of men are gay – trailblazers such as Freud and Kinsey were probably overstating it a bit, but recent research suggests that somewhere around 2% of men identify as gay.
How do those statistics stack up in terms of footballers? Let’s take the English Premier League. There are 20 clubs, each with a squad of 25 players. If the EPL players were reflective of the UK population, then of those 500 players you would expect to see about 10 openly gay players among them. But there’s not currently any. Not one.
In fact, in the entire history of the Premier League (it was founded in 1992), there have only been three players who have declared that they were gay: Justin Fashanu came out towards the end of his career; Thomas Hitzlsperger went public after he had retired and Robbie Rogers announced he was gay after he had left his Premier League career behind him.
You could perhaps argue that if there are elite footballers that are gay, they may be staying closeted due to the intense public scrutiny that the players are under, or fear of losing advertising sponsorships, or somehow damaging their career. But this isn’t a phenomenon that’s restricted to the top level of English football.
There are about 5,000 or so professional footballers in the UK, but you have to go six divisions below the Premier League until you find semi-professional Liam Davis (who plays for Gainsborough Trinity) who is the only openly gay footballer in the UK.
A study that has recently been published in Australia might give us an insight into what is going on. In Australia today, 87% of young gay guys who play sport feel forced to hide their sexuality. The study found that the main reason that young gay guys hide their sexuality is because they fear being ostracised by their teammates and because homophobic language is regularly heard around their club.
It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that we are forcing young gay guys to give up on team sport. It’s probably not a conscious thing, but sports clubs still seem to be creating an environment where young gay guys don’t feel welcome.
What the research is probably telling us is that it is absolutely no surprise that we don’t have any gay Premier League footballers. For a gay player to persevere and make it to that level they would have to be an incredibly resilient person, as well as a talented footballer.
It seems that football clubs have a long way to go to change their ingrained homophobic culture. Until then we should be celebrating the resilience and talent of Liam Davis from Gainsborough Trinity – that man should be a national hero.
Written by Gareth Johnson