The Gay Footballer: Why fans wanted a UK player to come out
26 July 2019 04:22
Nearly 50,000 people were following a Twitter account reportedly run by a Championship footballer planning to come out as gay - until this week.
He didn't come out, he deleted the account instead.
The @FootballerGay account was never verified, and there were doubts over whether it was genuine but it drew huge attention from football fans and the media.
Former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger revealed he was gay after retiring from the sport - but there are no out LGBT players in the top tiers of men's UK football.
It's only happened once before - in 1990, when Justin Fashanu came out as gay. He took his own life in 1998 after allegations of sexual assault were made against him by a 17-year-old in the US.
29 years later, hopes were high that UK football might be ready to see more LGBT diversity on its pitches.
"It would have been a huge step moving towards a time where football is in line with where we are as a society," says 25-year-old Phil Francis, who plays for LGBT football team the Bristol City Panthers.
"We still have issues regarding racial abuse, let alone the homophobic abuse that goes on during games."
Phil believes there is a "1950s attitude" towards LGBT people in professional football - especially on the terraces.
As an example, he mentions a friend who would be "fine" if a player at his favourite club came out as gay - but wouldn't want his child supporting the footballer or wearing his shirt.
'LGBT fans endure horrible behaviour'
Before @FootballerGay deleted his account, he changed his bio to include the line: "I thought I was strong enough. I'm not."
There's already a campaign in the UK, Stonewall's Rainbow Laces, which encourages more acceptance of LGBT diversity in sport.
"There are lesbian, gay and trans people in every football stadium across the country at every game," says Robbie De Santos, Stonewall's director of sport.
"Those people are there because they love football, but they're having to endure some really horrible behaviour."
He says the lack of LGBT players on the pitch at men's games results in homophobic chants and attitudes on the terraces - and says that having big stars in football come out could go some way to making fans more tolerant.
"Sometimes those people who might join in a chant just think that there's no one there to be offended," Robbie adds.
He's also critical of the "media frenzy" that surrounded the account and the "unhelpful" speculation that took place about who was behind the @FootballerGay account before it was taken down.
Attitudes in football have evolved, Robbie says, and he hopes the recent success and popularity of the Women's World Cup could help show certain fans that football isn't only played by straight men.
"All of those identities that are featured at the top level of women's football got airtime and people are seeing that there are a whole host of people at the very top of the women's game," Robbie says.
"I hope the football community sees what an asset diversity is to it and continues to embrace it in the way they have with the Women's World Cup."
That's something that would make a huge difference to gay football fans like Phil, who says if the @FootballerGay account was a fake, it would show the lengths some supporters would go "to make it harder for someone to come out in sport".
"People like me would have hoped this account was genuine," he says.
"I would always support someone in any sport who wanted to come out, football unfortunately seems to be the one where it's hardest.
"I fully understand why he would have deleted the account and why he would have done it."
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