The Brighton school tackling football homophobia

With many stars at the Women's World Cup 'out and proud', Norman Miller reflects on continuing homophobia among male players – and reveals how Brighton College has tackled homophobia at school level

While racism in football is currently in the spotlight, homophobia still largely slinks in the shadows. But not in Brighton, where the strong LGBT presence in a city often dubbed the ‘Gay Capital of Britain’ has meant fans of its Premier League team Brighton & Hove Albion facing years of homophobic taunting by rival supporters, from “does your boyfriend know you’re here?” to “you’re just a town full of faggots”.

Such abuse at Albion matches may have become rarer after clampdowns, including opposition fans being arrested for homophobic taunts. But continuing problems for the city’s school footballers have prompted Brighton’s most high-profile school to hit back.

“There was an incident earlier this year where a player received homophobic abuse,” says Michael Davidson, head of sport at independent school Brighton College. “But our pupils understand about not lashing out whenever they receive abuse. They raise their concerns elsewhere.”

With this in mind, Brighton College has worked for the last two years with the LGBT rights campaign charity Stonewall, initially adopting their rainbow laces initiatives across 16 netball teams as well as 14 football teams. Brighton College has gone further, however, teaming with Stonewall to sponsor all the school’s sports teams for the 2018-19 academic year, while the 1st XI boys’ team now wear the Stonewall logo on their shirts as main sponsor. “We feel proud to wear it,” one of the players tells me.

Brighton College has worked for the last two years with the LGBT rights campaign charity Stonewall, initially adopting their rainbow laces initiatives across 16 netball teams as well as 14 football teams

Brighton College’s fight against homophobic abuse on the sports field contrasts with the ongoing furore and parental protests erupting around the No Outsiders initiatives on LGBT relationships – despite these merely being inspired methods to introduce primary age children to the principles of the government’s 2010 Equality Act.

But in an arena of rising homophobic tensions around schools, Brighton College has continued its drive for LGBT inclusivity off the sports field as well as on it. In 2013, Will Emery became the first ‘out’ head boy of a public school after an overwhelming vote by over 1,000 pupils and staff. In 2016, requests from gender dysphoric pupils prompted the school to drop traditional gender-based uniform, allowing any pupil to wear either skirt or trousers. And in 2017, Brighton College became the first UK private school to join a Pride parade when it took part in Brighton’s huge annual summer celebration.

Brighton College players “feel proud” to wear Stonewall’s logo on their shirts

Homophobic abuse in school sports takes place far beyond Brighton, of course – and has a lifelong impact on the wellbeing of its targets beyond immediate hurt. According to research by Stonewall, 30% of LGBT pupils have experienced homophobic bullying in school changing rooms, and 25% during sport. As a result, two-thirds of LGBT pupils avoid sports participation after leaving school, missing out on the well-proven boost to physical and mental wellbeing engagement with sport can bring.

Stonewall have created a School Champions programme including ongoing support and resources to counteract homophobic abuse in school sports, while the English Football Association has created Key Stage 2 and 3 initiatives as part of a Football v Homophobia campaign. These feature things like workshops and assembly talks exploring issues such as ‘Why do many LGBT people not feel welcome in sport?’ as well as providing examples of LGBT sporting heroes.

In 2017, Brighton College became the first UK private school to join a Pride parade

Yet, while 85% of respondents to a major 2012 Scottish survey of attitudes to LGBT issues in sport said it was important to have ‘out’ LGBT sports personalities, almost exactly the same number (86%) thought that it was difficult for sports stars to be openly gay.

Only around 100 top professional sports stars worldwide are out, including Grand Slam legends Martina Navratilova, former British Lions rugby international Gareth Thomas, champion diver Tom Daley and world champion athlete Colin Jackson.

The elephant on the pitch, however, remains football. Even in the supposedly woke world of 2019, there remains not a single out professional male player in Britain. Media rumours that two Premier League players – including an England international – were going to come out a couple of years ago came to nothing. “Over 5,000 professional male footballers in Britain and none of them are LGBT – I think not,” said one respondent in the Scottish survey.

Even though a BBC survey in 2016 found 92% of fans claimed they would have no problem if one of their team was gay, only two top professional players from Britain’s league system have ever come out.

Former Aston Villa midfielder and German international Thomas Hitzlsperger came out in 2014, but only after retiring from the sport. The only professional footballer to come out while still playing was Nottingham Forest striker Justin Fashanu in 1990. The resulting torrent of abuse from both fans and players resulted in his career falling apart – then, in 1997, he killed himself following an accusation of sexual assault.

Fashanu’s tragedy casts a long shadow still, with the 2012 Scottish survey finding around three-quarters of respondents citing fear of abuse from other players and fans as a reason for professional football’s giant closet.

I ask the Brighton College players about this side of professional football, and after a few moments reflection, they pinpoint a basic hostility still wired into the DNA of football fans from the bad old days of hooliganism as the only explanation.

But perhaps the Brighton school players are part of the rising generation who can turn the game around, and finally kick homophobia off the football pitch.