If anybody told me as a 13-year-old, acne-stricken, squeaky-bollocked wanabee football thug on the Excursion One bus (‘Excursion One: we kill for fun’), that I’d be writing a column endorsing a campaign to kick homophobia out of football, I would have said, in a high-pitched voice: ‘Beat it, I’m no a poof, right!’
Then I might have been nervously compelled – in my defence, m’lud – to talk about the lassie I felt up at Murrayfield Ice Rink who was going to let me shag her, before Graeme Souness, a couple of years older, nicked her off me. (It wasn’t actually the real Graeme Souness, but a lookalike – everybody in Edinburgh in the 1970s and 80s looked like Graeme Souness, even most of the girls.)
Anyway, having repeatedly sang songs in public like ‘Hibees boys we are here, to shag your women and drink your beer’, I would have thought that my heterosexual credentials were beyond reproach. So for fuck sake don’t call me a poof. In fact, no, do call me a poof, or at least a bisexual, because Bowie says it’s cool and therefore I wear loads of make-up every weekend. Dad worries about the lack of national service and the corrupting influence of pop music; mum has put it down to ‘just a phase’. But no, don’t call me a poof, and don’t call me a wanker, either, despite enough grim evenings of masturbation to give me a right arm like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.
Fuck me, even remembering being young is exasperating and confusing, how much more so must it be if you’re gay, and therefore have different shagging orientations to most of the people around you? I try to empathise, imagining myself at that age, cast adrift in a sea of gorgeous lipstick lesbians who are your best mates but will never want to shag you in a thousand years. But, of course, nobody was gay in Scotland back then. Yes, we wore skirts, but so what? That means nothing! As Bowie would say, they were men’s skirts.
As you can see, it’s easy for straight men to be infantile about male homosexuality. It’s our defence against a strange, vaguely threatening phenomenon that we will never completely understand. It gets better as we grow up and acquire gay friends.
We realise, to our even greater horror, that we aren’t as irresistible as we thought and they actually don’t want to shag us. I’ve tried wearing Speedos a couple of sizes too small, draping myself across the couch, and speaking in a low, husky ironic voice when they call round, but rather than becoming aroused, they seem merely a little perplexed and uncomfortable.
There’s another stereotype – that gay men have ‘taste’ – completely blown out the water. But male heterosexual attitudes to homosexuality are formed in our youth, and it’s often the ‘sexual’ rather than the ‘homo’ part that causes the real discomfort. The football terraces I grew up on were essentially an extension of the school playground.
Every rival club had a player who was a screaming, limp-wristed, butt-fucking, arse-bandit of the highest order… of course the fact that they all were (probably) heterosexual was neither here nor there. To be called ‘gay’ in that culture was, and still is, the ultimate insult.
Quite recently, Hibs fans would sing: ‘Paul Hartley is gay-ay-ay…’ while Celtic fans had: ‘He’s queer, he’s bent, his arse is up for rent, Ian Durrant…’ both ironically rendered with the camp, bouncy, pantomime gusto of gay men swaggering on a float in a Pride parade. Of course, this also remains the ultimate accolade you can give to an opposition player that you know is probably going to hurt you.
Yet sometimes such slights on players can be entertaining, if they eschew the vicious homophobia, and keep things firmly in realm of high camp. A mate tells a story about a young, bouffant-haired David Platt playing for Crewe against Millwall and the pranksters in the touchline side terracing at the old Den going, ‘hmmm ducky…’ pouting and theatrically bending wrists, every time he got the ball.
Platty must have been looking forward to the second half and playing on the stand side, but then they started it over there too. A broken man, he was promptly subbed. Although he seemed to make a full recovery and build a decent career, the trauma would come back to haunt him many years later when he lined up for England to take that fateful penalty kick against San Marino.
To be a referee, of course, is to regularly have your sexuality re-designated. A ‘good’ decision and nobody cares, one ‘bad’ one, and you’re suddenly back on cock-sucking detail for the rest of the game. Now all this rampant homophobia is perhaps excusable amongst insecure young lads, burdened with the troublesome disease of virginity. (I felt like a freak having an intact cherry at 13, until I realised that contrary to what I’d been led to believe, I never was, as the song goes, ‘walking alone’.)
However, when you hear some older guys sounding off at the football, you sometimes consider the ‘lady doth protest too much’ factor, and wonder if they would actually be happier just getting rode up the arse by a procession of leather lads, instead of going home to the missus.
No matter whether we call it abuse or that great get-out term, ‘banter’, any narrative that holds gay people up to be figures of ridicule or scorn must serve to discourage them from being involved in the game, either as spectators or players. That really is a crap state of affairs, as sport has to for everybody, and participating in it is a human right.
The circle is a vicious one; if gay people are not visibly involved in the sport, then it makes it easier to regard them as ‘the other’. For all the worthy initiatives against racism, it is the sheer visibility of black people in the game, which has altered perceptions. The Rainbow Laces campaign aims to change our thinking and behaviour regarding homosexuality and football.
As it says on the tin, it centres on those Rainbow Laces that the promoters hope to get as many people as possible to wear between September 5-13.
As hard as it is to conceive of today’s modern players wearing anything sickeningly bright near their feet, the idea is that it only takes just a couple of minutes to change your laces and show support.
Some 5,000 professional footballers in the UK and Ireland. Apparently, none of them is gay, (yes, I know) though straw polls from the stands indicate that the figure swings to around 92 per cent homosexual on derby days. Alongside Stonewall and Paddy Power, the Premier League is campaigning for a better environment should any footballers decide that they want to ‘come out.’
Nobody is calling for people to do this, recognising that is the choice of the individual, nor, it should be said, are Paddy Power offering any betting-related activity as to who the first top player to come out will be.
I’m writing this as somebody who still enjoys a bit of bad behaviour in the stands. Having a few drinks with some mates, then going to the game and making a bit of a cunt of yourself; that remains an essential part of our culture, and one which I’ll defend all the way to the cells.
But I’m confident that even the most unreconstructed amongst us can manage to demonstrate the requisite amounts of rogue-like creativity, without recourse to the abuse of women and minorities. Because that’s not banter, it’s just bullying, and we can all do better much than that.
- Tweet your support for #RainbowLaces. Tweet players, clubs or your pals to encourage them to show we’ve got the balls to change the game.
- How to get Rainbow Laces: You can get Rainbow Laces at any Paddy Power Shop (shop locator here) or via Stonewall here