Sexism and homophobia, just like racism, are still there but we'll keep chipping away. Here's a look at a truly inspirational football club. Welcome to IBWM Dan Mobbs.
As Andy Gray and Richard Keys’ misogynistic outbursts have recently proved, prejudice still exists in modern football and whilst great strides have been made in society, the beautiful game is still stuck in a bygone age where anything other than the traditional norm is scoffed at and derided as inferior.
There is though a shining light of defiance in football against such archaic behaviour and that is Stonewall FC; the first gay men’s football club in the UK, named after the famous gay rights protest in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, New York.
Established in 1991 after an advert in Time Out magazine asking “Are you gay? Would you like a kickabout in Regent’s Park?” led to the formation of a team who now play in the Premier Division of the Middlesex County Football League, England’s seventh tier of non-league football.
Such is the rise of the club in the face of macho homophobic adversity that a founding member of the club, Aslie Pitter, 50, was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s honours list for helping to tackle homophobia in football.
It hasn’t been an easy ride though, as upon the clubs formation there were initially fears about whether or not to openly admit that the team was gay. Concern was probably exaggerated considering the abuse that Justin Fashanu suffered when he came out around the same time, but as Pitter told the Evening Standard, that choice was taken away from them.
“There was a debate as to whether we should out ourselves but we were saved the trouble when the Mirror got hold of the story and dubbed us ‘Queens of the South’.”
Since then the club has progressed far beyond a kickabout in the park, as Stonewall have risen to the title of World and Gay Olympic Champions in just two decades.
In a game where homosexuality is still very much taboo though, an openly gay team could be the target of narrow minded homophobic abuse, but barring the occasional incident, club chairman Liam Jarnecki told me that games usually pass without incident.
“Like any other any other club, there's sometimes what's known in punditry as handbags, a funny word to describe opposing players exchanging forthright views or squaring up to each other.”
“However there are still incidents, mostly minor, involving occasional, sporadic abuse from individuals. Prejudice and abuse always takes place and is taken in context. You can usually tell the difference between a comic heckle and a snarling threat.”
Pitter though is less positive in his view of football as a socially equal sport.
“I’m often asked, ‘Have things improved in football since 1991?’ The answer is: how many openly gay players do you see in the Premiership today? There are none. Zero. Think about that. Apart from Justin Fashanu – who only came out at the end of his career and whose footballing brother John disowned him – there’s been nothing.”
“Rugby, in comparison has made tremendous strides. Gareth Thomas has come out as gay, as have others, but football is stuck in the Dark Ages.”
The changing of attitudes on the pitch and education of future generations is seemingly an upsettingly drawn-out process that will take many years to be fully addressed, and a concerted effort from the men at the top of the game is needed to help correct the many wrongs that still exist. That said, Jarnecki believes great strides have been made.
“Wider society has changed in that time [since the club was established] and football probably within that context. Hopefully we've been part of that, challenging stereotypes held by some straight and some gay people about the limits of sexual orientation.”
Whilst progress has been made in challenging perceptions, changes still need to be made according to Pitter, as it’s all too easy for people to wear a painted on acceptance that masks their prejudice.
“From the top of the game to the amateur leagues homophobia as well as sexism is seething just below the surface, ready to pop out at the merest provocation. The fact that Sky’s Richard Keys could say on air ‘We wish her the best of luck’ but then behind the scenes slag her off by saying ‘The game’s gone mad’ is evidence of how most people keep their true views hidden.”
Whilst this is something that needs addressing, the problem of players acceptance is still a serious concern, as just a few weeks ago Pitter was told by an opposing player “Shut up you queer, you batty man!” for merely pointing out that he was taking a throw-in from the wrong place.
In the face of such overwhelming prejudice it seems to be clear why so many remain in the closet, so to speak, and Jarnecki sympathises with players regarding the impending backlash that they would undoubtedly receive from the press. He also suggests that there could be a further influence on their decision to stay quiet.
“These are footballers, not politicians or community ambassadors. However they are still club ambassadors and they will be considering the media intensity on them which could then bring pressure to the whole club.”
The fact though that there are still no openly gay footballers in football, with homosexuality remaining one of the game's enduring taboos is a sad state of antiquated affairs in a society dreaming of equality.
Jarnecki clearly believes the battle for equality is a long road, but he’s rightly pleased with what an amateur team has achieved and the awareness they’ve created in the face of such prejudice.
“We were invisible in football until 20 years ago and now there's at least dozen gay clubs of different standards across the country so we've definitely made a difference.”
If you would like to know more about Stonewall FC, please visit their website.
Dan is site editor for the excellent 'Three Match Ban'. If you haven't yet had a bash at the sticker quiz, your life can never be truly complete.