Last week the former Aston Villa and Germany midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger revealed he is gay and it commanded major news across the sporting world. Why is it such a big deal? In the acting or music industry, a similar disclosure would merit little acknowledgement. The reason why it is such big news rests with the macho football culture that we have inherited from a bygone age.
The 31-year-old – who won 52 caps for Germany and also played for West Ham and Everton – made the announcement during a lengthy interview in German publication, Die Zeit. Hitzlsperger is probably the most prominent footballer to publicly reveal his homosexuality and said it was “a good time” to do so.
“I’m coming out about my homosexuality because I want to move the discussion about homosexuality among professional sportspeople forwards.”
The fact that so few gay footballers have been brave enough to make such proclamations comes from the fact that fan culture has been so negative towards anybody who did not conform to the standard acceptable face that suited their own ideals. Few players have been brave enough to do so when they are still playing at the top level which has got to be a concern regarding the underlying fear that still exists. In the not so distant past ‘Johnny foreigner’ received considerable abuse and of course over the past thirty years the issue of racism reached its nadir. One can only imagine just how difficult it must have been for former Hearts and England Under-21 international Justin Fashanu who was the first professional footballer in Britain to reveal he was gay. Having to suffer abuse for his bravery, as well as playing in a footballing society not yet wholly accepting of racial integration , must ,you feel, have contributed to him taking his own life eight years later, aged just 37. Few of us can imagine how difficult his life must have been as we lived in a society that was so unsupportive or understanding.
Statistically we know there must be a significant amount of gay players in the professional ranks here in Scotland and you would like to feel that if they so chose to come out that the more educated fans of 2014 would support them no matter what. Society has moved on and so has the football audience who are far more educated and of a much more diverse nature than ever before. Of course once you add the spice of a local derby or a game against championship or relegation rivals into the mix I am sure there will still be the chance of an outpouring of the so called “banter” directed towards any player who had come out.
We as fans would need to police this and make sure just as racist and sectarian chanting is unacceptable so too would abuse directed towards any individual because of his sexuality be; fans not happy with this need to be educated and to understand that their view does not represent the club that they love. Collectively fans have power and as with racist chanting you would like to feel that is so unacceptable now that it virtually does not exist; gay footballers in Scotland would appreciate that ordinary fans would not condone the actions of the minority. Having grown up with football in the 1970’s and into the 80’s where unacceptable chants were common place, one hopes that society has moved on to such an extent that players were more confident that our game would respect them.
As for Thomas Hitzlsperger, The Gay Football Supporters’ Network has had the last word;
“It shows that we are moving one step closer to creating that atmosphere in football where players at all levels would be able to come out should they want to, safely and free from discrimination. We hope that one day current players would feel able to come out and that eventually a player’s sexual orientation not be a news story, but for now we wish Thomas Hitzlsperger well.”
In Scotland we echo that sentiment.
Paul Goodwin is Head of Supporters Direct in Scotland
He is also the author of Saving the Albion and Saving Scottish Football