When Blackpool forward Jake Daniels came out as gay a couple weeks ago, he was—as widely reported—the first UK player to do so since Justin Fashanu in 1990 (and Fashanu was going to be outed by the press if he didn’t do it himself). While a lot of praise should be heaped upon the 17-year-old (amazing, right?), there should be an equal amount of questioning going on about why it seems, no, why it is, heroic for a man who claims to have known this about himself since he was 6 years old, to simply identify himself publicly.
That is, while I’m in no way undermining how difficult his coming out story might be, we collectively need to question why the atmosphere is still such that no male soccer player has claimed to be gay since Fashanu, and why the word “brave” is routinely used to describe the male players in any sport who do come out.
Robbie Rogers retired from playing at Stevenage in 2013 as a result, he noted at the time, of coming out as gay as he saw the terms “professional soccer player” and “gay man” to be mutually exclusive. However, when he returned to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy, he discovered a warm, welcoming environment with his teammates, the fan base, as well as the online universe. At the time, a colleague and I wrote an article that compared public reactions to Fashanu and Roger’s coming out stories. While the essay was for a scholarly audience (and therefore, might not be a great read for everyone), we noted the exuberant acceptance that Rogers claimed to feel from everyone after coming out.
“Normal,” he kept saying, “everything has just been normal.”
The twitterverse, the fans, everyone seemed to support him in a way that inverted the horrific public homophobia that Fashanu expected.
As a result, Rogers asked himself, “What took me so long?” In short, because the experience was more positive than he expected, he chastised himself for not being a role model earlier by simply being himself.
And, yet, 32 years after Justin Fashanu, there had never been an openly gay player in UK football (not that MLS has openly gay players). What gives? Are there no gay players? That’s statistically extraordinarily unlikely. Are players simply not wanting to make any claims that are political? Given the solid (although not complete) support for Black Lives Matter over the last several years, that seems improbable as well.
Rogers noted that casual homophobia often traded amongst his teammates, primarily the joking use of a slur as a term of derision. And casual homophobia amongst his teammates is what led him to believe coming out would be impossible.
Soccer, like all sports, has historically been a location where the politics of acceptance find an opening if only because most fans find themselves more interested in winning than in political positions based on identity politics. (That is, fans learned to accept, then love, players of multiple races, as a result for more familiarity and, importantly, of victories).
But because sexuality is hidden in the sense that it is not worn on the skin, there is no obvious moment of confrontation of ideology with subjectivity. It takes a player publicly coming out, or being outed, before a fan has to confront his or her feelings about the matter. As a result, the assumption of even casual homophobic culture takes precedent as the predicted outcome of coming out over and above anything else.
And yet, once again in the case of Daniels, a coming out narrative has been met largely with celebration and support rather than derision, rather than hatred. While I’m sure it wouldn’t take much effort to find the Neanderthal keyboard warrior who makes a stink about it but, in the larger public sphere, its met with approval.
So, I’m left with the question of what we, are a culture (as fans, as people involved in a conversation) can do to make this outcome crystal clear. While the narrative and reaction to Daniels case will do more to help this situation than anything we can do, I do believe that we, in our individual actions, in our conversations, and in our local soccer communities, can likely always set a better environment for most forms of difference.
I mean, isn’t comfort with ourselves and with others what we all want, what we all deserve?