Sexuality and soccer: exploring the ins and outs

20/02/2014  -  11.30

Tracey Devonport, Reader in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Wolverhampton.

Sexuality and soccer: Exploring the ins and outs

Recent months have seen a small number of high profile footballers openly disclose their homosexuality and once again the question of why this disclosure remains so fearful to these athletes has been raised across the media.

In January 2014 Former Aston Villa footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger announced he is gay. Thomas retired from football in September 2013, and in reflecting upon the timing of his revelation said there is "a long way to go" before there will be an openly gay man playing in a top league “because we fear a reaction and we don't know what will happen" (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/25661228).

Then, in February 2014, Robbie Rogers, ex-Leeds United and USA winger also revealed he is gay. He too announced his sexuality upon retiring from football. In explaining the timing of his decision, a theme of fear starts to emerge;  "for the past 25 years I have been afraid, afraid to show who I really was" (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/21479520).

In a further recent development, an active top flight female player has publicly revealed her sexuality. In February 2014 England Women’s football captain Casey Stoney came out. Casey explained "I've never hidden it [her sexuality] within football circles because it is accepted” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/26084748). Casey did hide her sexuality from the general public because she was frightened of being judged. She was encouraged to go public by what she perceived to be a largely positive and supportive response to high profile Olympic diver Tom Daley who came out in December 2013.

The insights offered into the lives of these gay and lesbian footballers, and the palpable fear associated with coming out can, to some extent; be explained by published research. Research suggests that men and women in sport often face heteronormative structures imposed by a wider society that promotes heterosexuality (Caudwell, 1999; 2002).

In some instances the imposition of these heterosexual norms can have devastating consequences. Take the example of openly lesbian South African football player Eudy Simelane who was brutally raped and murdered in 2008. Across all cultures, non-compliance to heterosexual norms have been identified as predominant reasons for homophobic reactions to gay and lesbian sports participants (Ogunniyi, 2013; Price & Parker, 2003). For example, in men’s football in particular, homophobia can be recognised to exist, perhaps most prominently in the songs performed by players and fans in their attempts to validate a sense of hyper-masculinity (Caudwell, 2011).

Given these findings, the fears expressed by gay and lesbian football players regarding coming out seem well justified. However, Casey talked of the perceived positive response to Tom Daley coming out, and of her own positive experiences.

So are we witnessing a shift within Western, or more specifically UK cultural acceptance of non hetero-sexualities? A four-year longitudinal study by Bush, Anderson, and Carr (2012) explored British university athletes' attitudes toward having a gay male teammate. Attitudinal dispositions of homophobia decreased from minimal (upon University entrance) to non-existent (upon University exit).

Can initiatives such as the Football Associations ‘Opening Doors and Joining in Policy’, help reassure gay, lesbian and trans people (LGB&T) of equal opportunities and non-prejudicial treatment?

The real litmus test lay ahead, how many individuals who are currently maintaining a closeted identity will have their fears alleviated and live an open life?

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