Hitzlsperger: hero of the football snobs
The fawning over Thomas Hitzlsperger shows that homophobia has become the latest weapon of choice in the football culture wars.
So, Thomas Hitzlsperger is gay. So what? Why is this even a news story? Surely, in the twenty-first century, a footballer’s private life is his own business? Well, evidently, that’s not the case. It’s the reaction by the great and the good to Hitzlsperger’s self-outing which is significant. Sure, it tells us that public attitudes towards homosexuality are becoming more liberal which, of course, is a good thing. But then there’s the gushing hogwash about his heroism. I hate to piss on the Hitzlsperger love parade, but those who praise the player for his bravery are indirectly expressing their own ill-concealed contempt for working-class football fans who are cast as the bigoted mob in this parable.
Thomas Hitzlsperger was a half-decent footballer. He made his name at Aston Villa, won the Bundesliga with VfB Stuttgart and made 52 appearances for Germany. He could hit a ball with ferocious power – ‘Der Hammer’ they called him. But the last few years of his career were blighted by injuries and he hung up his boots in September 2013. Does he belong in the pantheon of football gods? Of course not. However, as the first openly gay ex-Premiership player, he has become an equal-rights icon. He joins a glittering cast of sports stars who have come out and, in so doing, have undergone a kind of gay beatification. Nobody in Britain had heard of NBA star John Amaechi or former Leeds footballer Robbie Rogers before they announced they were gay. But they are now celebrities. Former Wales rugby international Gareth Thomas was twice voted the most influential gay person in Britain after he came out in 2009. Most of these stars waited until retirement before outing themselves, whereas diver Tom Daley announced he was dating a man in the prime of his career. Has his ‘brand’ nosedived as a result? Not at all. He seems to be even more of a national treasure after revealing his sexuality.
What’s striking about all these public ‘I’m gay’ declarations is that they have enhanced rather than destroyed the reputations of the sports stars. That in itself tells us a great deal about how homosexuality as a social issue has been transformed. Being gay no longer carries the same social stigma. Far from it. Arguably, it can now be a positive benefit. Thomas Hitzlsperger won’t be remembered as a journeyman footballer but immortalised as a gay trailblazer – the Nelson Mandela of professional football. You think I’m joking? Look at the praise heaped on him. UK prime minister David Cameron tweeted: ‘As an #AVFC fan, I’ve always admired what Thomas Hitzlsperger did on the pitch – but I admire him even more today. A brave & important move.’ There were similar plaudits from German chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, from the Bundesliga chairman, and from Philipp Lahm, the German national team captain. And leading the applause from the British press pack was the Sun, which described the former German international as ‘brave’ and a ‘winner’.
You don’t need Alan Turing to decode the public discourse here. Why is Hitzlsperger ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ to come out? It’s because football is FULL OF BIGOTS. Get it? The celebration of Hitzlsperger is an indirect swipe at the snarling, foul-mouthed football fans whose venomous bigotry forces gay footballers to hide their sexuality. It’s a clever trick. You don’t need to say openly that working-class people are scummy, narrow-minded, knuckle-draggers. That sounds like old-fashioned snobbery. No, you just praise Thomas Hitzlsperger for his courage and we all understand the subtext. As the Independent’s Simon Kelner put it: ‘The biggest challenge in terms of changing perceptions may be what used to called the terraces, which are still, as anyone who goes regularly to football matches will know, a repository of racism, sexism and homophobia.’
In recent years, gay-rights campaigners have turned the spotlight onto professional football. Frankly, I don’t think there’s any justification for a campaign. Sure, there are anti-gay chants at football. I’ve no doubt that openly gay players might get some stick from the stands, if not from fellow professionals. But to describe football as a ‘repository’ of homophobia is to turn the issue on its head. Anti-gay sentiment in football is a symptom of anti-gay sentiment more broadly in society. Bigotry is not the product of stupidity or poor education as progressives like to believe. It is shaped by the laws of the land which have historically criminalised and discriminated against gay people. If ordinary people still express bigoted views, it’s because that bigotry was legitimised by the state until very recently. Homosexuality was a criminal offence until 1967. The last vestiges of legal discrimination were only swept away in the past two decades. The age of consent for gay sex was reduced to 16 – parity with heterosexual intercourse – as late as 2001. Section 28, the hated law which made it illegal for councils and schools to promote homosexuality, was only repealed in 2003. Civil partnerships were only introduced in 2004.
As the legal framework for anti-gay discrimination has been dismantled, so too public attitudes towards homosexuality have become more enlightened. Thirty years ago, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, just 21 per cent of British people believed same-sex relationships were either ‘not wrong at all’ or ‘rarely wrong’. By 2012, that percentage had increased to 57 per cent. There’s no reason to believe that the increasing acceptance of gay relationships isn’t reflected in the attitudes of football fans. In a 2009 survey of football fans commissioned by Stonewall, two-thirds of supporters said they’d feel comfortable if a player in their team came out, while just under two-thirds said that football would be a better sport if anti-gay abuse and discrimination was eradicated. What’s striking is the two-thirds figure. The percentage of football fans with enlightened attitudes towards homosexuality mirrors the proportion of the British population who don’t believe homosexuality is wrong. In other words, football is clearly not a hotbed of bigotry.
If you break down attitudes towards homosexuality by age cohort, it’s clear that there is a generational shift at play, with each generation more liberal than the previous one. That generational shift is also reflected in football. A recent study of attitudes towards homosexuality of academy footballers found ‘no overt animosity towards gay men’. As I said, this doesn’t mean there isn’t residual bigotry in the dressing room or on the terraces. There undoubtedly is, but it’s withering away. The vitriolic hostility faced by Justin Fashanu is a thing of the past. Society has changed and so too has football. Nowadays, a footballer like Matt Jarvis is able to pose for the cover of gay magazine Attitude and suffer no career-threatening backlash. (Arguably, signing for West Ham was far more damaging to his career.)
In an ideal world a footballer coming out as gay would not be regarded as a political act. It ought to be unremarkable. I’m sure that day will come, probably sooner than we think. Until then, instead of stoking up fears about terrace bigotry, we should welcome the fact that public attitudes to homosexuality – including attitudes within the game – are becoming more liberal. And we should definitely stop using the issue of homophobia as a stick with which to beat football.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.