I was going to write about Brighton’s shiny, if incomplete, new Amex stadium this week, and perhaps extend the blog to consider the significance of stadiums generally. Perhaps bring the experience of visiting Crawley into it, the experience of visiting Upton Park, Amex v Withdean, that sort of thing. But then I had a discussion on Twitter which changed my mind a bit.
See, Brighton have gone to great lengths to make the away fan experience as pleasant as possible. Padded seats, local ales, a good view. The overriding impression you’re clearly supposed to take from the game is that the Amex is a lovely place to watch football. But you don’t, and that’s for reasons largely beyond Brighton’s control. The overriding impression I took away was “our fans are a bunch of meatheads”.
Let me caveat that before I get in too much trouble. It would be wrong to say that I’m talking about a majority of our fans. And it would be wrong to suggest that only our fans do it – I’m sure fans of every club to visit Brighton do, which is a problem in and of itself but means at least it’s not Bristol City’s problem alone. But a substantial, voluble, minority of our fans decided to spend the match chucking homophobic abuse at the Brighton supporters.
I got a bit of abuse on Twitter for saying that this is unacceptable; more, it actually brings shame on the club. I probably expected that (or at least, I did once I’d been retweeted by our stadium announcer – cheers Dave!) but the more I think about it the more difficult it is to swallow.
Homophobia is a massive, massive problem, both in the game and in the wider world. I’m only going to mention Justin Fashanu briefly in the interests of not turning this into a lecture, but it’s instructive that I don’t have to go into detail; you all know who he was and what his tragic death represents. It’s hard to believe he died 14 years ago; harder perhaps to believe that attitudes have failed to change appreciably in that time. Think of the ill-informed crap Sol Campbell got from knuckleheads in Tottenham jerseys; read (please do read this, it’s well well worth it) this interview with Darren Purse a little over a year ago in which he honestly and thoughtfully chews over the question of what he’d do if a team-mate told him, in confidence, that he was gay.
The wonderfully brave Tobias Hysen has come out since then, but as far as I’m aware he’s the only out gay player playing at a high level anywhere in Europe. It’s hard to blame the players. Hysen lives in a country which in a number of social policy areas could reasonably be described as liberal, and he’s still getting some abuse I’m not going to repeat here. Imagine the 19-year-old winger, out, proud, but running the gauntlet of angry, frustrated, homophobic fans at *insert ground of your choice here*. It’s not hard to see why they wouldn’t fancy it and I wouldn’t dare criticism them for it. It’s their choice in the way it wasn’t for the black players who appeared more and more in the British game throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, as the children of the Windrush generation came of age. They couldn’t hide their skin colour the way that gay footballers are choosing to hide their sexuality. There was no recourse to that favourite line of the anti-gay bigot: “I don’t mind them doing it, just not when it’s rubbed in my face”.
The time between Viv Anderson debuting for England and my first football match isn’t far off the gap between Fashanu’s death and today, yet the progress that has been made is much less significant. When I saw Junior Bent and Wayne Allison play, I didn’t hear monkey chants or see bananas thrown. This isn’t to say that football was without a racism problem then, or isn’t now; there were still chants of “just a small town in Asia” when Leicester last visited the gate, and I’d be interested to know from fans of Leicester or Bradford, say, whether they get much racist abuse from away fans on a regular basis. But when racism is rubbed in our faces – when England play in Spain, for example – we react with a moral outrage that we just don’t experience around homophobia. That's got to be about visibility and that's why the first gay player to come out in Britain will be so important. We don't have to envy him but he'll be an absolute hero.
There’s a part of me that’s wondering if this blog that’ll be published on some corner of the internet is really even worth writing. Stephen Colbert has pointed out that reality has a pronounced liberal bias – he’s right, and one day we’ll look back on this sort of abuse and be shocked that it was ever tolerated, that my opinion was ever controversial. But for the time being it is and I do find that a little shocking. Perhaps I live in a liberal ghetto, but it sullies the away experience – one of the very best things about football – to hear one’s supposed comrades quite loudly and quite happily shouting “you’re just a town full of faggots”, reducing homosexuality to the status of ‘lesser’ or ‘other’ when in every other walk of life it’s been a steady march of normalising this completely normal activity in the 45 years since anti-sodomy laws were repealed.
I don’t care if you think it’s just banter. I don’t care if that’s what you enjoy about the away experience. And I certainly don’t care if you’re dim-witted enough to equate it with the chants about sheep-shagging that get directed at City fans. Some things are a great deal more important than football tribalism. The right to live your life as you choose is one of them, and these chants are part of a social problem which is still leading to beatings, discrimination and murder based on life choices. That’s bigger than football. That’s why they should stop. Right now.