Alan Evans reports...
ItÔÇÖs a cast back to an embarrassing time in any nationÔÇÖs history to think that a section of society was so outcast by the national sport that players felt they had to keep their identity secret and set up their own separate leagues and teams.
However, this is very situation exists today and is happening, not in a developing nation, or in a country under a politically oppressive regime, but under our very noses here in Britain. Except now it is not the sectarianism that haunted The Old Firm or the racism that scarred British football for nearly twenty years, but instead, homophobia.
It is to footballs credit that today racism has been tackled with great success nationwide, womenÔÇÖs football is a vastly growing sport and people of all religions are encouraged to play the sport at all levels. A lot of work has gone into eradicating sexism, violence, sectarianism and racism from football which, it's fair to say, has been reflected in our society over the last thirty to forty years.
Homophobia has been somewhat of a taboo in sport generally, with heads of organisations seemingly working on a ÔÇťdonÔÇÖt ask, donÔÇÖt tellÔÇŁ basis. Recent comments from the head of Fifa, Sepp Blatter, have only helped in showing that itÔÇÖs time to tackle this issue, and with football being the global franchise that it is, it needs to spearhead this campaign.
Kevin Rowe moved to Scotland in 2007 and is the founder of ScotlandÔÇÖs first LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual & trans-gender) football team (pictured above right). I caught up with Kevin to hear his thoughts on this topic and those comments made by Mousier Blatter.
Youth Football Scotland: Kevin, you are somewhat of a pioneer within Scottish football. How did you get involved in starting ScotlandÔÇÖs first and at the time only LGBT football team?
Kevin Rowe: I used to play for an LGBT football team, the Yorkshire Terriers, when I lived in Leeds before moving to Edinburgh in 2007. I realised that there wasn't an LGBT team anywhere in Scotland so thought I'd try to start one. So in 2007 the HotScots Football Club, Scotland's first LGBT football team were born. I advertised in the local press for fellow LGBT football players and fans to contact me and it all really snowballed from there. We held our first exclusively HotScot training session at Meadowbank in August 2007, played our first 11-a-side game against local regular opposition in January 2008 and competed in the Gay World Cup in London in August 2008, losing on penalties in the 2nd Round. The following month, we joined the national UK-wide Gay National League and lifted the Gay National League Cup in May 2009.
We continue to compete in the Gay National League whilst playing several friendlies against regular local teams. In August, we took part in our first overseas tournament in the Cologne Gay Games where we exceeded expectations. Our ethos remains the same whereby we offer LGBT people the opportunity to participate in football irrespective of sexuality, gender, ability or race.
YFS: How do you feel about the current need to set up a separate area for gay footballers?
KR: I think it is unfortunate in some ways that there is any need for a specific team for LGBT people. I actually set up the team more for social reasons originally and as we have grown we have become more competitive. I think as we do target the LGBT community, it offers people another outlet to play football if they feel uncomfortable in regular teams although many of our players have previously played in regular teams. I would also like to stress that we have several heterosexual players whom train & play with us. Obviously we would not want to discriminate and naturally we do not live in an LGBT only bubble. Many of our friends and family are heterosexual so we would not want to exclude them. I simply felt it was good to have a team to specifically encourage LGBT people to join in rather than feel intimidated.
YFS: How do you respond to criticism from some quarters suggesting that separate teams has an adverse effect on acceptance in the mainstream?
KR: We sometimes receive criticism insofar as people feel that by having a specifically LGBT team simply builds barriers rather than breaking them down. However, as I mentioned, we are an all-inclusive team in terms of sexuality & this combined with playing regular teams, we hope to destroy stereotyped ideas of LGBT people in contact "masculine" sports. At the end of the day, we are footballers who happen to be gay. The game and the camaraderie is what is important, not who we go to bed with!
YFS: Do you feel that a lot of similarity between the problem of racism in football in the 70's and 80's and what gay footballers at all levels are dealing with today?
KR: I think there is a lot of similarity between the two & I hope that once one high-profile player comes out, many may well follow suit and in time this will be accepted and people along with fans will cease to care, just like in the wider society. It will be a hard fight for the pioneers to get on with the game as it was for say Viv Anderson but eventually these views prejudices become unacceptable. However, this may be naive as the big difference is that skin colour is obvious whereas sexuality is something you can choose to keep hidden. Of course, when you come out and how is a major decision for each individual but keeping it private can be seen as sinister and insidious by others especially in team games. However, everybody should feel that they are able to come out without fear of discrimination like in any workplace in the UK but this atmosphere does not seem to currently exist.
In terms of attitude, I think there is perhaps a more direct correlation between LGBT football teams and women's football where the predominantly male heterosexual football fans originally looked down sneeringly upon the game. Hopefully, with more women's teams and more LGBT teams such as the HotScots, this attitude is changing.
YFS: Are the SFA and particularly the FA through the Premier League being vocal in their approach and support of this topic?
KR: Originally, when we contacted the SFA a couple of years ago, it was apparent that they had bigger issues to deal with such as racism and sectarianism & did not have enough resources to tackle homophobia as well. However, there is a lot that could be done for no money at all and simply by providing free publicity for groups such as ours. I think in England, some clubs such as Manchester City and Spurs have actually tackled homophobia through working with local LGBT groups and training stewards in how to deal with homophobic abuse in the stadiums. In fact, Aston Villa now has a small but growing Gay Villains supporters group. In Scotland, we have spoken a lot with Hibs who have been very supportive of our group but it seems the clubs particularly in Scotland are actually doing a lot more than the governing bodies. I don't think the governing bodies are hiding their heads in the sand. I simply think that they believe the whole issue will sort itself out with a minimum of official effort.
YFS: Is it important to teach tolerance of homosexuality at a youth level within football, in a similar vain to how racism is approached?
KR: I do think itÔÇÖs very important that coaches encourage and instil a sense of tolerance at an early stage with kids and I think this is happening hence the later generations more liberal stance on homosexuality. Inappropriate language or actions should be nipped in the bud and usually the young players have a huge amount of respect for the coach so these messages will get through. This of course should be the case in terms of any discrimination as if children learn early that certain attitudes and behavioursare unacceptable, this will have a positive effect on society as a whole in the future and hopefully reduce bullying in schools and elsewhere.
YFS: Despite their laws on homosexuality, Qatar recently won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup. What are your thoughts on this and in particular, on Sepp BlatterÔÇÖs comments when probed on this topic?
KR: I was initially surprised that Qatar was chosen as the 2022 venue as were many people. However, in a Muslim country where women were only granted the vote in 1999, there are bigger issues than football. I fully accept that by giving a country the right to host a tournament does not give us the right to change their laws to suit us & I'm all for spreading the reach of football to bring different peoples together as we do at the HotScots. However, a consideration for where to hold the World Cup must be will supporters from all nations and cultures be welcomed? Homosexual activity in Qatar is illegal & can be punishable by up to five years in prison. Obviously, this isn't really going to encourage many LGBT supporters to travel to support their teams.
Sepp Blatter's comments were intended to be humorous but I think this is indicative of a certain type of attitude that still exists within football. I don't think he believes this would be an issue at all in the sense of why does that matter to a football tournament? Surely not many gay people would be interested in football anyway? I'm pleased that he apologised but I'm not even convinced he knows what he's apologised for. Hopefully, as society changes and the new generation come through, this attitude will become a thing of the past.
YFS: Can you see a day when openly gay footballers can play top level football without feeling they have to hide their sexuality?
KR: Sportsmen and women are coming out in all sports nowadays; tennis, basketball, diving, rugby - even a sport as incredibly macho & physical as hurling. This is very encouraging & I do hope that it's only a matter of time before it happens in football too. I'm naturally optimistic but I think in the future a footballer will not need to hide their sexuality. Unfortunately, this utopia might be a decade or two away.