Stonewall v The World
London's Stonewall FC are the gay world cup holders and had high hopes to win it again at this year's competition in Argentina. Before they flew off to defend their title, BBC London met their players and staff to talk about homophobia in football.
It's hard to believe that 50 years ago a Home Office committee, which included a psychiatrist, a High Court judge and a professor of moral theology, laid the social foundations for forming Stonewall FC, Britain's first gay football club.
The Wolfenden Report
On the 3rd September 1957, the committee recommended, in what became known as the Wolfenden Report, that 'homosexual behaviour between two consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.'
Exactly half a century on, Britain seems to be far more at ease with its sexual diversity. Homosexuality is no longer seen as an obstacle to a successful career in business, politics, or entertainment.
Can the same be said about football?
Being successful wasn't the priority when Stonewall FC was formed in 1991; the aim was to allow gay men to play football in an environment where they would feel safe and comfortable. It was a simple act that spoke volumes about the national game: it was homophobic and gays didn't feel welcome.
Having made giant, if not definitive strides, against hooliganism and racism, football remains far from the all-embracing beautiful game that it aspires to be. As Stonewall's first team played their second string in a friendly match at an Islington sports centre, BBC London went to watch and to talk about football's problem with gay men.
Club Captain Darren Lewis
"Sport, in general, and football particularly, is considered a man's game. When it comes to racism, there are a lot black footballers in the game and it’s very apparent."
These are the words of Darren Lewis, a centre-back and Stonewall FC's club captain. Although sitting out the friendly match, he was happy to share his thoughts on why homophobia in the game has not, until now at least, been tackled with the same urgency as racism.
“We don't really have any professional footballers coming out, like Justin Fashanu and all the problems he had. I think because it's not very obvious that there's a gay player in the professional game, it's not at the forefront of people's minds to stamp it out."
Midfielder, Andy Walmsley, has been at the club for ten years. He says that things are getting better, particularly in the last five years, although it was a different story at the beginning.
"When I first started playing there was quite a lot of homophobic abuse. We used to play in a mid-week league and some of the teams were very homophobic," said Andy. "There was a lot of stuff about HIV. It was quite full on. Things like saying you've got AIDS and you're going to die."
A bit of banter?
The club recognises that there will always be banter in the heat of a game and, rather generously, the players that talk to BBC London say that they regard taunts, such as being called a faggot, as nothing more than that. Other players, they say, might be more likely to take offence.
One team they play against in the first division of the Middlesex County Football League refuse to leave their dressing room until Stonewall have left the ground. Andy Walmsley remembers one game when the abuse from the opposition and their set of fans was so atrocious, that the linesman felt obliged to step in and urge the referee to take action. In fact, the club has written to their league on a couple of occasions when they have felt that a referee has turned a blind eye to persistent and severe homophobic abuse.
For the most part, Andy is philosophical about why things are the way they are.
"Football comes from a very traditional working class background where men are men. I'm from Liverpool and the thought of being homosexual in Liverpool 15 years ago would have been horrific to most people. But society is moving on all the time. But homosexuality in football, because it has such working class roots, is the last taboo."
Manager Eric Armanazi
Even in non league football, managers need to be thick-skinned and one would imagine that being manager of Stonewall you would need to more thicker skinned than most. Thankfully, Eric Armanazi is just that. A self-proclaimed 'psycho' when he is watching or playing football, he sees homophobia as an extension of the 'terrace attitude' and 'tribalism' of the game.
"For me, it's when you have a drink in the pub with someone that you know what they really feel," said Eric, who is sceptical about the chances of stamping out forms of prejudice in the game. Watching his beloved Manchester United, he still hears the odd shout of racist abuse, although he did make one distinction between racism and homophobia: "You can't sniff racism on TV, but you can still get away with gay jokes."
For Eric Armanazi, it is the hopes of a new season that most occupy his thoughts. They will be aiming for promotion; after being top of their table at Christmas last season, they only managed to win one of their last 15 games. There is also the small matter of defending the Gay World Cup in Buenos Aires, Argentina (see below).
How many people who give Stonewall abuse have got a world cup winners medal?
Club chairman, Liam Jarnecki, has been at the club since its second year. He never played football until Stonewall FC came along because 'I genuinely didn't feel it was appropriate for me.' Now, he sees the club mission quite simply:
"We want to help contribute to an environment whereby you are safe to play and watch football regardless of your sexual orientation."
Chairman Liam Jarnecki
They are practicing what they preach: Heterosexuals are not discriminated against at Stonewall FC.
"We've got a straight Muslim player with two kids," said the chairman. "We have a Japanese guy who plays for us because his gay mate plays for us. We've got another straight guy who is a student and just plays for us because he is relaxed around us and enjoys the 'craic' because obviously our jokes are a bit funnier than the average football team!"
Allowing straight players into the team was not a decision taken without any debate. Some players felt it was wrong; others felt that if they wanted to be the best team possible then players should be based on their ability above all else – "I think one or two of the boys wouldn't mind us playing homophobes if they were any good!" jokes Liam Jarnecki.
In a perfect world
It is an interesting dilemma for Stonewall FC. As society slowly but surely becomes more tolerant, football will be dragged along in its slipstream, not least because of the need to comply with anti-discrimination legislation.
Now that the FA is making big noises about stamping down on homophobia, will there come a time when Stonewall FC will merely become an anachronistic throwback to darker days?
"If we ever got to the point where we had nine straight players and two gay ones, then it would have to be in a world where everything had changed," counters Liam. "Look at how football teams start. Woolwich Arsenal started out of the dockyards. Rangers and Celtic started with their religious backgrounds. All these things are a bit redundant now, but clubs still maintain their traditions."
The players agree.
"I don't think Stonewall is about a need now. When it started off in 1991 there was a need. Now it's a want," says Andy Walmsley. "Football clubs come from a town, or a club or a school. Our common bond is our sexuality."
"From a social side, playing in a straight team, you can't have the same banter. You socialise in different places and you've got a different set of friends. From that point of view, Stonewall has been a great place for people to come out and be confident about their sexuality and to show that gay men can play football at a high level."
Post Script: Gay World Cup
Stonewall lost in the final of the Gay World Cup 1-0 to home side Los Dogos in Buenos Aires. As title-holders, Los Dogos will now automatically qualify for the 2008 tournament that will be hosted in London.
The two teams were among 28 squads from Europe, the Americas and Australia that participated in the 10th gay football world championship aimed at highlighting the fight against homophobia and discrimination.
last updated: 07/05/2008 at 12:22
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