When ‘The Gay Footballer’ tweeted, “I am a proud gay man” in early July, it seemed the 29-year wait for a top tier male player to come out publicly would soon be over.
But the @FootballerGay account, which amassed 50,000 followers, was deleted on Tuesday after its anonymous owner, who claimed to be a Championship player – English football’s second division – tweeted:
“I’m not strong enough to do this.”
Real or not, the episode stood in stark contrast to the dozens of openly lesbian and bisexual female players who took to the pitch during the Women’s World Cup, led proudly by the United States’ winning captain, Megan Rapinoe.
After the team’s 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the final this month, Rapinoe tweeted, “Science is science. Gays rule,” alongside a photo of her celebrating with teammates Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger, who are engaged to each other.
“I think homophobia comes from sexism,” said Joanna Lohman, who played nine times for the U.S. women’s national team. “Gay men have the stereotype of being more effeminate so … (that) goes against the stereotype (of) what a male athlete should be.
“Sportswomen are already viewed as more masculine,” said Lohman, 37, who is openly lesbian and retired from professional football earlier this year. “So coming out as gay as a woman isn’t necessarily going against the stereotype of gender roles.”
People involved in men’s football said it has never been more ready for a high profile player to come out. Justin Fashanu, England’s first – and only – openly gay player, went public about his sexuality in 1990. He died by suicide in 1998.
In June, Andy Brennan became Australia’s first professional male footballer to come out while still playing, after now-retired U.S. trailblazer Robbie Rogers did so in 2013.
In Germany, Thomas Hitzlsperger, now VfB Stuttgart’s head of sport, was the first star to come out, one year after retiring.
“Homosexuality in football is something that continues to really bother people,” said Yoann Lemaire who was physically attacked and received death threats as the first openly gay player in his French amateur football league back in 2003.
“(Professional football players) are advised to avoid talking about homosexuality,” said Lemaire, who in 2017 founded Football Ensemble, a group that works with students across France to break down stereotypes about gay people.
The support shown for ‘The Gay Footballer’ was a positive development, whether he was real or not, said Eric Najib, manager of Stonewall FC, an LGBT+ club founded in 1991.
“(But) if this is a genuine footballer who wanted to come out and felt at the last minute unable to do so, for whatever reason, it’s an indictment of where the national game is,” he said.
A spokesman for England’s governing Football Association (FA) said it is committed to tackling all forms of discrimination and “to help create a safe and comfortable environment for any player to come out, if they wish.”
Female players said going against gender stereotypes by playing a traditionally male sport fosters a more inclusive atmosphere among women.
“All women of my generation, and earlier, who play football have had to be brave in learning to defy sexism and what others in society think of them,” said Becca Hirst, 23, who plays for London’s Leyton Orient.
“That creates a sense of solidarity and perhaps … a more understanding culture around not subscribing to traditional prejudices about sexuality.”
Blair Hamilton started out playing for Aberdeen University’s men’s football team, and switched to the women’s after transitioning gender.
“There’s a lot more emphasis on the social side in the women’s game,” Hamilton said. “Whereas in the men’s game, it’s so focused on winning I feel like that takes over everything.”
But Jim Hearson, a player with LGBT-friendly team London Titans, said men’s football is becoming more accepting.
“In terms of players, I don’t think it’s a dressing room issue at all these days,” he said.
Bigger problems, he said, are the larger financial stakes and public spotlight at the top of the game, as well as the perception that club chairmen and owners from countries with homophobic laws may take issue with an LGBT+ player, meaning an openly gay footballer may have more to lose by coming out.
FIFA, which runs the World Cup, has come under fire for awarding the 2018 men’s competition to Russia – where it is illegal to spread “gay propaganda” to children – and to Qatar, where gay sex is outlawed, for 2022.
“FIFA is committed to ensuring that everyone will be welcome, to building bridges of cultural understanding and to creating an inclusive experience for all participants … including from the LGBTI+ community,” a spokesman said by email.
Football fans are often “treated as a scapegoat” for anti-LGBT+ sentiment in the men’s game, when evidence suggests they are “overwhelmingly supportive,” said Rory Magrath, an expert on football at England’s Solent University.
But homophobic abuse can still be heard in stadiums around Europe. In March, France’s Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu expressed shock after hearing multiple such chants during a game between Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille.
The French Football League issued a 50,000 euro ($55,700) fine against second division club Lens in May after its fans made homophobic chants against a rival team.
LGBT+ female players are not safe from bigotry either.
“I seem to offend people by the way I look, presenting as a masculine woman with a mohawk,” said the U.S.’s Lohman.
But the confidence of the openly lesbian and bisexual players at the Women’s World Cup appears to herald change.
“I was absolutely buzzing,” said Hirst of Leyton Orient.
“Growing up, we are starved of LGBT+ representation and seek it out where we can for validation and comfort. So to feel as if you belong naturally in a space is so important.”
($1 = 0.8977 euros)
-Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage – Thomson Reuters Foundation