Kicking out at homophobia

by TIM HELLYER

“Boom bye bye inna batty bwoy head,
Rude bwoy nah promote no nasty man, dem haffi dead.”

Three opponents kicked open the dressing room door and fired these lyrics at gay footballer Aslie Pitter and his teammates as they prepared for a match.

This Patois heavily paraphrased: “the gay man must die.”

This was back in 1992.

A quarter of a century later, homophobia still permeates the game – leaving football trailing in the wake of other sports when it comes to dealing with discrimination.

The team that Pitter was getting ready to represent was in fact his own creation, founded the year before. It is a club that continues to thrive to this day, and has more to say about discrimination than most.

Stonewall FC takes its name from the Stonewall Riots. The riots, which took place in New York in 1969, are widely considered to be a catalyst for the LGBT movement in the United States.

London-based Stonewall FC proudly declares itself to be the world’s most successful gay football club – with good reason. It has won the gold medal at the last four consecutive Gay Games (originally the Gay Olympics, before a lawsuit forced a name change).

The club plays its home games at Barn Elms Playing Fields, a sprawl of pitches a short train journey south-west of central London.

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Pitter makes it clear there is still progress to be made in the fight against inequality.

However, he also notes that the work he’s put into combatting homophobia since Stonewall FC’s inception back in 1991 – work that earned him an MBE in 2011 – might never have happened, such was the abuse that he and his teammates received during the club’s formative years.

“It was the 1992/93 season. We were playing a team at home. Half our team were black; half were white. Three of the opposition kicked our dressing room door open and started singing a Buju Banton song which basically was advocating killing gay men.”

For those unfamiliar with Banton, he is a Jamaican dancehall artist, currently serving a ten-year prison sentence in America for his involvement in a cocaine deal. The song in question, “Boom Bye Bye”, is indeed a three-minute call to arms, a hate-mongering glorification of the murder of homosexual men (“batty bwoy”, “nasty man”, the song brands them).

Pitter continues: “On the pitch, it just didn’t stop. We were getting chants from their friends on the touchline. We were getting two-footed challenges, elbows, the sort of thing you can imagine that goes on in a really dirty game.”

The abuse took a racist turn.

“It was aimed at the non-white players in the Stonewall team, me being one of them. We had another guy who I think was Egyptian. He was getting abuse and getting physically kicked on the pitch.

“At that point, I thought: I joined this club because I wanted to feel comfortable playing football, but because we were playing in a straight league, I had jumped out of a frying pan into an even bigger frying pan. I thought: do I really want to stay with this club, or do I just want to go back in the closet, and play for a straight team and pretend I’m straight? So that was almost a turning point for me.”

Eric Najib, long-serving club manager at Stonewall FC, notes that the atmosphere in the game had improved by the time he joined the outfit as a goalkeeper in 2001, but he reiterates that homophobia has remained a latent issue. He talks of an ‘air of suspicion’, of ‘wariness’, of an underlying prejudice, with teams staying in their dressing room until Stonewall FC players leave the building.

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Although football has come a long way in recent years, it still lags behind when it comes to attitudes towards homosexuality.

“The issue you have with football is, you look at rugby, you look at cricket, and other mainstream sports, you do have one or two individuals who have come out,” Najib says.

“Within football, you have a different element, because you have a sort of tribalism that exists, mainly in the stadiums and within football teams. I’m fully aware there are football players who are gay, who are out, and probably quite comfortable within the dressing room.

“Do I just want to go back in the closet, and play for a straight team and pretend I’m straight?”

“I think there’s just this sort of fear, whether warranted or not, that whoever the first person to take the plunge is, they are going to face the media circus and the terrace backlash of it.”

Although some players have come out while playing professional football, and others have done so after retiring, the wait continues for a footballer to come out while still playing in the Premier League. However, the game is taking small steps forward.

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“The football authorities, the FA, the Premier League: everyone is doing a good job in trying to eradicate the problem [of homophobia]. I still think there is a way to go, as there is with every campaign against any form of discrimination, but we’re certainly in a better situation than we were a few years ago.

“Within our entire season, we’ve had two instances of single comments during one game, based on something that happened within the game, that somebody’s said something off the cuff that they shouldn’t have. That’s still two too many, but it’s a hell of a lot less than it was a few years ago.”

In a way, Stonewall’s role is a simple one. By turning up, playing the game and setting an example, Stonewall FC “challenges the stereotype that gay people shouldn’t be playing football, and educates people,” Najib says.

“If we get to a situation where the education at grassroots level carries forward through to the professional game through to the terraces, then we’re doing our job.

“If one person, thanks to an encounter with Stonewall Football Club, thinks twice about their attitude about gay people and changes their mind, then that’s obviously good that we’re doing.”

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offence Act 1967, which decriminalised sexual acts in private between two men over the age of 21. With this in mind, it could be argued that it is sad that a club like Stonewall FC still needs to exist.

“If one person, thanks to an encounter with Stonewall Football Club, thinks twice about their attitude about gay people and changes their mind, then that’s obviously good that we’re doing.”

Indeed, Najib brings up an expression lent to him by the manager of a fellow LGBT side:

“From the day of our inception, we’ve been fighting for our destruction”. However, Najib sees a future for the club, regardless of the game’s shifting attitudes towards homosexuality.

“Hopefully the time will come when there will not be a need for Stonewall Football Club, but I still hope it then becomes a want, rather than a need… and we’re getting closer and closer to that.”

Stonewall FC is sponsored by Team Pride, a coalition of major global organisations supporting LGBT individuals in sport.

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All photos by Stonewall FC