Illustration Pierre Thyss

The Pledge of Silence: Homosexuality in French Football

While some efforts have been made to tackle homophobia in French football, it's a problem which many are happy to ignore. Until the authorities make a cogent plan for fighting discrimination, progress can only ever be limited.

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27 June 2016, 1:05pm

Illustration Pierre Thyss

It's a rainy, windy evening at the Stade Louis Lumière in the east of Paris, at the end of November 2015. The grim weather isn't discouraging the 20 or so footballers who have just started a training session under the glare of the floodlights, however. We're trotting round the pitch while some of them are quietly stretching by the changing rooms. Others are getting through their warm-up exercises as quickly as possible so they can get onto some ball work. We talk a bit about football, amongst other things, and generally have a bit of a laugh.

Away from the hustle and bustle, Alexandre and Bertrand watch their teammates from the sidelines. This is the duo behind Panamboyz United, a club that is unique in fighting for various different causes. The team was born out of several initiatives to fight against all types of discrimination: racism, sexism, and primarily homophobia. Around 40% of the Parisian club's players are gay, and they are fighting for their differences to be accepted. "Sometimes, when you're at a 'heterosexual' club, you don't necessarily fit in," Alexandre explains. "We have one guy from Châlons-en-Champagne [a city which lies just over 100 miles to the east of the stadium], who comes to training sessions and matches every week. With football, you have a group of friends who talk to each other; we go on nights out together and everyone comes with their girlfriend. And we're always likely to think: if I come with my boyfriend, how will that work out? It's a delicate subject because football is still a relatively macho sport, in the main."

Whether it's at professional or amateur level, football is anything but a gay sport. At least, that's what it looks like when you consider the amount of players who have come out: just two professional footballers have done so. Justin Fashanu was the first in 1990, and it was a historic gesture from a player who was far ahead of his time. Fashanu's career never recovered after he announced that he was gay. Ostracised by Nottingham Forest, stigmatised by his manager, and rejected by the black British community, Fashanu committed suicide one sad day in May 1998.

Justin Fashanu, the first professional footballer to come out, committed suicide in May 1998 // Photo by Reuters

We had to wait 23 years after Fashanu came out for another professional footballer to publicly announce that he was gay. That footballer was American winger Robbie Rogers, who came out in 2013. Other gay pros, such as German midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger and French striker Olivier Rouyer, waited until their retirement to come out.

In November 2011, Damiano Tommasi – head of Italy's PFA at that time – declared on television that he would "not advise footballers to come out." The former Roma captain went on to say that "particularly in football, there is an intimate bond between teammates which is different from other professions. Telling people your sexual orientation is difficult enough for anyone in any job, but even more so for a footballer who is sharing a dressing room, and their private life with their teammates. In our world, it can be awkward."

In the same year, German international Philip Lahm gave a similar opinion in an interview with German magazine Bunte, stating his view that professionals who came out would open themselves up to insulting comments.

READ MORE: The Problem With Homophobia In MMA

The situation is not much better for amateur players. Yoann Lemaire is one of the few to have come out, and that was in 2003. "I passed on the message with a bit of humour, and that was well received, but only in the short-term. Then new guys came into the team, and got smart with me. The media attention got in the way of things, and people became jealous of me," he said. In 2010, his village club, FC Chooz, fired him with a simple press release.

It's a problem that has been backed up by studies, such as the one led by psychologist Anthony Mette in 2013. Along with a Parisian amateur club, Paris Foot Gay, and the diversity research institute Randstad, he found that 41% of professional footballers would be "hostile" towards gay players. That's a figure that rose to 50% in academies, but falls to 8% for professional sportspeople in general. Homophobia is the main form of discrimination in football, far more so than racism and sexism. But sociologist Philippe Liotard, who studies discrimination in sport, said that these results might be somewhat dubious. "It seems very much like that [the results] could be misleading," he told us. "For me, it's not that black and white. I don't want to seem like one of the guys who plays it down, and I'm not saying that it isn't a problem, but it depends on how the questions are put together and what answers are used".

According to Alexandre, the president of Panamboyz, the problem comes from the stands, where you can still hear homophobic singing at many matches. "Everybody loves football, and the crowd comes from all walks of life. There should be no reason for homosexuality to be rejected."

The "You take it up the arse" and "We're not fags" chants still seem to be a part of a certain type of football fan's repertoire, so how can we deter people from homophobic songs? "As it stands, efforts to do so have been feeble," Bertrand tells us. "Initiatives have to come from the professional governing bodies, not just at grassroots level. Right now, nothing can be done without the help of the professional clubs and the league."

Panamboyz in training // Photo by the authors

Unfortunately, the French league is largely silent on the matter. "Today, a player can still call PSG's manager a faggot without any retribution," Philippe Liotard says. "It's endemic on social media, and spuriously justified by a bad result."

Clubs and directors are equally guilty of staying silent on the issue. While there are still incidents of homophobic language which come from senior figures (take Montpellier's president, Louis Nicollin, labelling ex-Auxerre player Benoît Pedretti a "little queer" after a defeat in 2009, for instance), clubs are worryingly reluctant to talk about the problem. Canal+ learnt this at their own expense recently. The cable television channel wanted to film a documentary about homosexuality in men's football, but Reims were the only professional club in France to agree to it.

According to Yoann Lemaire, one of the only players to have come out in French football, the LGBT minority are not considered significant enough by the league to make them take appropriate action against homophobes. The powers that be in French football are reluctant to devote their time and energy to a subject which is perceived as both difficult and exceedingly delicate. "Managers have a tendency to avoid talking about homophobia, so they don't put their foot in it," Lemaire said. "Big names like Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps don't speak about it, and it's still a sensitive subject. But I also think that if it doesn't affect you, then you don't really give a shit."

Another alarming indicator of French football's constant sidestepping of the issue can be seen on the site of Fondaction Du Football, an organisation set up by the France Football Federation (FFF) to combat discrimination and promote civic rights. Despite their stated aim to fight against prejudice, there is no mention of homophobia on their website at all.

According to sports psychology advisor Anthony Mette, this confused mix of "I don't give a shit" and underlying homophobia starts at youth level. When he led his study with Paris Foot Gay and Randstad, he looked at the factors that contribute to negative opinions on homosexuality in football, and more specifically in academies.

READ MORE: We Spoke To Premier League LGBT Fan Groups About Changing Attitudes In Football

Firstly, he studied criteria that are generally linked to an archetype of masculinity. "In football in particular, young players are sent off to academies very early, and there is a very competitive environment," Mette explained. "Attributes associated with masculinity are valued, such as strength, muscularity, competitiveness, recklessness, and suppressing one's emotions. On the other hand, there is a rejection of any and all values linked to femininity and, by extension, to homosexuality. These are not compatible with the role of the heterosexual male, as some people perceive it." Philippe Liotard agreed with Mette's analysis, stating: "[In football], male players are developed to distinguish themselves from women and gay people."

Homophobia also has its roots in peer pressure in the academy environment, as fitting into the team or collective is necessary for success. That often means that a player has to prove that he absolutely conforms to the accepted norm. In the setting of an academy, young footballers can exaggerate their dislike of gay people, in order to comply with what they consider to be a generally homophobic environment. Philippe Liotard describes this sort of homophobia as an "educational norm". "We realised that the opinions of footballers on homosexuality changed when we interviewed them in a setting outside of football, in their homes for example," said Anthony Mette. "Overall, their views are more balanced and less prejudicial."

Amateur football associations and grassroots clubs have been set up in an attempt to counter this arbitrary rejection of homosexuality. Paris Foot Gay – a team that was symbolic for its fight against homophobia in football – collapsed last year, but Panamboyz United have picked up the torch. In October 2014, they launched the "Rainbow Laces" campaign in accordance with the French league. Ligue 1 players wore multicoloured laces, for one weekend at least.

The initiative had mixed success, all told. "Last year, the message wasn't quite right," Alexandre tells us. "This year, we decided to focus more on homophobia, so the message was clearer and so it wasn't just about racism and sexism, even though we do hold those issues close to heart." The league proves his point by releasing a video supposedly promoting the campaign, in which there is not one mention of homophobia. On its website, the league even thought it was appropriate to state that "the rainbow flag isn't the LGBT community's symbol alone." Well, no, it sort of is.

In front of Canal+'s cameras, PSG right-back Serge Aurier claimed that the laces were part of the battle against racism, or at least "that's what they told [him]," he said with an apologetic smile. And yet, the initiative is not meant to be ambiguous. The Rainbow Laces campaign was initially launched in 2013 by Stonewall, the British LGBT rights charity.

On 28 February 2016, the captains of Manchester United and Arsenal, Michael Carrick and Laurent Koscielny, exchanged giant pairs of rainbow laces ahead of kick-off in a Premier League match between the two teams. The official sites of both clubs lent their full support to the campaign, and affirmed their clear desire to tackle homophobia.

Today, the campaign has become an international affair, with followers in Belgium, Australia, Italy and beyond. The rainbow laces are even worn by police officers and firefighters in the UK, most notably during London Pride. The German Football Association have publicly supported gay players, and encouraged them to come out, though that call has gone unanswered as of yet.

In the US, Barack Obama hailed Robbie Rogers' decision to come out during a reception for the winger's club side LA Galaxy at the White House. The president expressed his "pride" and described it as a "source of inspiration" for other players in the same situation.

Robbie Rodgers came out of retirement to sign for LA Galaxy in 2013 // Photo by Reuters

It isn't quite as clear cut as that in France. "The really positive thing this year, is that we've done awareness workshops with young people for the first time," says Bertrand, the vice-president of Panamboyz. In partnership with the French gay rights organisation, SOS Homophobie, Alexandre went to a meeting with young players in Marseille and Lyon's respective academies. "The meetings were certainly worthwhile, with more than an hour of discussion and debate every time. There were questions, the dialogue was open and frank, but at the end of it, everyone took their rainbow laces and wanted to wear them."

Philippe Liotard also underlined the importance of the work that needs to be done in French academies. "These are private spaces which are very difficult to enter, so there's a big job to be done," he told us. "I'm confident in these young people though. When we talk to them in a place where they can reflect quietly, they're capable of understanding the issue. On the other hand, that is dependent on an organisation's ability to engage with them."

Work is also happening on a regional level. In the Seine-Maritime department in Normandy, Chantal Nallet, sports advisor at the Regional Directorate of Young People, Sport and Social Cohesion of Normandy, is trying to tackle homophobia and sexual violence, amongst other things. The first obstacle she faces is silence. "We know that things are happening, but nobody speaks about it," she told us. "As far back as 2008 I knew that discrimination was a serious problem, but the sporting world manages its problems from the inside. Someone will witness something, but without saying who, when, what, how and where."

She hopes that awareness will be raised, firstly in Normandy, then in the rest of the country. "In my opinion, if we're not working in all academies on a national level, then we won't get there. We need partnerships," she said. She has already been contacted by other departments in France, but not always with a view to fighting homophobia. Governing bodies are still reserved on the matter, which is part of the fundamental issue: how do you tackle homophobia in sport, if the word is taboo in anti-discriminatory campaigns?

Despite the glacial pace of change in some quarters – amongst the half-hearted initiatives and lingering homophobia – some progress is definitely being made. "Things have changed, in that what seemed normal is now being challenged," Philippe Liotard told us. "Thirty years ago, there were racist comments and slogans on football pitches. That's no longer possible, because punishment for that sort of thing is harsh and swift."

For him, awareness of homophobia as an issue started around the turn of the millennium. "Some time in 2003, there was a moment in France where people started to question homophobia in sport and in football. There was the creation of Paris Foot Gay, a study from SOS Homophobie into sport; something changed," he tells us. "Then, in 2009, Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas came out, and Canal+ showed the programme 'Sport and Homosexuality: What's the problem?'. We went from the mindset of fighting it from a marginal viewpoint, to becoming a collective force with the influence of the media behind us."

That's encouraging, but it's still not enough. What can be done so that players don't have to drive for hours to train at a club where they won't be called a "fag" or a "queer"? Bertrand of Panamboyz is pretty clear about how we move on from recognising the problem of homophobia, to actually stamping it out. "For me, the next step is a big player coming out. When they realise nobody gives a shit, there won't be a problem. There are gay people in all team sports in the US now. I think that Europe is simply behind everyone else. As ever, France will be at the back of the line."

Translated into English by Nick Roberts.