Jon Holmes: “Political climate means these types of discrimination are on the rise”
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Homophobia is increasing its effect a little more every day in English football. You might think, “This is the case in almost all countries,” but in the UK the situation is somewhat different. Because, in order to prevent homophobia in football, many activities and social awareness projects are carried out by sports clubs and federations.
For example of this is the Rainbow Laces campaign, which takes place every year to create a more inclusive sports environment for LGBT+people, and the month to fight homophobia in football.
In addition, very serious sanctions are imposed on footballers and fans, who have been found to be engaged in various homophobic actions during the match by clubs and federations. As an example, we can show that West Ham United’s two fans, who made homophobic discourses against the opposing team in a match played in February, ban the entrance to the stadium for life.
We talked about homophobia in UK football with Jon Holmes , a journalist on Sky Sports and also lead of the Sports Media LGBT.
“The media has devoted extensive space to the campaign”
First of all, I want to get your thoughts about Rainbow Laces Campaign in 2019. How did the campaign run in the UK? What kind of activities were held?
Rainbow Laces is an inclusion in sport campaign from the LGBT+ equality charity Stonewall that runs all year round. It receives an annual activation in late Nov / early Dec each year, when major organisations and governing bodies such as the Premier League shows its support. In 2019, some of the activation highlights included a huge rainbow mosiac at Brighton vs Wolves, giant ‘Welcome’ mats outside PL stadiums, the announcement of 11 Stonewall Sport Champions, a ‘Come Out Active’ physical fitness focus, plus visible campaign support from the likes of the EFL, Premiership Rugby, grassroots sports teams and others.
Do you think the UK press has given the campaign enough space in its pages? How was the campaign reflected in the press?
The Premier League and EFL’s Rainbow Laces activity means the campaign gets some coverage in newspapers and the wider UK media, whether that’s news stories, interview features or imagery. It’s always positively received and I can’t recall any negativity towards it in the papers in 2019. One reason why the space afforded to it is limited is because the press is more interested in new stories, particularly from famous sportsmen and women, and there aren’t many of those around still.
Do you think there is a sufficiently inclusive sports environment for individuals with all gender, sexual orientation and gender identity in the UK?
It varies hugely from sport to sport, and whether it’s men’s or women’s sport. Campaigns like Rainbow Laces have really helped to raise awareness of why it’s a good idea to create more LGBT-friendly environments and cultures and we’re seeing many more vocal allies now. There’s of course a big focus on men’s team sports, particularly professional football, and the tribalism and tradition within that. Sport sadly isn’t inclusive in many instances for people who are trans and non-binary, and the increased attention on issues related to trans women competing in elite sport has a negative trickle-down effect to the grassroots.
“If we want to overcome this problem, we need to provide an education on this subject first”
We can also see homophobia rising in UK football despite all these anti-homophobia and inclusive campaigns. Because in the match between Chelsea and West Ham on November 30, West Ham fans made a homophobic chants to Chelsea players as “rent boys”. On 1 February, it was announced that two West Ham fans had been arrested for homophobic assault during a match between West Ham and Brighton. Lucy Gillet, the goalkeeper of the Crystal Palace Women’s Football Team, announced that she was abused by the male fans of the opponent team during the match played with Coventry. It was also announced on 8 December that two fans had been arrested for homophobic abuse during a match betweetn Brighton Hove & Albion and Wolverhampton. There are a few examples like this, but I want to pass on my question without further ado. How do you evaluate these homophobic events as a journalist, that have happened despite the great effort of sports clubs and federations across the UK to promote inclusive football?
Firstly, while homophobia and transphobia exist in society – and sadly the political climate means these types of discrimination are on the rise – we will see them employed by individuals in football to get a reaction. The Palace Women goalkeeper incident is particularly shocking as it shows that the growing profile of women’s football will attract such individuals. My evaluation would be that it’s even more important to talk about the merits of inclusion and how everyone – both LGBT+ people and those who aren’t LGBT+ – are affected by discriminatory language and behaviour, and that we all need to call it out.
The ‘Chelsea rent boys’ chant is an example of one of those chants that began in the 1980s when blatant homophobia was endemic in British football; some fans continue to sing it without realising its origins (a well-known Chelsea hooligan had supposedly been discovered as being gay and it was used to mock Chelsea fans in general). Often now when that’s pointed out to fans, they deny it’s homophobic because they don’t know the story behind it and they get very defensive. So there’s education that needs to be done first if we’re going to get past that.
But despite all these homophobic attacks, the sanctions imposed by federations and sports clubs are also really appreciated. West Ham United, for example, have announced they will ban fans who commit similar hate crimes from entering the stadium for life in the wake of the homophobic incidents. Also Everton and Brighton Hove & Albion clubs are also carrying out wide-ranging work against homophobic attacks. To sum up, there are serious criminal sanctions against homophobic incidents in UK football. Do you think that increasing sanctions will prevent homophobia?
Clubs can take their own action against fans who have been found to have used anti-LGBT language or shown behaviour, but currently there isn’t legislation that outlaws homophobic chanting in stadiums and makes it a criminal offence. The Football Offences Act (1991) is out of step with society on this – it says “indecent or racialist chanting” is against the law, but it doesn’t explicity outlaw anti-LGBT chanting. There have been attempts to bring in such laws but due to Brexit etc, they haven’t been ratified yet. It’s good that clubs are taking action but for it to be really effective, we need it brought into law so this type of discrimination is treated in the same way as racism.
“We’re moving in the right direction”
Well does it lead you to despair that such homophobic attacks have taken place despite such great efforts to create an inclusive football environment in the UK?
I’m always disappointed to read about these incidents but I don’t despair, because we’re moving in the right direction and the fact these are now reported upon shows progress. Previously they wouldn’t have been taken seriously. We are creating a more inclusive football environment and although I’d like this to happen more quickly, it’s important to stay positive and highlight the many examples of good work.
“The calls of well-known people are quite significant”
What kind of work do you think should be done to prevent homophobia in sport? Do you think it would be effective for leading athletes and artists to make anti-homophobia calls?
Yes, the most effective method here would undoubtedly be leading athletes and players using their influence to call out homophobia. You cannot overstate the impact of having one of the top male footballers in the world to say simply that they are an ally to lesbian, gay, bi and trans people who love football too. That’s not to say it would fix the problem – you need only see the kind of abuse Megan Rapinoe receives from men who feel threatened by her using her voice for change – but it would make people think differently, particularly in parts of the world where LGBT+ people have little or no rights. But we can all help – players, coaches, administrators, fans – by speaking up in support of LGBT+ inclusion, calling out discrimination where we see it, and sharing stories which help to explain why authenticity (being your true self) is something to be celebrated, not feared.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to say?
Thanks for the opportunity! If anyone wants to learn more, particularly if they work in the media or comms, check out Sports Media LGBT+’s new ‘Rainbow Ready’ strategy and guidelines document and also Sky Sports coverage at skysports.com/rainbowlaces.
Sports Media LGBT+’s new ‘Rainbow Ready’ strategy: Link
Sky Sports Rainbow Laces: Link
About Jon Holmes
I’m a digital media editor and journalist with over 15 years professional experience in writing, sub-editing and managing sports content for web, mobile and other platforms.
As part of the team at Sky Sports Digital, I manage and maintain the SkySports.com website, our apps and other products, and perform a variety of editorial tasks.
I’m passionate about LGBT+ inclusion in sport. At Sky Sports, I co-ordinate and write content relating to our support of Stonewall’s award-winning Rainbow Laces campaign.
I’m also the founder and lead of Sports Media LGBT+ – a network, advocacy and consultancy group that’s helping both my industry and sport in general become more welcoming and inclusive.
I’m also a committee member for both InterMediaUK and the Sports Journalists’ Association.