Discover more from Out and Out Football
What I learned from confronting homophobia at a football match
Sometimes you don't realise the significance of certain moments until years afterwards.
We learn about ourselves through moments and events. This is what I learned about myself at a football match in Brighton in 2019.
But before we get there, would you consider subscribing to Out and Out Football? It’s totally free and means you get writing like this in your inbox every week.
I didn’t think I was the confrontational type. But the chant got me. I felt it first on the hairs on the back of my neck, then down in my gut. I can still feel it.
It was just a few words, slurred out by five fellow Burnley fans, standing behind me at Brighton's Amex stadium. "We can see you holding hands." I couldn't believe I was hearing homophobic chants in 2019. They should've known better.
It took me a moment to realise what they were saying, but as soon as I did–
“Will you shut the fuck up?” The words left me before I realised I was speaking.
“Why? It’s a joke.”
I looked at the people sitting around the culprits, hoping they’d do something. The people averted my gaze.
“People around the world are dying. That’s why.” I knew that it was a futile argument to make in the middle of a football match but it was the best I could do. I realised how dramatic I sounded.
Then there was a breakaway attack and my attention was diverted back to the game.
A nervous energy came over me for the rest of the match, more so than usual. I tried to focus on the game, the tactics, the flow. But my ears would prick up at the sound of their voices. Occasionally, the ringleader would pipe up and try to get his merry little band going again but he’d struggle. They would start up when I faced the pitch and stop as soon as I turned back around, like a toddler hurling his food around as soon as his parents’ back was turned.
Eventually, others stood up too. Courage to speak up spread to a woman further along my row, and to a man sitting just in front of me.
Sometimes you don’t realise the significance of an event until years afterwards. How those chants and the confrontation that followed had shaped my identity only struck me a few weeks ago, after I’d read news of homophobic chants – still happening – at football stadiums across the country in 2023.
Those chants in 2019 happened four months after I came out to my parents, who I was at the game with. It was the first time I’d heard homophobia as an open member of the community. And it stirred something in me that made me understand years of protest and struggle. It showed me the meaning of pride.
I mean it when I say I’m not the confrontational type. But I was so viscerally angry that it caused me to do something I’d never done before. Suddenly, any risk became irrelevant and I had to follow this urge to speak up.
What I didn’t realise at the time was the power I had. Most homophobes like those that day in Sussex don’t set out to be harmful. They’re just oblivious to the harm they cause, which can make them even more dangerous. But when confronted, they simply melted.
That I learned the power of my voice as a gay man at a football match is funny, given the macho atmosphere of a men’s football match. But there I was, finding my own two feet.
Even among this atmosphere, others found the courage to tackle the homophobia alongside me. My perception was – and still is to a certain extent – that people will just turn a blind eye most of the time, and the apathy gives oxygen to the discrimination.
But people don’t choose to stay quiet because they’re bad people, or don’t care. Standing up is a scary thing to do – I felt sick when I was speaking out – but if people knew they’d get support from others like I did, maybe more people would use their voices when they encounter discrimination a little more.
On the way home from the match, I was quiet. My mind was replaying the events. My eyes were fixed to my phone as I texted a club contact to find out how best to report the chanting.
For my parents, my reaction to being confronted with such appalling behaviour had crystallised my identity for them. It had given definition to the abstract.
My mum turned to me as we sat on the train. She said she was proud.