Your football-related trauma is valid but don’t close the door on being a fan

Football doesn't belong to bullies and loutish lads.

This week, I explore how we can’t let hooligans and bullies own football, even if those people have caused us harm in the past.

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The bullying started with name calling and escalated – only once – to beating. On my birthday. I came home from school with my arms literally black and blue. I got a new t-shirt for my birthday and the arms were tight fitting. I couldn’t wear it out to dinner because the hem of the sleeves pressed on the bruising. I took some of my sister’s concealer to try and mask the colour.

And though the beating happened once, the name calling was always by the same type of lad. The type who’d start wearing aftershave before they were even shaving. The smell of Lynx Africa deodorant would fill the room shortly after they entered. And they’d never be far away from a football.

Let’s be honest, even some grown football fans do themselves no favours. Just last month I was in a pub where a group of football fan lads were drinking excessively. They’d spontaneously chant loudly, clearly disrupting others including families up in London for a day trip. Would I dare interrupt? No. Why would I risk being hate crimed like that?

Too many people, including some of my friends, have been the victim of homophobic abuse at football matches. Things need to change.

So I understand why lots of gay people like me are scarred by football, traumatised even. I remember the terror in the playground if the ball would land at your feet and the pressure to not make a fool of yourself, lest you invite more scrutiny from the bullies.

I know that football is triggering for many. It can be for me, too. But equally, I can’t forget the effect that football has had on my life. Even during those grim days of dealing with idiots at school, my fondest memories are of standing on the terraces, screaming my head off, jumping up and down. In this newsletter, week after week, I’ve read tales of empowerment, enabled by football.

Sometimes I fear that the queer community – and the cis gay community in particular – can start to feel homogenous. It shouldn’t be possible for queerness to feel like that. By definition, queerness can’t be homogenous. But still, I have had experiences where it feels like I’m being policed by other gay people for liking football – that I’m less gay for being a fan. I’ve had eye rolls and comments, even from friends.

It can be easy to fail to understand that football isn’t all school bullies and lads chanting in pubs. That’s a part of it, yes. A deplorable, irritating part that is toxic and needs addressing. But it is more than that, too, I promise.

Football is a story you buy into, unscripted genius where the stakes are high. It’s a community and a common cause. It’s colour and noise and vibe. It’s friendships and in-jokes and shared moments.

There is nothing inherent about the game itself that should repel you. In fact, it has a tendency to be outrageously camp at times. I can’t pretend that the horrible loutish behaviour doesn’t exist, but that behaviour isn’t omnipresent, and you can find ways to feel safe and engage.

You too can buy into the story. You too can join the community, follow the common cause. Experience the colour noise and vibe. Make friends. Laugh at jokes. Share moments.

Football doesn’t belong to the rowdy lads, the school bullies. We can make football a queer space. We have a right to enjoy it too. Yes, the sport needs to change – the toxicity needs to be starved of its oxygen. But if we as queer people dismiss football, roll our eyes and walk away (or worse still, judge others for going near it) we lose out on an amazing sport. And things will never change.

I recognise the dread you feel about football. I have it too. It’ll probably never go away. But you can open the door to so much more by seeing football for the diverse world it is.

Your trauma is real. It’s valid. But please, please don’t close the door on football because of it.