You don’t have to play it straight

Football has always been the preserve of red-blooded, heterosexual men, right? Think again. As the new season kicks off, Simon Fanshawe investigates how the beautiful game is being embraced by the gay community both on and off the pitch, bringing about a significant shift in the way many gay men think of themselves. Just don’t suggest it’s only because they like looking at the players’ legs

Five years ago it would have been inconceivable. Then, during the World Cup, a couple of pubs did it. But for Euro 2004 a whole rash of them up and down the country decided to exploit the commercial benefit of showing football live on television. The interesting part is that these were gay bars – and during Euro 2004 they were crammed. There are now thousands of bona fide gay footie fans, from Newcastle to Southampton, and Manchester to Millwall. The Gay Football Supporters’ Network ( is growing faster than some gay dating sites. Football is coming homo.

When England played Croatia in June, a bunch of fans gathered in the gay pub the Duke of Wellington in Soho in London. David, a 35-year-old in PR, remembers: “There was just this whole bar full of lads. Everyone was cheering and roaring for England. It was like being in any straight pub. But then not. Beckham bent over to pick up the ball. Suddenly it was a gay pub again. Everyone whistled and hooted. Then the game carried on and when England won 4-2, the pub went beserk. Everyone was hugging and punching the air. The DJ came on the PA and said, ‘Let’s hear it for the lads,’ and there was a huge cheer. And then he went: ‘And here’s Kylie!'”

Gay life is more a game of two halves now, and less a bathroom of contrasting colours. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is beginning to look old-fashioned and out of date. For every straight boy turned into a faux-mosexual with the flick of a camp wrist on television, there are at least two gay boys turning straight and coming out as football fans. And they are insisting on their share in what has been an often constricting gay identity.

Ian, a Leeds season ticket holder since he was eight, plays in the Terriers, a gay football club based in Yorkshire. “I’m 42, and when I first came out lots of other gay people thought it was strange that I was both gay and into football. But I have never felt contradictory and neither do any of my gay football friends. But recently, when I introduced my other gay friends to the Terriers, the players were all so straight-looking that they kept on asking, ‘Which are the gay ones?'”

This new generation of gay footie fans resents the kind of coverage that gay magazines give to fashion and looks and modelling and all the traditional gay content, and some of them have started campaigning for sports pages. They have a certain contempt for the kind of gay man that the magazines imply they should be. If there’s one comment that drives them up the wall, it’s the nudge-nudge from other gay men about the showers after the match. As Neil Fyfield, one of the players with the world-class amateur gay team, Stonewall FC, puts it: “These kinds of guys would only watch football to look at the players and all that gay shit.”

It’s of huge importance to these players and fans that “the gay thing” does not dominate who they are. Ian, the Leeds fan, says: “I went out the other night in Birmingham and I sort of felt sorry for those guys in the clubs and bars if that’s all they do. Playing football has really broadened my horizons and the kind of people I meet. And when I go to a match, I don’t need to stand out. I don’t need to be any different. I have the same passion as any other supporter. I am there for the football. If someone confronted me right out about being gay and it was directed at me personally, I feel strong enough to take them on. But I am not going to go mincing around a football stadium. I’m not really that kind of gay man. And yet that’s the type that dominates the magazines.”

Steve, a Cardiff fan, explains just how comfortable he feels in straight environments. “I feel possibly more insecure around gay people. In the clubs you have to be pretty and have a perfect body. It’s very exclusive. That’s against what the gay scene was supposed to be about in the first place, which was acceptance. The thing about football is that one side of being gay is being masculine. And football is masculine.”

This is a tectonic shift in gay identity. It is not for lesbians, it has to be said, for whom there has never been any major contradiction between being sporty and being gay (as Karen, a Sunderland fan, puts it, “in some places, it’s been obligatory”). Women’s sport has been far more integrated for a very long time, but for gay men this is a considerable change.

Thus, when Brighton and Hove Albion play, and the opposing fans sing, “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” at the players and the fans, most gay fans appreciate the joke, despite the likely homophobic intent. Dave Nash from the local gay team the Brighton Bandits, says: “I am sure that there are people in the crowd watching who are closeted who might find it uncomfortable, but it is just kind of yob culture. Like when any team plays Shrewsbury, every one gets out the tractor jokes. So in Brighton, everyone does the gay ones.”

While seeing the joke, Nash doesn’t underplay the possible consequences. Neither does the FA, which is very enthusiastic these days about talking about gays and football. It held a summit on homophobia in the sport this summer and Lucy Faulkner, the FA’s head of ethics and sports equity, is at pains to point out that homophobic abuse on the pitch is a disciplinary offence. This season will be the first time in which the FA has been open about this policy – indeed it has made a short film about Stonewall FC to be displayed on its website as part of its “Football for all” programme.

Of course, most gay fans wish there was an openly gay player or two at the top of the game, but despite the best efforts of the FA and others, most observers think this will be a long time coming. David Beckham has made a small difference in broadening the idea of what kind of man a player can be, but his contribution is mainly appreciated by those gays who aren’t fans or players. “He has glamourised football,” Nash acknowledges, “and broken down some barriers.” Most of the fans I spoke to, however, weren’t particularly interested in him or the soft side of footballers. More typical seems to be this personal ad, posted on Gaydar, the country’s biggest gay dating site: “Sorted geezer and ‘Ammers supporter! Dagenham/Essex born and bred. Bling and cunty, laddy outlook gets my attention. For a larf and a pint down the pub.” There are many more like it on Gaydar; put “football” into the search engine and you get more than 800 matches.

And football has entered not just gay identity, but gay sex. Over the past few years, club nights devoted to footie fans with strict football dress codes have been springing up in the mould of the original Shoot!, in King’s Cross in London. The very ordinariness of real football fans has turned into a gay fetish of hyper-normality: Adidas, trackie bottoms, Lonsdale shirts, Rockport, Lacoste, baseball caps. It’s as far away from the body-beautiful gym bunny as possible. Gay sexuality is eating up straight masculinity, even if those who like to see themselves as the real fans, like Ian, vehemently reject it. “These people are a different breed from us,” he says. “And you can tell they don’t play, they’re not fit!”

The fetishisation of football, however, is growing fast. There’s even a porn video label called Triga devoted to it, selling titles such as “Game Over – Horny Soccer fuckers”. The national obsession with football has seeped into all corners of gay life. And what is particularly original about this scally-lad phenomenon is that for almost the first time, fashion is flowing from straight to gay. The only time this has happened before was when a swathe of leather queens effectively dressed as Nazis, and fortunately Freddie Mercury turned them into figures of fun. This time, though, there is no suggestion of parody: scally lads have zero irony.

With genuine gay fans cheering for England, gay players topping the amateur leagues and boys wearing the England strip for sex, straight and gay have started to overlap. They are claiming a common masculinity. And whether on the terraces or in the bedroom, it’s happening through football.

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