Exploring LGBT Issues in Football

10/10/2016 14:12 | Updated 11 October 2016

Ever since Premier League footballer Andre Gray was handed a 4-game ban for homophobic tweets, I've been thinking more and more about how my community fits into the sports world.

Gray was the star man a Burnley, the team I support that won promotion back to football's ultimate stage last season. His vital goals and impressive work-rate cemented his place as a hero for many fans like me.

But as well as being a Burnley fan, I'm also a gay man. So when I read his tweets - which were sent around 4 years ago - it felt like a punch in the stomach. The most extreme of his posts said that people like me make him sick, and he wants us to burn and die. Horrible stuff.

After the initial shock, I tried to understand what effect words like those can have. I imagined myself 10 years ago, as I was coming out myself. It's probably one of the scariest things I'll ever have to do. And I can appreciate why so many people feel forced to hide their sexuality, and why some are made to feel ashamed of themselves.

I thought about what I'd have thought at the time, if I was struggling with my identity and worried about what people would think of me. If my idol wrote that he wants me to burn to death, that would make a terrifying situation almost unbearable.

Since the incident broke, I've been fortunate enough to have enjoyed many thought-provoking discussions about it with my fellow supporters. But I've also received some horrible abuse, too. "Keep it behind closed doors," someone wrote. "Set of queer bastards." "Whoever wrote this can go stick another cock up his arse."

The more I read and heard, the more I've learned that there's much more to this story. I wanted to delve deeper. And so I began to think more about the wider issues that Gray's tweets represent.

Just how big is the problem? Why are homophobic slurs heard so commonly at football grounds? Why are there no openly gay players in the men's game? What can we do to improve that is a dire situation?

I wanted answers to these questions, and to hopefully kick-start a proper debate about why two communities that make up a big part of who I am are so far removed from each other.

So for the last few weeks, I've been speaking to people within football and LGBT campaign groups, for a special podcast exploring homophobia and LGBT representation in the beautiful game.

In many ways, what I discovered was incredibly difficult.

Most football fans have heard homophobic abuse at football grounds, and a large proportion of young people would be embarrassed if their favourite player game out as gay.

Gay football fans told me about their experiences of homophobia, including one who was made to feel so uncomfortable while watching Euro 2016 this summer that he was forced to leave at half time.

And I heard about the toxic environment that exists within professional dressing rooms. Anti-LGBT language is the norm. Many players claim to have never even met a gay person. And attitudes drilled into young footballers as they develop can push gay players out of the system, and make those that survive terrified to be themselves.

This was particularly fascinating - an insight into a part of the game that's usually so private. The attitudes that are apparent in this environment are troubling. It makes me significantly less optimistic about the rate at which we can change things for people like me.

But I also came away with reason to be hopeful. It's encouraging to know that dedicated people are tackling attitudes like this head-on. I found out that while gay football fans don't feel safe, there's a strong appetite to change that among wider football supporter bases.

And there's inspiring grassroots work going on across the country, such as LGBT supporters groups at clubs which appear to be having a very positive effect on attitudes among fans at their club.

That gives me confidence that by talking about issues like this, we can change the way people think and behave. Like the players themselves, I think football fans don't have enough exposure to people from my LGBT community.

I hope that discussions like this can make people sit up and think. And together, we can make football a more inclusive, safe, and enjoyable experience for everyone.

Please listen to the full podcast . We've talked to Stonewall, Kick It Out, Pride In Football, the FA, Burnley Football Club and some gay football fans. I hope you find it as interesting to listen to, as I did making it.

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