LGBTQ footballers are being subjected to sickening homophobic abuse from rival fans and players – and say the FA isn’t doing enough to hold people accountable.
Players facing offensive language and even violence on the pitch say the national governing body is not “fit for purpose” and is letting bigots get away with behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated anywhere else.
The disgusting words thrown at footballers include “f*ggot”, “fairy”, “gay tw*t” and “nonce”.
What’s more, those on the ground say the problem is getting worse despite the FA’s lip service to tackling homophobia in recent years. One man suggested the prime minister’s own offensive language about gay people, or even Brexit, could be emboldening people who would otherwise keep quiet.
James Cole, 36, has played for LGBTQ-inclusive team Village Manchester Football Club for six years as a midfielder and right-back. Earlier this season, he heard an opposition player refer to his team as “a bunch of f*ggots”. Last week, an opposition supporter told one of his colleagues: “F*ck off, you gay tw*t.”
“Homophobia often seems to go hand-in-hand with violent conduct, in my experience,” he told HuffPost UK.
Of the most recent incident, he said: “The game started off in quite an aggressive atmosphere, with one of the opposition players threatening that someone would get an elbow if they weren’t careful, then it escalated from there.”
The only communication received from the Football Association centrally, Cole said, has been a one-line email asking if VMFC members would be willing to participate in a tribunal – should one be held.
“We do this as a hobby – it’s something that is supposed to be fun and supposed to be enjoyed,” he said.
“When you hear something like that, it makes you feel upset, it makes you feel small. It reminds you of the sort of thing you heard all the way through school and it makes it very difficult to focus on a game of football.
“I wouldn’t accept this in the workplace, and I know for a fact if I told my boss I was experiencing homophobia at work, it would be dealt with there and then. For it to take 12 weeks [for the FA] to even look at an issue just doesn’t work – that’s basically half a season for us, as we only play 24 games.
“One of the FA’s key roles is to ensure its players are protected from abuse. As it stands at the moment, I don’t feel protected at all. If I knew the team responsible would be facing a tribunal in the next two weeks, say, I would feel much more confident in the process.”
When scores of Premier League players first filed onto pitches across the country wearing rainbow laces in their boots, it seemed the battle against discrimination had turned a corner.
The FA makes clear on its website that discrimination – be it racism, sexism or homophobia – is not tolerated on or around the football pitch.
But VMFC treasurer and photographer Steve Joyce is among those who say the problem is getting worse.
“Three years ago, this hardly ever happened,” he told HuffPost UK. “There were seasons where there was none whatsoever. Then two years ago there was one or two minor incidents and then last year it was half a dozen.”
He added: “It depends what you want to put that down to. Is it Brexit and the xenophobia that that brought about? Is it because we’ve got a prime minister who’s said racist and homophobic comments? People think it’s OK to do it – that’s my interpretation.”
Recalling an incident last year when he had been targeted personally by an opposition player, he said: “The opposition team was great, but they just had one guy who was a thug and he was mouthing off at everyone.
“He was actually violent towards one of our players, pulled him down to the ground by his hair, and he was mouthing off homophobic words to all and sundry, including me at the side of the pitch while I was taking pictures.
“His teenage son was doing the same at the side of the pitch.
“The opposition club threw him out immediately afterwards but denied the homophobia. They couldn’t deny physical abuse on our players because everyone saw it but they could deny the homophobia because they were at the opposite side of the pitch and didn’t hear it.”
The most recent incident was on January 11 during a match against Chadderton Park Firsts at Crossley Playing Fields in Chadderton, Oldham. An opposition supporter was heard – and recorded – shouting homophobic abuse.
Joyce added: “Someone posted on our Facebook page recently asking why gay people think they’re special and need their own teams.
“Half our club is straight these days. And when I ask these straight lads why, it’s because they like the diversity ethos of the club, they like the fact we welcome everyone and we’re not laddish and loutish – it is all about just getting on and playing football in a well-organised team and a well-organised club.”
Like Cole and Joyce, VMFC chair James McNaught wants wants FA chiefs to take more robust action against the perpetrators and introduce tougher sanctions for those found to have discriminated against LGBT+ players and fans.
In a Facebook post after the January 11 match, he wrote: “When anybody asks you why teams like mine exist – where anybody can play football in a safe space – tell them it’s because there are uneducated louts out there who think it’s OK to treat people differently.”
The situation is depressingly similar elsewhere in the country. Skye Stewart, chair of LGBT-inclusive Black Country Fusion FC, has also made a number of complaints on behalf of the teams she runs.
Participating in Wolverhampton-based Sunday leagues, Stewart, a trans woman, claims many of her players have received homophobic and transphobic abuse and that she herself was subjected to transphobia from a referee a few weeks ago.
“He refused to acknowledge me as a woman and kept referring to me as ‘he’, she said.
“An official complaint has been made. But in many cases, the first step in an investigation is to ask the referee if they heard the abuse. If they haven’t, quite often it falls on deaf ears and it’s difficult to have it taken any further.”
While both teams say their local football associations – Manchester FA and Staffordshire FA – have been supportive, holding regular meetings about their concerns, VMFC has released an official statement calling on the national FA to overhaul its complaints processes.
“We would 100% agree with the sentiments in the statement from VMFC and fully support what they are asking the FA to do,” Stewart said.
“In recent months there seems to have been a real spike in the number of homophobic and racist incidents in grassroots football and we don’t know why.”
The teams’ words are likely to be something of an embarrassment to the FA, which on Friday launched a campaign stating there was “no place for discrimination" in grassroots football.
In a promotional video for the "Tell Us, We'll Tackle It" project, giant capital letters spelling out the word "discrimination" have been placed inside a goal, preventing players from scoring.
Joyce was quick to point out that the local branch, Manchester FA, has its hands tied by the national procedures for dealing with discrimination, and responsibility should rest on the FA as a whole.
“The FA need to take discrimination seriously – a minor incident on the pitch is a hate crime,” he said. “People might think it’s quite minor, throwing names around, but it does affect people, and when you get several players verbally attacking several other players in quite a toxic atmosphere, it does affect people.
“We want the FA to improve its processes – they’re not fit for purpose. They take too long. The second issue is when someone has an accusation against them, they’re just allowed to keep playing. So that process can take six months where the accused can just carry on playing football as normal.
“We think where a referee has actually heard the abuse, that player should be instantly suspended. There should be zero tolerance.
“Our view is that once someone is found guilty of discriminatory abuse, [the current penalties are] just not good enough. The fines are quite small, the bans are for a few matches, sometimes they have to go on anti-discrimination course but not always – six months down the line, you can’t even remember what happened and they get a slap on the wrist. It’s just not good enough.”
He added: “The referees also need more training. We know there are referees who hear abuse and pretend they don’t because they’re intimidated by the opposition, quite frankly.”
But Joyce ended with a positive note: by and large, clubs like VMFC offer an inclusive space where people can play football in a safe environment.
“The big point for us is we’re a safe place for people of any sexuality, age or race,” he said. “We’re a welcoming place so people shouldn’t think this is a weekly occurrence and they’re going to get abused.
“It does happen and the club is responding to that, but on the whole it’s a great club to come to and play football because it’s very diverse.”
An FA spokesperson said its Manchester branch was investigating the incident involving VMFC on January 11, but that it could not disclose any further details about an ongoing disciplinary case.
“The FA and CFAs [community football associations] strongly condemn all forms of discrimination,” he said, “and encourage any participants and spectators who believe that they have been the subject of, or witness to, discriminatory abuse to report it through the appropriate channels: the FA, CFA network or our partners at Kick It Out.”
Chadderton Park did not respond to HuffPost UK’s request for comment.