With Saturday's Laces campaign, and recent controversy around chanting at Brighton, we decided to publish a letter sent to us by Robin Joyce
I will be honest from the outset. It took me a while to write this. For a long time I sat staring at a blank screen wondering what to write. This wasn't because of the lack of things to write about - in fact there is lot to discuss. I struggled as I wasn't sure where to begin or what I really wanted to say. I found it quite a challenge. So it is this that has became my starting point. I want to challenge you. It’s a simple challenge. I want you to read this to the end. An easy challenge I know. The challenge is not thinking that this isn’t your problem or that it has nothing to do with you. In some way it has got everything to do with you.
I am a Charlton fan and I have been since boyhood. I haven’t been to a match in ages but for some time now I have wanted to get a ticket and enjoy a win for Charlton (I always think positively). Yet I haven't been able to. This isn’t for want of trying. It’s another reason entirely. I have yet to convince any of my friends to join me. It’s not just because they are not Charlton fans. No, it’s because my friends and I are gay.
I can hear you saying “so what ?”, or “here we go again, another rant”. But honestly it isn’t - just keep reading.
The problem I have with convincing my friends to come to a match is that football has a huge reputation for being homophobic. If I had offered tickets for rugby, tennis or even boxing they would jump at the chance. But football, I have never been able to convince them. There is just too much fear that something homophobic will happen to them, be it directly or indirectly.
Now I know that not everyone is homophobic, and that there will be those who go to matches, are gay and don’t hear a thing. Yet, as much as I recognise this may be the case, perception is everything and football does not do much to try to break the homophobic reputation it has. In research 'Leagues Behind' conducted by Stonewall (a leading charity on LGBT issues in the UK) it found some startling facts. Over the last five years some 7 in 10 people have heard anti-gay language and abuse in the stands. That is a huge number of people, and proves there is a big problem. It is these kinds of figures that the gay community, including me and my friends, notice, and so opt to avoid it and stay away from football.
So what exactly is anti-gay language I hear you ask? It’s actually a difficult one to answer. Each individual has a different tolerance on what is acceptable or unacceptable. I, for instance, can accept, to a certain degree, an amount of verbal abuse. I have in the past been walking down the street when someone shouted "Its Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve". I was able to laugh at that whereas others would have taken offence at it. However, this differing level of tolerance doesn't make anti-gay abuse right. I’m sure you have heard people refer to a player as a 'poof', especially if they are playing on an opposing team. A well known way of trying to 'get under the skin' of someone who is either seen as an easy target or, in some cases, has a unique hair style. For anyone who is gay, that remark is highly offensive. It will also be heard by others around you, even children, who will then take that away as something that is acceptable to say at a football match. The problem then carries on growing. Football continues to be homophobic and could potentially spread beyond the stands of The Valley itself.
I’m guessing at this point you are thinking that the stewards or police would work with the club to stop any kind of homophobic abuse like this. Well let’s look at this. If someone sat near you shouted out ‘poof’ at a player would you see any action taken? Would anyone speak up and say that is inappropriate language? Or would people laugh and see it as a normal football occurrence ? I’m going to take a guess and say it’s the latter. Then, when someone who is gay hears the remark and sees no attempt to stop it from happening again, how will they feel? The answer is: very uncomfortable for the remainder of the match. They will feel they have to hide who they truly are in fear that they could be a target next. Would that person return to see another match? Not very likely.
So what is football’s policy in regards to dealing with homophobic abuse? If you don’t know then you are not alone. Only 17% of fans asked in the Stonewall research knew what the policy was, so clearly there is some work to be done in getting that message out there. The same research found that, if homophobic abuse was seen to be tackled at football matches, 49% of LGBT fans would be more likely attend, which would be a result for me as my friends might actually want to join me in cheering Charlton on.
Now I know things are not going to change quickly, and there is some work to do, but there are some positives. Over half of football fans think not enough is done to tackle homophobia in football and 5 in 6 fans support charging offenders who use anti-gay language at matches. So at least people want things to change. It just needs to actually happen. So now I’m guessing you’re thinking either “it’s not my problem or place to change things” or “so what ?”. Did you ever think that you could make a huge difference by doing something very small ? I am not saying you need to start an action group or march around with a rainbow flag. You can however do some small things. The easy one is to think about the language you use while in the stands. So, the referee got something wrong. He isn't a 'queer' so why shout that out ? And, if you do hear anyone using anti-gay language, challenge them if you feel comfortable enough or report them if you don’t. The more instances of homophobia being reported, the higher the profile it will get and the greater the chance that it will stop.
This is all great for those who are at the matches, but this still doesn’t help reach outside the ground to those who might want to come along like my friends. They will still see The Valley from the outside, not knowing what is going on inside.
I wonder if you knew that Arsenal supporters marched in this year’s Gay pride event to show support and to go some way to open up football to the LGBT community. Before you say it, no I am not suggesting you or Charlton do the same thing. There is however a local gay community right on your doorstep. Maybe you didn’t know that in Greenwich town centre, just a few miles down the road from The Valley, there are three gay bars. So why not see what’s going on in your area ? Go along in your Charlton shirt and just show some support. That small symbol of a football shirt at a gay event sends a powerful message that Charlton is an open, friendly football club where everyone is welcome and no one should feel discriminated against. When in a pub yourself chatting about football, again think about what language you are using and avoid anything that is going to cause offence. You never know who might be listening.
So now you have read most of the article I would like to thank you for taking up the challenge and reading it all the way through. Before I finish I have one last challenge which again is simple. Help make all fans welcome, no matter who they are, and show that Charlton is tolerant, friendly and welcomes all communities, even the gay community.