“Be together. Act with class. Always move forward.” These are the values of Arsenal FC, and CEO Ivan Gazidis also wants this to be how the club is seen by the LGBT community. In an age where we have openly gay vicars in the Church of England but no openly gay players in the Premier League, his proactive attitude is refreshing.
For Gazidis, addressing discrimination in football is both personal and professional. His father was jailed for anti-apartheid activism in South Africa, instilling in him a strong belief in the importance of equality, but he also believes that LGBT inclusion makes sense for the sporting industry from an entirely practical perspective: “If you close yourself off to any segment of society, you’re not going to be competitive.”
The grim reality, though, is that the eleven guys in the dressing room aren’t the barrier to having openly LGBT players, but rather the thousands of fans in the stadium. However, tolerance among football fandom is an upward curve, says Gazidis: “Arsenal audiences are more diverse than ever before.”
He cites the Gay Gooners as a prime example of said diversity. The Gooners are the first and largest LGBT football fan group in the world, and they work with the club to promote its “Arsenal For Everyone” initiative. Comedian and long-time Arsenal supporter Matt Lucas has praised the organisation, saying: “young gay fans now feel included by the club in a way my generation never could.”
“We’ve a long way to go as both a sport and society,” says Gazidis, acknowledging that while there have been great strides in women’s football, their male counterparts are lagging behind. But he believes this won’t be the case for much longer, predicting that there will be openly gay players in the Premier League within the next five years. Not an entirely incredulous idea, when you consider that Amal Fashanu already claims to personally know “seven gay players” in the premiership right now.
We might like to think that we’re living in a fairly evolved society, but it is still considered newsworthy whenever a public figure comes out of the closet. And this reaction is even more audible in sport, where athletes are idolised, and dated notions of masculinity are prized above a great many other traits. Until recently, it was likely that most people would be able to count the number of high profile gay athletes on just one hand: Jason Collins, Gareth Thomas, Michael Sam.
But as more sportspeople come out of the closet across varying sporting arenas, from rugby league player Keegan Hirst to Olympic medallist Gus Kenworthy, we can see that the response is proportionately more positive than previously.
Attitudes are slowly changing. LGBT sports stars are now being embraced as role models and advocates for equality, which in turn helps to create a safer, more tolerant environment for gay people everywhere. Let’s hope that Gazidis will be proven correct in his prediction of sooner rather than later.