Saturday, January 30, 2010

Coming out to play

Walking through the centre of London, the EU's largest city on Friday afternoon, I saw a famous footballer, and later two men holding hands: Neither a big deal.

On Thursday night rugby star Gareth Thomas hosted a coming-out party with friends and gay stars including Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf) at a Soho nightspot. Former Wales captain Thomas, 35, admitted he was gay late last year and the reaction has been, well...no-one's really bothered.

Rugby, particularly in Thomas' homeland, has a macho identity not unlike the jock culture of American football. So when it steals a march on soccer in accepting gay players, why isn't FIFA busy with initiatives to encourage sexual, as well as racial tolerance in the people's game? It seems like every sport but soccer has taken the plunge, and I can't think of any footballers beyond Justin Fashanu, and he only openly came out after retiring. While there are degrees of intolerance in society, football once more does its own thing. To be fair the Football Association and certain clubs have clamped down on homophobic fans in the last couple of years, which is certainly a good start.

In Britain the game is glaringly behind society, where civil partnerships are in law, gay men occupy prominent positions in politics, TV and the arts and even the Queen's poet laureate is a bisexual. Elton John has been a football man for years but an England & Premier League player debating the issue seems as far as we have got towards having gay players universally accepted.

Endless internet rumours, which over here oddly always seem to involve black players from London clubs, is a silly schoolboy jape played by adults, but famous gay activist Peter Tatchell didn't help by pointedly telling the press on Thursday how surprised he was that Sol Campbell and Cristiano Ronaldo had not turned up to the party.

"Everybody here tonight is celebrating that the world is changing," said Thomas. "We are here to send the message that it's OK to be a sportsman and it is also OK to be gay." Except that it is plainly not yet in the world's biggest sport.

-Sean O'Conor

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