In March, up at the QBE Stadium, something unpleasant happened. The Phoenix played the Jets, about ten days after Greenacre had taken over as caretaker manager (again). We lost, despite absolutely battering them. After the Dark Kalezic times, just putting in a decent performance was enough to encourage the remaining embers of hope.
In the stand someone a row behind and along a bit made a crack about not putting Sarpreet Singh on corners because he’d build a corner shop. It was said in the loud confident voice of someone who believed everyone would get the joke.
Murmurs of discontent. People didn’t get the joke.
A little later the same voice called one of the Jets players gay. He didn’t mean this player was actually in a same-sex relationship. He meant they were weak, not a proper man – you know, homophobia. I excuse-me’d along the row and let him know that wasn’t on, and was homophobic.
It didn’t go well. I was asked if I was gay. I was told that it wasn’t aimed at me, so why was I taking offence. I was told he had gay friends, so couldn’t be homophobic. And finally that he wasn’t intending on giving offence – it was actually my fault for taking offence. He wasn’t sorry, because he didn’t believe he’d said anything wrong.
It was pretty good to hear people back me up on this to be honest, because there’s always that uncertainty about what’s going to happen when you call this nonsense out. It ended with me assuring him that they’d be called out for it if they did it again. No resolution, no apology. He wasn’t happy, and spent the rest of the game slinging insults at people he blamed for the Fever Zone becoming a place where you couldn’t have a joke any more.
I do wonder if he was part of the same group I wrote about a couple of years before when the issue of Tony Veitch and toxicity was at the fore;
My wife was on that bus and had been scared since we got on. She was surrounded by loud, aggressive, drunken men and she felt unsafe. She had felt the same at the ground when some in the crowd engaged in sustained sexist and homophobic abuse of players and supporters. Not all, but some is enough. She felt unsafe.
If you don’t see why, then think about how a woman feels surrounded by men who feel it appropriate to slur other men by calling them women. To try and slur presumably straight men by calling them gay. If you’re surrounded by people who use your identity, who you are, as a terrible insult, then why would you feel safe?
Why would you feel safe, or welcome, if you have to clench your fists and try to ignore it? That’s what a lot of people do, because when you hear someone slur you in a crowd, you instantly know that you don’t matter to that person – that what you are to them is an insult, to be thrown about. There’s also the uncertainty about the crowd. How many agree with them? If I speak out, what will happen. And here’s where the depressingly common experiences of homophobia influence why this uncertainty exists.
I’ve had stones thrown at me as I left a gay bar. I’ve been chased and threatened. I’ve had the common-or-garden teenage homophobia that lives like black mould in changing rooms and training sessions, by fragile masculinity that can think of no worse an insult than ‘queer’, ‘gay’, ‘faggot’ etc. When you’re younger, uncertain about who you are, the constant denigratory pelting of an identity which you will one day recognise as yours forces you to resist it, fear it, and to hide. At the time it’s hell. And it stays with you.
When you hear someone using that same language, it’s still there. If you choose to speak out, the knot of anxiety and fear in your stomach is as real as the one you had when the first stone missed – even if the second one didn’t. If he doesn’t think anything of using people like me as an insult, what will he do when I’m right there telling him what he said is horrible?
And sure, he didn’t throw that stone, he didn’t call you a faggot directly, he didn’t threaten you. But he chose those words as an insult, and in doing so becomes the latest ugly feature of a history of fear, violence and bigotry in someone else’s life.
I talked about uncertainty, and there’s one key way to reduce that uncertainty – and that’s to be unequivocal in your support for victims of bigotry and racism. Making it absolutely clear that the language of intolerance for people based on their sexual preference, gender or race is utterly unwelcome. That those who still hold that hatred in their heads, wrapped in the excuses of banter and jokes recognise that it’s not acceptable.
That doesn’t solve the problem though. The recent incident involving Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling has created a lot of discussion about ‘footballs racism problem’. But when former England and Liverpool player John Barnes was asked about it, he pointed out that if football has a racism problem – it’s because the whole of society has a racism and a homophobia and a misogynist problem. Watch it, it’s really good.
He says, correctly, that simply by enforcing rules against those who use that language means they keep quiet, they don’t stop thinking of one member of a different culture in terms of a crass stereotype for a joke, they don’t stop believing that a gay man is weak or something to be employed as an insult, they don’t stop thinking that shouting ‘she fell over’ at a male player is alright because women are lesser than men and it’s all just a good laugh isn’t it lads?
To change this, you need to change the perceptions of minority groups. It’s a big cultural shift. But it starts with simple, clear statements. To those minority groups, you are welcome here. To those who’d seek to use them for their own amusement, or as an insult, you are not.
This weekend I’m attending my first Phoenix game since March. And I’m bringing something new to the Fever Zone. The message is simple. Rainbow Fever is a part of the YF. It’s not organised, there’s no leaders, but it’s a nice clear symbol about what’s welcome, and what isn’t.
I’ll be in the Backbencher before the game, and I’ve got a fair few of these stickers to give away to anyone who wants them (more than I thought, after the printers sent me 1000). Because we don’t care which team you play for, you’re here to support the Nix.
Because being honest with you that Jets player was pathetic, and useless and a disgrace – he was tackled and stayed down like a racehorse that’d clipped the hedge. They should have dug a hole for him in the sandy North Harbour pitch and left him there.
He was an awful lot of things – and you can get intensely creative about how bad an opposition player can be. But you can be against homophobia, racism and the range of ugly bigotries and still get your point across – and even have a laugh about it too.
See you in the Zone.
Categories: Other Football Topics
John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.