Homophobia and professional sports
What FIFA can learn from Toronto's teams
A whistle blows, signalling the end of halftime at Withrow Park.
The soccer players are huddling, excitedly working out their second-half strategy before they jog back out into position on the pitch.
“Every weekend in the summer, you have two queer leagues,” Downtown Soccer Toronto (DST) Women’s Representative Tara Vinodrai says, gesturing toward the crowds at the park. “One that is primarily women and some trans people… and a league that’s also queer and queer-positive. That’s over 400 people playing soccer in a queer-positive space, and that is pretty phenomenal.”
DST welcomes players of all sexes, sexual orientations and skill levels, resulting in an inclusive and varied sport and social community. And DST is but one of Toronto’s dozens of queer and queer-positive sports teams. There’s the Toronto Gay Hockey Association, the BADinTO badminton league and even a water polo team, Toronto Triggerfish.
Yet while inclusive, queer-friendly sports teams are flourishing in Toronto, homophobia remains widespread in professional sports.
DST players are excited for Canada to host the 2015 Women’s World Cup, but they’re also dismayed by recent international developments in the world of professional soccer (also called football).
In mid-June, just days before the kickoff to the Women’s World Cup in Germany, The New York Times ran a story exposing homophobic remarks made by Nigerian head coach Eucharia Uche. The article detailed Uche’s strategy to remove “suspected lesbians” from the team.
Anti-homophobia advocacy organization AllOut, the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association (IGLFA) and the Federation of Gay Games (FGG) – along with 46,000 individual petitioners – co-signed a letter demanding that FIFA launch an official investigation. Two months later, FIFA complied.
Ignited by the allegations against Uche, human right advocates have criticized soccer’s international governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) for failing to commit to a comprehensive anti-homophobia policy.
Media, including gay news outlets The Advocate and Diva magazine, reported the development as a win, repeating AllOut co-founder Andre Banks’s quotable statement that the response was a “first, critical step” toward eradicating homophobia in the game.
What went unreported was the caveat in FIFA’s letter: it would investigate “in the event the FIFA Disciplinary Committee considers having enough evidence…”
Critics say it’s the latest example of foot dragging from an association that has often disregarded human rights concerns.
“What’s keeping us back is that we’re not seen as normal or okay,” says soccer player Nicole Hull after the game at Withrow Park.
Hull and her partner, Laura Chiaravalotti, joined DST in 2010. “If people keep shying away from [being out of the closet]… it just maintains that status quo,” Hull continues. “You’re never going to be equal.”
In the early part of 2011, the anti-homophobia message had gained significant momentum across professional sports. Several high-profile figures came out as gay, and straight allies like wrestler Hudson Taylor and rugby player Ben Cohen won support for their equality initiatives. The San Francisco Giants baseball team participated in an It Gets Better anti-bullying video, and an advertisement for the same campaign aired during a National Basketball Association playoff game.
Still, FIFA remained silent on the issue.
Then, in March, the organization reconfirmed Vlatko Markovic to a fourth term as Croatian Football Federation president, despite criticism (and two lawsuits) arising from Markovic’s comment that as “long as I’m president [of the Croatian Football Federation] there will be no gay players. Thank goodness only healthy people play football.”
FIFA could learn a thing or two from DST.
“In DST, gender, sexuality and the performance of gender don’t matter. There’s room and space for you to play and enjoy the game of soccer and to improve your skills,” Vinodrai says. “We take a really strong stand on people who are derogatory.”
One of the main challenges of the executive every year is to communicate the league’s commitment to diversity, Vinodrai continues. This is achieved through strong messaging at every event and the enforcement of a disciplinary policy.
These efforts – a unified anti-homophobia message and an effective disciplinary policy – work on the international stage the same as they do on a city pitch, but buy-in has to come from the top.
“[In Canada], there’s institutional support for queer organizations,” Vinodrai notes. “I think that has to do with Canadian values around openness and diversity.” In professional soccer, "the top" is FIFA.
“It’s like at work,” Chiaravalotti says. “If someone harasses you, you can go to HR and file a complaint. This is the same thing – this is [the athlete’s] job… and if there’s harassment or discrimination, it should definitely be reported.”
Put like that, the solution seems simple. With four years until the next Women’s World Cup comes to Canada, FIFA’s got more than enough time to see it that way, too.