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Tackling Homophobia on - and off - the pitch

November 3, 2005 7:30 PM

Lib Dem MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, Dr Evan Harris gave a speech welcoming delegates at the FA's 'Football for All' Homophobia Summit today.

Evan said:

I am delighted that the Football Association is taking this initiative and that so many of the interested parties are involved. All are to be congratulated in getting this far, but we must all be aware that there is much to do.

I remember raising homophobia in football with the previous FA chief executive 3 years ago at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Football Group. He was caught somewhat off-guard, but the FA and I pursued a correspondence which demonstrated that some thinking on this subject had been done even at that stage.

This was followed up by a meeting at FA HQ 18 months ago which some of you would have attended when the problems of homophobic player conduct, general crowd abuse, specific problems encountered by Brighton FC and other examples were aired. We also discussed the October 2003 statement of the Parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe which called on countries - among other things -

• to launch active campaigns against homophobia in sport

• to treat homophobia in the same way as other forms of discrimination and harassment

• to criminalise homophobic chanting at sports events to the same degree as racist chants

• to involve the lesbian and gay community and the NGOs in the campaigns

The Rapporteur for that statement was former sports minister and now Lord Tony Banks. He and I would rightly want to see action in this area from Government, sports organisations and the participants. While the FA and the game generally have made progress, there is much more to do.

From a human rights point of view and from the perspective of the infringement of dignity, there is no significant difference between racism and homophobia. It is potentially invidious to make a comparison or contrast, but attacks on someone on the basis of their sexuality (actual or perceived) just like with race, is an attack on our common humanity. It is crucially different from an attack on someone on the basis of their political views or their football allegiance, however deeply these are felt, because race, gender and sexual orientation are innate.

Because sexuality is - unlike race - usually a private matter, the public abuse that some players, officials and spectators receive has a hurtful quality which is peculiar regardless of the sexual orientation of the target. It can create pressure to - and even compel - people to deny that they are gay; which in turn makes life even more difficult for those who are gay who wish to protect their privacy. It is this pressure - including the pressure to live a lie - or to be forced to deny something that is your own business that can make stress so unbearable on an individual level.

So the wider recognition of this problem is overdue. Match officials and club officials, the administrators and the police must act and must be seen to act. On the one hand, the recent conviction of a Hill City fan for homophobic abuse of Brighton fans is encouraging, on the other hand the way that Robbie Fowler seemingly escaped any sanction from his club -and indeed match officials - following the disgraceful baiting of Graeme Le Saux in February 1999, demonstrated the disgraceful double standard that operated then and probably still does.

Homophobic abuse is a hate crime. Directed against individuals it is already a public order offence. The criminal law in this area lags behind the law against the incitement of racial hatred and racial abuse. Public order offences can be aggravated by racial and religious motivation, but not other grounds. But that should not disguise the fact that homophobic abuse is already an offence. It degrades not just those who are the targets but those who indulge in it - whether mindlessly or with malice aforethought. It also debases those who are playing or spectating and undermines the ability of the game to attract and maintain a family audience.

Government must lead the way in the way that it has not in the past when Section 28 - actively prevented councils from promoting equality and fighting homophobia.

The Government could and should do more. We need comprehensive equality laws which outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians in the provision of goods and services and impose the same positive duty on public authorities to actively promote equality on the grounds of sexual orientation as already exists for race and is going through Parliament on gender. That would be section 82 - in a way - a section 28 in reverse - where we would be asking public bodies what they are doing to stamp out homophobia and promote non-discrimination and fairness.

I want to recognise the efforts of the Gay Football Supporters Network, by Stonewall and other groups. It is only right to point out what work the FA - and Phil Smith and Lucy Faulkner in particular - has done already and the progress made, the Ethics and Sports Equity Strategy of 2002, the evolving policy on discrimination coming from this, and the support of the play "Gaffer!" at the end of last year which dealt with issues of homophobia in football.

But this campaign really needs to be made more high profile. It needs to move from the inside pages of the Observer to the back page (or any page) of the tabloids.

The key test of the Football Association's commitment to this issue will be whether there is high profile public support by the England team and management as part of the valuable work they do to promote the game, the development of the game and the structures associated with it.

Although we all recognise that it is not easy for individual players to take a stand - although some could and should - the whole team could and should be expected at some time soon to highlight and mainstream the campaign against homophobia in football.

There are some glaring inconsistencies in football as in life. The authorities seem to tolerate excessive, prostrate, group kissing and hugging that occurs on the pitch in goal celebrations. It is peculiar that there is not clearer zero-tolerance of homophobia.

Football does not routinely penalise swearing and chat-back, so breeding a culture of dissent and abuse. I strongly believe that football can learn much from rugby and even cricket in this regard, without losing its popular and wide appeal. The promotion of the women's game and the vibrant youth game demands a de-machofication, to coin a phrase - indeed to invent a word.

Recent events lead one to assume that the football authorities sometimes wish they could drive heterosexuality - in its high- profile-front-page-of-the-tabloids form - out of football, and stamping out the worst excesses of homophobia will do know harm. As politicians like to say - much done, much still to do. I hope we can do it united.