Homophobic soccer chants are alive and well

OPINION: It’s going to take more than awareness and education to stop the use of homophobic chants at professional soccer games

The men’s professional sports scene has never really been safe for LGBTQ2S+ people. Sure, there are the occasional out gay athletes, and queer fan groups that have sprung up as LGBTQ2S+ acceptance has advanced. But women’s sports have proven to be much more welcoming to queer players and fans than the men’s side has ever been.

Men’s professional sports are still full of constant little reminders of how tenuous the rights of LGBTQ2S+ people are in the sporting arena. Some American professional teams with particularly conservative ownership groups have, in the past, simply refused to have a Pride night. Proudly anti-LGBTQ2S+ colleges like Liberty University still have no trouble scheduling football games, even against allegedly progressive state schools like the University of Massachusetts.

But perhaps no other sport so regularly shows its lingering homophobia quite like international soccer. Over the weekend, fans of Nottingham Forest Football Club of England’s Premier League taunted fans of London’s Chelsea FC with homophobic chants of “rentboy” during the clubs’ draw. The chant is a reference to the historically queer sex worker roots of the area of London where the Chelsea club is located. The incident left even the Nottingham team’s LGBTQ+ supporters group frustrated with their own team’s fans.

“We’re tired of trying to explain to the uneducated why the chant is wrong on all levels, we’re tired of fighting for equality and inclusion,” the group said in a statement on social media. “We have a problem and an issue when our own fans think this type of chant is acceptable and it makes us question how welcome we actually are at our own club.”

The chant has even been classed as a homophobic hate crime by the Crown Prosecution Service, and yet it stubbornly persists among a subset of fans of Premier League clubs.

The homophobic chant problem doesn’t only lie in England, however. During last month’s men’s World Cup in Qatar, fans of both Mexico and Ecuador found themselves in hot water after chanting “puto,” a Spanish word frequently, although not always, translated to mean “gay prostitute,” during enemy goal kicks.

The “puto” chant has been an issue throughout Latin America for quite some time. FIFA, the world governing body for the sport of soccer, has come up with strict rules in a largely unsuccessful attempt to stamp out the chant.

 

For years, FIFA has leaned on the Mexican soccer federation to curb the chant. What began with warnings escalated to fines, before finally forcing the national team to play home games in empty stadiums in World Cup qualifiers this past year after repeated use of the chants. FIFA eventually threatened to dock points in World Cup standings if the chants continued.

Now referees in the region have the power to halt games if the chants persist beyond repeated warnings.

All of these moves are quite heavy-handed, but are ultimately a small price to pay to make sure queer and trans fans feel welcome at games.

The “puto” chant isn’t only an international problem: it sometimes also gets thrown around at Major League Soccer games, the domestic pro league of the U.S. and Canada. Most recently, league officials attempted to crack down on the chant at LAFC matches in 2021.

Major League Soccer has some experience with eradicating offensive chants from its teams. In the league’s early days, a chant of “you suck, asshole,” which colloquially became known as the “YSA chant,” saw widespread usage. And on TV broadcasts with scant crowds in those days, the chant came through loud and clear to the home viewer. That was a big problem for a league who initially thought soccer moms with soccer-playing kids were their primary demographic.

In 2013, MLS tried similar moves as FIFA to get rid of YSA’s use by supporter groups of Red Bull New York, a soccer club located in the New York metro area that’s owned by the energy drink company. They threatened to dock official points from the team’s standings, threatened teams with fines and other various enforcement actions. Eventually, the team offered to pay its supporter groups to stop using the chant, as reported by the Sports Business Journal.

All of these actions just go to show how difficult it is to eradicate negative fan behaviour. England struggled for years with soccer hooliganism, in essence gang violence, built up around its teams, so a homophobic chant seems like it should be a comparatively easier task to tackle. But chants are part of the fan culture. In England particularly, singing songs to mock opposing teams and their fans are just part of the game.

But when that fan culture ends up alienating a group of your own fans over an innate characteristic like being queer, it’s fair to try to create a more welcoming fan environment for all fans. 

Pure awareness and education has been shown through the Mexican and American examples to not work, and the English FA will need to take more drastic action to create a better experience for queer fans.

Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist and columnist for Xtra and MSNBC. She was the first openly trans Capitol Hill reporter in U.S. history.

Read More About:
Culture, Power, Opinion, Homophobia, Sports

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