‘Interest in men is permitted, indeed encouraged, but must always be expressed through the game’. (Simpson, 1994:72)
The Guardian has reported the outpouring of love for the lovely Thierry Henri, on his triumphant return to Arsenal. Fans have described their ardour as ‘going gay for Henri’.
The author, Paul Flynn, writes:
‘Maybe I was taking it too literally but the forcefulness of the collective thinking, that no greater compliment could be bestowed on a man than “going gay” for him, felt brand new. I’m not sure how as a gay man you are supposed to react to this outpouring of straight male affection but you would have to look very hard to be offended by it. Personally I found it all simmering with an appealing new texture for the culture around soccer.
The relationship between gay men and football has been a long-standing stumbling block in Britain’s stealthy movement towards liberalisation. When Elton John took over as shareholder of his beloved Watford FC in the 80s he would routinely be comically abused from the terraces, name-calling he took in open, manful good humour. Graeme Le Saux, Freddie Ljungberg and numerous other Premier League stars have since been dealt weekly catcalls speculating on their sexuality. Justin Fashanu‘s heartbreaking early-90s coming out and subsequent suicide has cast a long shadow across the national game.
Yet perhaps there is a change afoot, led by the fans and one that the establishment would be wise to acknowledge. When I interviewed David Beckham for the cover story of the gay magazine Attitude in 2001, at the peak of his Man Utd tenure, he conceded that sooner or later the fractious relationship between the football establishment and homosexuality would have to be broken down. It was just a matter of time. His astute PR move of posing for the cover was a start, at least. He later appeared at the London nightclub G.A.Y, maximising his obvious gay appeal, and was greeted by 2,000 screaming gay fans who had composed their own football-ish chant by way of greeting: “Ditch the bitch, ditch the bitch, ditch the bitch and make the switch!” Straight men no longer had the monopoly on the brutal wit of stadium sloganeering.’
I think Flynn makes some good points. As Mark Simpson has told us a few times now, David Beckham’s courtship of his gay fans has had some impact on the ‘beautiful game’ and its tradition of homophobia and homoanxiety.
However there are different ways of looking at this situation. The author of this article seems to agree with academic Eric Anderson , who writes about ‘declining homophobia’ in arenas such as sports in the context of ‘softening masculinity’. According to Anderson we live in a more tolerant world now, so men do not feel so uptight about saying they are ‘gay for Thierry Henri’.
Mark Simpson sees it another way. In his book, Male Impersonators (1994) he wrote a brilliant chapter called The Anus And Its Goalposts. Basically, Simpson tells us, the homosexual conflicts inherent in football, from the ‘insertion’ of the ball into the net in goals, to male fans hugging each other on the terraces, to violence on and off the pitch, all mean that football itself is well gay.
‘Jones/Gascgoine’s ‘embrace’ ‘expresses, through the grotesque parody of the greatest tenderness between men, the greatest hate. Jones’ face, a portrait of malice, faces away from Gascgoine, but his hand conveys its message, anonymous-and-yet-personal: the very essence of masculine violence. Here there is no fraternity, no equality, this is a triumphal depiction of domination. Vinny Jones, foootball’s ‘Hard Man’, the crew-cut castrator, holds cry-baby Gascgoine’s soft manhood in his hod carrier’s hand. In this tableau from a male morality play, there can be no mistaking the import: in hetero-speak Jones is the ‘fucker’, Gascgoine the ‘fucked’. (Simpson 1994:70).
I of course, agree with Simpson. I think if fans are going gay for Henri, they are only catching up with the game itself and admitting to a small degree, its latent gayness.
I also agree with Simpson that rather than ‘tolerance’ of gay people being a key factor in the ‘gay for Henri’ phenomenon, the main character in this drama is metrosexuality. It is not just gay fans who have ogled Beckham in his undercrackers. And, as Simpson has said, the reason men are more accepting of homosexuality, is because they themselves display homosexual traits such as narcissism more and more these days.
Are you gay for Thierry? I certainly am. But I am not quite as gay as football. And I am not quite as metrosexual as its players and fans.