It seemed like a good idea at the time. Everyone’s favourite gay rights campaigners Stonewall joined up with Paddy Power the gambling impresarios, to try and get UK professional footballers to sport rainbow laces. The idea was for footballers to show their support for gay rights and their disdain for homophobia, on pitches (and TV screens) across the country. What could go wrong?
Quite a lot as it turned out. After very low take up for the multicoloured laces – I had some in the 1980s but I wore them in my hair like a girl – Stonewall came in for some criticism from LGBT organisations and the media in general. The slogan of the campaign really deserves a blogpost all it’s own: ‘Right Behind Gay Footballers’ has a lovely ring to it don’t you agree?
“We applaud the sentiments behind the idea central to the ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign, namely solidarity with gay players,.. [But] we feel it is incongruous to run a campaign aiming to change football culture whilst using language which reinforces the very stereotypes and caricatures that, in the long term, ensure that homophobia persists.”
As someone who is guilty of rather a lot of ‘homosex’ innuendo I don’t think I can – aaghh!- get behind Football V Homophobia here, though I agree the slogan isn’t great. I think the tagline is actually quite an unintentionally accurate expression of football’s approach to homosexuality. It’s a ‘No Homo’ nod to how footballers love to get down and dirty with each other, on the pitch, and sometimes salaciously off it , whilst also spending some time and energy ‘disavowing’ their intimate contact and its implications. Some sportsmen make a big deal of being pro-gay these days, but its always someone else who actually is gay.
Stonewall has also come under fire for – somebody stop me please! – getting into bed with Paddy Power. A Paddy Power TV ad was banned a few months ago after trans men and women and their allies complained to broadcasting regulators. But Stonewall are not really known for caring about anyone but the Gs and sometimes the Ls in the LGBT ‘community’ so their choice of business partner doesn’t surprise me. It also reminds us just how ‘corporate’ Stonewall have become. The ‘cheeky’ posters are probably Stonewall’s concession to the ‘brand’ of Paddy Power, as they don’t fit Stonewall’s usually pious rhetoric.
Further problems with the campaign have been identified by those in the know in football. Apparently the FA and other bodies were not included in the planning and design stages, and so the mechanisms for liaising with clubs and players were not in place. As Cyd Zeigler of OutSports.com wrote: “They’ll have to do it,” the thinking went, “or they’ll be labeled homophobic.” Typical Stonewall arrogance in my view. The assumption that the ‘straight’ world will just fall in line when the nice gay rights organisation clicks its fingers is foolish and ignorant. But as various dodgy Stonewall surveys have shown, methodology and inclusivity are not their strong points.
And, once again, in any discussion of football and sexuality, a big pink elephant in the room raises its pretty head. Because football is not ‘straight’ or ‘gay’ – in our 21st century (social) media age, football is a blazing, fragrant metrosexual. My view is that many players, even if the scheme had been better thought out and organised, would not wear these right on multicoloured laces. Not because they are necessarily ‘homophobic’ or unsympathetic to the cause, but because they care about how they look, almost or as much as they care about the beautiful game. Not only do players such as Torres (see below), Defoe and Cleverley proudly display matching or complementary coloured laces and stylish designer boots, they also are sponsored to wear them! I don’t know how Nike or Adidas would feel about some generic rainbow laces spoiling the look of their carefully crafted electric blue or shocking pink shoes.
Another of the Paddy Power/Stonewall ads says ‘we don’t care which team you’re on’. The phrase evokes a continuing conundrum to me. How can football, that is so ‘binary’ in its structure – Us V Them, Home v Away, Gay V Straight, First Half V Second Half – but which also accomodates and blatantly provokes the blurred, ambiguous display of metrosexual masculinity, become a place that is comfortable for diverse sexual identities to exist openly and comfortably? I don’t know the answer to that question. The machismo of football is often reflected in its metrosexuality, no matter how cute and coiffed the players are. But I don’t think this rainbow laces campaign, or anything Stonewall does, frankly, are going to solve the problem.
Football Is Sexually Conflicted. Get Over It.