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“Does Your Boyfriend Know You’re Here?” and Other Homophobic Chants by U.K. Soccer Fans

A Red Sox fan was banned for life from entering Fenway Park earlier this month after remarking that featured singer Mercy Mungai had “really n*******d up” the national anthem. It went down less than 24 hours after Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was hit with a bag of peanuts and called a n****r by Red Sox fans.

“We reserve the right to ban any fan engaging in intolerant language or behavior,” Red Sox President Sam Kennedy explained. “Not just racist remarks but homophobic remarks [too].”

The latter — specifically, homophobic chanting among English football fans (aka hooligans) — is the subject of a recent paper by Rory Magrath, a professor in the School of Sport at Southampton Solent University.

Homophobic chants are hardly unique to U.K. football, though. FIFA sanctioned Mexico eight times in the last 17 months on account of its fans’ homophobic slurs. Chile was ordered to play one World Cup qualifier away from its national stadium over fans chanting anti-gay insults. And Croatia played their first two World Cup qualifiers in an empty stadium for similar infractions.

Italy and Croatia playing European qualifier to an empty stadium in 2015, via NY Daily News

Of the 30 male British football fans Magrath interviewed, all but five had engaged in homophobic chanting, despite being otherwise welcoming to openly gay men in football. For instance, they didn’t find anything wrong with chanting things like, “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” and “So-and-so takes it up the arse,” since they considered doing so one of the prerequisites of trying to give their team the best chance to win.

While such insults are seemingly tame, homophobia has historically been woven into the fabric of English football. And with tragic consequences: Justin Fashanu, the only openly gay player in English football history, came out in 1990 and committed suicide eight years later. “Football has a huge significance in the U.K.,” Magrath tells me. The sport emerged during England’s industrial revolution at end of the 18th century, he explains, when there was a moral panic around boy’s masculinity because fathers were spending long hours in factories and boys were being raised by females. Organized sports like football were used to reverse the perceived emasculation of boys and instill discipline, obedience and sacrifice.

How do hooligans rationalize such nasty taunts in 2017? To find out, I asked Magrath to walk me through his study using the words of his participants. Turns out U.K. football fans make a clear distinction between the following: What they will and won’t chant in the presence of homosexuals; what they chant and what they believe; and homophobic chants and real homophobic chants.

They don’t hate gays. Their stepbrother’s gay!

Adrian, Wolverhampton Wanderers fan: Sometimes I’ll join with the gay chants, but it’s not because I hate gays. I don’t have any issue with homosexuality. I have a group of gay friends I go to Birmingham Gay Pride with every year, and we always have a laugh.

Brian, Bournemouth fan: There is literally 100 percent difference between what I shout and how I feel about homosexuality. Chanting is the only way I can “help” my team.

Andrew, Bournemouth fan: I don’t care if someone’s gay. My stepbrother is gay, and I would say I’ve embraced it more since then.

Simon, Aston Villa fan: I don’t think it’s against that individual player, it’s because it’s his team playing against yours.

Terry, Arsenal fan: There’s definitely a strong detachment from chants. My dad, who is so laid back, was calling Robin Van Persie a cunt the other week. It was unusual and out-of-character for him. If my sisters saw him like that, they’d be so shocked.

Explains Magrath: Based on discussions about gay rights, gay friends and gay footballers, it was clear that all participants were supportive of the presence of homosexuality in football and wider society. Approximately three-quarters of participants had at least one gay or lesbian friend or family member. The distinction for these fans was what they felt and what they actually said. Much of the time what they said wasn’t deemed to be actually homophobic but rather a consequence of the elevated competition of football in the U.K. In terms of determining the difference between the use of language and how that connects with their personal lives, there’s obviously a disconnect between what they’re saying and their beliefs.

They’d be cool with a gay player on their team. (Though they’d feel sorry for him.)

Brian, Bournemouth fan: I used to have a gay football teammate and had absolutely no problem. It’s not his sexuality which counts, it’s his ability.

Alan, Coventry City fan: It’d be totally fine if my team had a gay player, but I think some fans might be funny about it. It might be used as a target if he wasn’t playing well.

Carlo, Watford fan: I’m supportive, but I would feel sorry for the player because he would be targeted in every game. Football fans can be brutal.

Kevin, Bournemouth fan: It amazes me that, in my lifetime, it’s been illegal to be gay. Things have changed, people have much more freedom, thankfully: As long as nobody’s getting hurt, what’s the problem?

Explains Magrath: Participants totally supported hypothetical openly gay players on the team they support. Research done in 2010 found that 93 percent of football fans surveyed would be comfortable with an openly gay player. If anything, many of those sampled resented the fact that they were being used as a scapegoat for why there are no openly gay players. My own research suggests that the environment has never been more ready for openly gay footballers. We’ve traveled full circle in terms of attitudes toward homosexuality both in society and in football since Fashanu came out in 1990. All the academic and anecdotal evidence points toward positivity for the next openly gay player. We’ve also seen a couple lesser profile players come out since Fashanu. Anton Hysén came out in 2011. Robbie Rogers came out in 2013. Thomas Hitzlsperger came out in 2014.

But none of those players was active in the Premier League when they came out. The response toward those three guys from fans and former teammates has been generally positive, suggesting football is ready for an openly gay player. Whether the homosexual-themed chanting would then stop is a good question, though. It’s hard to say. You’d like to think it would.

Everyone knows fans don’t mean what they’re chanting.

Kevin, Bournemouth fan: These chants aren’t meant to offend, and if the gay person was a proper football fan, I think he’d understand that.

Explains Magrath: The fans I interviewed said that if there were gay fans in the crowd who were aware of homophobic-themes chanting, they would “understand” that that kind of chanting was part of the game.

Fans chant that the opposing goalie “takes it up the ass” to win — and it works.

Joe, Bournemouth fan: We played an away game and the other team had a young goalkeeper, about 18. We sung that he “takes it up the arse” for quite a long time. It obviously affected him; he conceded two soft goals afterwards, and we won the game.

Simon, Norwich City fan: Those chants are just to help us win, so they aren’t necessarily directed at anyone in particular.

Henry, Wolverhampton Wanderers fan: Homosexually themed chanting isn’t done out of spite. It’s about putting him off his game to try and gain an advantage and help us win.

Andrew, Bournemouth fan: I’ve been involved in these chants, but not maliciously. It’s not hatred about being gay; it’s about backing your team to win.

Explains Magrath: Although all these fans considered themselves to be vocal at matches, none considered themselves to be orchestrators of any chants. The 90 minutes of a football match is when you’ll do almost anything to ensure that your team wins. But once that 90 minutes is gone, that’s when it stops.

Being injured in U.K. football is so gay.

Joe, Bournemouth fan: Homophobic chants aren’t premeditated. Not anymore, at least. It’s normally players on the pitch; the sort of player who writhes around in agony when there’s no obvious sign of anything wrong. It’s macho men who show they’re not hurt so players who fake injury might be subjected to more effeminate, maybe homophobic comments.

Explains Magrath: Football is perceived as a macho game, which is why there’s a connection between the kind of interpretive masculinity and the demasculinization of an injured player. Someone might pretend to be injured to receive treatment from the physiotherapist and take time off the clock, so there’s a potential benefit to pretending you’re injured, which makes injured players a target for these kinds of chants.

Chants are nastiest at games against local rivals, or “derby matches.”

Martin, Millwall fan: There’s a load of gay chants about West Ham [Millwall’s East London rivals]. It’s something to “get one up” against your rivals.

Paul, Rochdale fan: Matches against [local rivals] Bury are known for chants about “sausage jockeys” and Bury being a “bunch of poofs that take it up the arse.”

Explains Magrath: We’ve got so many football teams crammed into a small country, and often, there are multiple teams in the same city or vicinity. When you get clubs in the same area, they tend to not like each other very much. As a consequence, every time there’s a match between those two teams (e.g., Manchester United vs. Manchester City, Manchester United vs. Liverpool, Arsenal vs. Tottenham) the hatred fans have for the other club manifests itself in elevated levels of homosexual-themed chanting.

Some things are off-limits.

Ian, Norwich City fan: During the match, it’s almost like anything goes — you forget about it. But after the match, it stops and that’s it; it doesn’t count.

Ryan, Ipswich Town fan: Homophobic chants have been about Justin Fashanu — who previously played for our opponent — being called a “faggot” or about committing suicide. That’s not one I join in with; it’s pretty disgusting and crosses the line.

Martin, Millwall fan: I’m aware how difficult it must be for a closeted person. I wouldn’t join in with chants if I knew there was someone like that in the stadium because it would offend them. And I’d feel really bad if I started shouting something.

Explains Magrath: Any chant that fans deem to be a “real homophobic chant” — like those involving Fashanu and those that involve real pernicious negative intent toward homosexuality — are ones fans distance themselves from. If the chant is “does your boyfriend know you’re here?” directed toward Brighton fans, it’s not directed at anyone in particular. It’s toward the city of Brighton which is intimately connected with the gay community in the U.K.

When it’s pernicious intent to one individual in particular, that’s how these fans differentiate it from something that’s homosexually themed and something that’s actually homophobic. They place a big, absolute stigma on what they deem to be “real” homophobic chanting because they’re worried about offending a gay supporter. Since 2007, there’s been legislation that says homophobic and discriminatory chants is illegal inside football stadia. Fans can be ejected and face prosecution. It’s not really enforced, though, since “homophobic chanting” can be broadly defined. Outside of the stadium, say on the tube, those laws are governed by the laws of the land.

They’ll chant about anything.

Martin, Millwall fan: It’s not so much “homophobic” chanting — it could be anything, like being ugly or having a bad haircut.

Duncan, Bournemouth fan: Anything could be seen as a weakness by fans: bald, fat, ginger, colored boots.

Jimmy, Arsenal fan: Fans use something to latch on to to rile the players up. I’ve seen chants about Harry Redknapp having a twitch and Arsène Wenger for being a pedophile.

Explains Magrath: Participants’ non-homosexually themed chanting supports the argument that these chants shouldn’t be interpreted as homophobic. While this problematically associates homosexuality with negative things, participants appear to have disassociated this from their views and relationships with gay people. We need to speak to more gay football fans to better understand their interpretation of these chants because if we’re in a situation where gay football fans are feeling isolated, threatened and discriminated against because of these chants then obviously the football association needs to act in terms of punishing these chants and making it clear that these types of chants aren’t acceptable.