Blackpool striker Jake Daniels’ announcement that he is gay makes him the UK’s only active openly gay male professional footballer.
Daniels, 17, described the move as a “relief” and has received support and praise from key figures in men’s football and beyond, including Gary Lineker, Harry Kane and Sir Ian McKellen. He was also praised by national figureheads Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince William, who said Daniels would come out “help break down barriers“.
The first British professional footballer to come out was Justin Fashanu in 1990. Support for Daniels stood in stark contrast to homophobic reactions to Fashanu, who took his own life in 1998 at the age of 37.
Sport in the UK has long been riddled with homophobia and is considered an unsafe place for LGBT+ players. In 2017, a House of Commons report concluded that “despite the significant changes in society’s attitudes towards homosexuality over the past 30 years, football has little to reflect that progress”.
Men’s professional football is the last of Britain’s three most popular sports, after rugby and cricket, to emerge as an active elite professional player. Rugby player Gareth Thomas came out in 2009 and cricketer Steven Davies came out in 2011.
That deficit comes as no surprise given the vile homophobic chants from some of England’s best players like Sol Campbell and the reaction to Fashanu in the 1990s. In fact, there are some early signs of homophobic hatred in response to Daniels, which has been condemned by LGBTQ+ rights group Stonewall.
Nonetheless, changing cultural attitudes and campaigning efforts by organizations and fans in recent decades have raised awareness of LGBTQ+ participation in sport.
The Justin Campaign, launched in 2008 by a Brighton-based grassroots association, was one of the first official campaigns to raise awareness of homophobia in men’s football. The campaign had a local reach and targeted young people, mainly school and university students, who competed in tournaments as the Tackle Homophobia team.
The Justin campaign spawned Football v Homophobia, developed by PrideSports, which now has a significant in-game presence worldwide. Alongside this grassroots activism, betting company Paddy Power initiated the Rainbow Laces campaign in 2013 in partnership with Stonewall.
The FA, the governing body of football in England and Wales, launched its first anti-homophobia initiative, ‘Opening Doors and Joining In’, in 2012. Since then, the FA has supported both the Football v Homophobia and Rainbow Laces campaigns. However, research shows that the efforts of sports federations can fall short and be ineffective in actually implementing change.
While I don’t know how aware Daniels and his peers were of these campaigns growing up, there is evidence from a 2017 study at a boys’ soccer school that found “progressive attitudes towards homosexuality” in a small group of 14-15 revealed year-olds. This suggests that attitudes are becoming more inclusive — although the boys in the study did not feel empowered to individually challenge homophobia when observing it.
attitude of the fans
Homophobic chants at men’s professional games can be commonplace. These chants, often taken for ‘banter’ by perpetrators, can be downright overt homophobia or what we now call ‘microaggression’. Microaggressions are everyday expressions and actions aimed at marginalized members of communities that reflect prejudice and discrimination and can harm minorities in sport.
Apparently, not all football fans make homophobic comments and gestures at a game or on social media. Many formal LGBTQ+ supporters groups such as the Kop Outs (Liverpool), Gay Gooners (Arsenal) and Proud Canaries (Norwich City) have also formed in recent years and have created a visible community in the often discriminatory world of football fandom.
Despite these efforts by fans, football governing bodies continue to ignore or forget about homophobia. A case in point is Qatar, host country of the men’s FIFA World Cup later this year, which has anti-gay laws.
At 17, Daniels grew up with popular culture more diverse than ever when it comes to gender and sexuality. There are more visible stories from LGBTQ+ people and communities in general and in the world of sport. Thanks to decades of activism, LGBTQ+ culture has a place in the mainstream and football is benefiting from that movement.
Women’s football has progressed further by celebrating its lesbian and bisexual players internationally. At the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 alone, 40 women – players, coaches and managers – were eliminated, proving once again that women’s football is safer than men’s football. This may be because women in sports have long struggled with sexist and homophobic stereotypes.
All of this, in addition to the support of family and friends, as well as teachers, coaches, officials and managers who are LGBTQ+ allies, will make young male footballers feel safe enough to come out.
The impact of Jake Daniels’ decision to come out cannot be underestimated. Not only will it allow him to be himself – and maybe an even better player – it will change the culture of elite men’s professional football.