I’m going to go out on a limb and make some sweeping pronouncements based on anecdotal evidence:
Many of Unusual Efforts’ readers, and the entirety of its roster of contributors, belong to at least one marginalized group.
I don’t think this is a particularly controversial thing to say, but, again, I don’t have any hard data in front of me.
The writers, editors, and artists who contribute to UE are nearly all women (I’m transfeminine nonbinary, which makes me something of an exception). Many of us are people of color. Some of us are queer. Some of us are Muslim. By one vector or another, we have found ourselves sorted into a class of people who society acts upon, inheritors of a legacy of violence and unevenly distributed power.
And while I believe we have a wide readership base, it can’t be discounted that some of our audience are drawn to what we publish because we have literally made it our mission to foreground stories and perspectives that would never get picked up by Goal.com or The Telegraph.
It’s worth noting all this because the challenge in understanding and accepting new perspectives often hinges on knowing what goes usually goes unsaid. If you’re writing about the Presidential Election, you don’t have to spend several paragraphs outlining the history of the United States and how the government works; we all more or less know what’s going on, and we can get to the more urgent news.
But one of the insidious dimensions of social privilege is the way it hides relevant facts and histories. You don’t share the same unspoken assumptions with everybody, and some people are working off of a very different script than you are. When it comes to social equality, those fundamental differences, born out of lived experience, makes getting everybody on the same page a Herculean task. And when you can’t agree on what the problem is, it makes talking about solutions all but impossible.
This is the crux of one of the biggest problems in American soccer culture. A top flight domestic league touting its pro-equality programs. Fans waving rainbow flags at games. Openly gay players plying their trade for club and country. But also: fans engaging in casual homophobia as “banter.” The proliferation of a certain chant. Queer supporters feeling unwelcome at games. And, most troubling, a lack of agreement over whether there’s even a problem.
Not everyone shares the same experience, and mileages vary, obviously. But here’s what it’s like for one queer person to go to an MLS game.
It gets off to a decent start. The chartered bus from a pub in the city to the stadium is full, and the people are friendly, for the most part. Cans of cheap domestic beer are passed around like flyers for some unknown band’s show. The bus rumbles along the expressway. The hype is starting to build.
You’re let off in the parking lot. You mill around the tailgate. Some people look at you funny, but you try not to let it get to you. You say hi to folks you know. You complain about how the season’s gone so far. You talk about the new signing and whether they’ll actually deliver the goods. You head inside early because you want to see the players warm up.
Once inside, there’s already a problem. You need to use the bathroom. You look on a map for a gender neutral restroom but can’t see it. You track down a stadium employee and ask them. She says there’s one “family” restroom, and it’s on the opposite side of the stadium. At this point, you have options to weigh. You can make the long treks across the stadium to that one family neutral and hope there isn’t a line. You can try the men’s restroom and hope you don’t get beaten up. You can try the women’s restroom and hope no one calls the cops. Or you can just try to hold it.
The game is starting soon and it’s already pretty hot, so you decide to hold it.
It’s the 20th minute. The home team is already losing. The opposing goalkeeper, who’s near where you’re sitting, is raring up for a goal kick. You hear patches of fans start to hum.
You know what’s coming next. All you can think is, “this again?”
A few fans laugh. They think it’s funny. Of course they do.
You try to focus on the game.
You remember that argument you had with other fans of your team over the chant. You said it was a slur. They said it wasn’t. You offered proof that it was. They said it was a “cultural thing.” You said, yes, an expression of cultural homophobia. They said Free Speech. You said Hate Speech. In public, they called you a “curmudgeon” and a “fascist.” In private, you found out later, they called you much worse. The supporters’ groups stayed silent.
The game grinds on. The chants get louder. After ten minutes, it sounds like everyone in your section is yelling that chant. You wonder whether or not the people around you know that you’re queer. You wonder which would be worse.
You can’t hold it in. You get up to use the bathroom before halftime, thinking there will be fewer people. As you’re walking up the steps, you pass the fans yelling the chant. They do it again right as you pass them. It’s right there, literally in your face.
You get to the concourse at the top of the stairs. You realize you had less time than you thought you did. You decide to chance it and go to the men’s room. It’s not that crowded. You do your business and try to leave.
Except, when you’re washing your hands, some drunk bro barks something in your direction. He’s slurring his speech, but you’re pretty sure he said, “you’re not s’posed ta b’in ‘ere.” You ignore him and quickly dart out of the restroom. You know you got lucky that time.
You get a beer and find your seat again. Because of the concession stand lines, you don’t get to sit down until the 52nd minute. The teams have changed ends, so it’s the home goalkeeper near your section of the stadium. Some fans stopped chanting puto. Some didn’t.
Mostly you just want to go home.
The final whistle blows and your team lost. You book it out of the stadium and head for your charter bus. Everyone on your bus is absolutely sloshed. A group of bros a couple rows in front of you are calling each other faggot. Everyone’s screaming. You’re cranky from the result and everything else and just want to close your eyes for a bit. Some other drunk man sitting a row behind and to the side of you leans over your shoulder.
“Hey. Hey man. Can I ask you a question?”
(You hear snickering from a couple others he was sitting with. You know what’s coming next.)
“Hey, uh, are you a boy or a girl?”
(The snickering becomes actual guffaws.)
You freeze. You’re not sure how to handle this. You try to make eye contact with the bus captain, but he’s distracted with other riders.
The guy keeps asking the question, undeterred by your refusal to answer. Finally one of his buddies pulls him away. They’ve gotten as much fun out of you as they could.
The bus finally gets back to the pub. An hour later, you’re home. You hop on your computer to check email and screw around on Twitter. You see the argument over The Chant has been reignited. On the supporters’ forums, there are new posts on the thread for participation in the upcoming Pride Parade.
For all the public shows of tolerance and inclusiveness, you can’t help feeling like you’re not welcome.
To their credit, there are plenty of people at all levels of soccer in the US working to make the game more inclusive.
Meanwhile, the Mexican Football Federation recently started a campaign calling on El Tri fans to stop using The Chant. The campaign developed in part as a response to a $20,000 fine from FIFA after Mexico fans chanted it relentlessly at the 2014 World Cup.
During the Copa América Centenario earlier this summer, Univision Deportes placed what was essentially a content warning before their matchday coverage, alerting viewers to possible offensive language.
— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) June 19, 2016
Bizarre as that may seem, it’s at least an acknowledgment of a problem that has long vexed soccer culture, in the US and beyond. This comes at a time when the chant seems to be spreading quickly at MLS games.
— James Bridget Gordon (@thaumatropia) July 2, 2016
As the chant becomes louder, MLS teams are starting to understand that homophobia isn’t as rare in American soccer culture as many would like to believe. San Jose recently released this video affirming its commitment to stamp out bigotry at Quakes games.
— San Jose Earthquakes (@SJEarthquakes) July 9, 2016
Portland Timbers supporters are taking a proactive approach to self-policing and fostering an inclusive atmosphere. Lexi Stern, communications chief for the Timbers Army (and, it must be said, openly queer herself), said fans make it clear that homophobic speech and behavior is unwelcome on and off the pitch.
“TA faithful are very clear that it violates our core values and most won’t hesitate to call people out (or surround them with rainbow flags). As with any in-stadium behavior issue, we get stadium security involved if that’s needed, but most of the time it doesn’t come to that.”
Yet for all these promising steps, many in American soccer, and MLS specifically, refuse to confront the presence of homophobia in the stands. Most of the supporters’ groups we reached out for comment to didn’t respond as of press time. Al D’Agostino, a senior communications manager at Major League Soccer, told us that he “would not be able to provide a statement on the issue and chant” before going on at length to promote the league’s Don’t Cross The Line initiative and its memorial ceremonies in honor of the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in June. The silence, overall, was telling.
Fran Harrington, president of New England Revolution supporters’ group the Midnight Riders, spelled out (perhaps unintentionally) one of the central problems in dealing with homophobia.
“There isn’t a clear cut and dry policy on what is and what isn’t homophobic, but it doesn’t seem that folks who choose to use homophobic chants/language at games are terribly creative so it tends to be a lot of the same thing over and over (generally use of the word ‘fag’). Our members do know that use of that word in particular and language like it is not accepted.”
While the Midnight Riders have a solid track record of welcoming queer fans, Harrington’s comment is characteristic of most supporters’ groups’ response to homophobic speech and behavior. There’s a tendency to take an “if you see something, say something” approach to self-policing, without adequately defining what that “something” is. In other words, supporters’ groups are counting on fans to just sort of know what’s appropriate behavior and what isn’t, and to sort out conflicts amongst themselves rather than look to ISAs or the team for leadership or support.
Self-policing sounds nice. In practice, however, it’s asking fans to potentially put themselves in harm’s way. There’s no doubt that asking someone to “knock it off” when they’re yelling a bigoted chant would be a simple and quick encounter. But there’s always the risk that it could turn violent. Straight and cisgender folks, on the whole, don’t want to put themselves or their families in that kind of danger over what is, for them, a principle. And queer fans already put themselves at risk just by showing up.
Without strong institutional support, and without a culture in place to reinforce certain values over others, relying on self-policing to solve the problem is, in essence, an abdication of responsibility.
So this is where we’re at with queerphobia in American soccer culture. You have a situation where LGBT soccer fans face the prospect of not only having to hear slurs specifically targeting them yelled by thousands of fellow fans over the course of 90 minutes, but then running into those same people in the parking lot and in the bathrooms. You have supporters who can’t reach any kind of consensus over whether this is even a problem. You have supporters’ groups who look the other way when their members engage in public shows of homophobia and transphobia, then make plans to march in the Pride Parade. You have teams who refuse to comment at all. And you have a league whose only response is to point at their corporatized tolerance initiative.
And, at a time when the entire country was confronted with unspeakable tragedy and forced to confront the very real consequences of anti-LGBT bigotry and the cultural conditions that allow it to fester, when we started to understand that now was the time to begin work towards a kinder and more accepting society, the chants just got louder.
How do you fix a bug when it’s actually a feature? How do you solve a problem when you can’t even get people to admit there’s a problem at all?
We try to answer that question in Part 2 – Crossing the Line: on ending homophobia in American soccer