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Football fans versus homophobia

Submitted by on September 23, 2014 – 8:23 amNo Comment

FvH_flag1 copy

FC United fans have recently recreated a banner that is famous across Europe as part of the campaign to counter homophobia at football matches.

The Football Fans against Homophobia campaign caught my attention as their rather distinctive purple flag started appearing at football grounds in Germany.

No one is born knowing what is offensive in terms of language, and it was the same for me. Yet through my years of going to football it gradually occurred to me that similar to a person’s race, the sexuality of a player or fan should be entirely irrelevant.

The present situation though is that it sadly isn’t. Songs in the ground and jokes in the changing rooms, particularly at football, are often borne out of clichés and ignorance – an environment seemingly exclusive to straight, white males.

The occasional example of players ‘coming out’ helps demonstrate that football has always been for everybody, and what I like about the Football Fans against Homophobia campaign, is that fans, rather than officials, have acted of their own accord to show that this is also the case on the terraces. I managed to catch up with a few of the lads from the campaign at the Fan Congress in Berlin, and posed them a few questions.

Q : What is Fußballfans gegen Homophobie/Football Fans against Homophobia?
It is a nationwide network of football fans from around 40 different fanscenes.
Its origins are from within the Department of Active Fans at Tennis Borussia Berlin (a Berlin based football club which a number of FC fans visited last summer), with a lot of support and cooperation from the project ‘Soccer Sound’, which is run by the Gay and Lesbian Assembly for Berlin-Brandenburg.

The campaign Fußballfans gegen Homophobie started in June 2011 in Berlin. As part of this campaign, the large purple flag with the words ‘Fußballfans gegen Homophobie’ (Football Fans against Homophobia) travelled around the country, visiting grounds from the Bundesliga right down to Sunday leagues. The aim of this tour was to show opposition to homophobia in football.
Last year we started an international campaign with a second flag, which has ‘Football Fans Against Homophobia’ on it. We kicked the tour off for this particular flag with the Ultras White Angels from NK Zagreb in Croatia hanging it up in their ground, and it has since been to grounds in Greece, Denmark, Norway and in England (at AFC Wimbledon). At the moment it’s in Spain.

Q: How did it all start? What inspired you, or even provoked you?
The general idea was to paint a flag for the FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) Action Week in the October of that year.

Up until that point, we planned to send it on a short route around a few football grounds which belong to clubs we have friendly links to, and then leave it at that. The whole thing really caught people’s imaginations though – even we were surprised by the reaction. Now, mostly ultra groups, contact us and ask if they can borrow the flag for a match, and we ensure it gets to them.
In general, you can say that we (those behind the campaign) are all football fans who follow the sport passionately, week in, week out, and that we are against discrimination in whatever form it may take. We are obviously aware that people will often make some snide remark or stupid joke.

We just want to highlight this, and why that’s not right. Many people won’t even be aware that they are doing it. We attempt to speak with those people, without attempting to patronise, and explain the situation from our point of view. Likewise to highlight the issue, through our presence at football, until it is no longer an issue.

Q: What does the campaign do then? How is it engaged?
We are always pleased when we can provoke a discussion. Because of this, we often organise our own events or work with other groups.
We’ve already had three network meetings too, where we discuss the latest topics, for example the idea to finally get around to making a brochure about homosexuality in football, by fans, for fans. Obviously it’s also a question of time and money. For this reason, we established, or rather registered our organisation as a type of club last year. This opens up more opportunities for us, including being able to offer educational work.

German original

German original

Q: As United fans, it is great to Scholes and Neville made it on to your banner. Beating derby rivals City in the last minute and the kiss that followed, got a lot of attention over here. Is that moment really so famous in Germany?
We remember the game, although perhaps with a little less emotion than what was experienced in England. 
The kiss is more famous though. For me it was just a beautiful sign of joy. At the end of the day though, I guess we were just looking for a suitable image. Now it has become a key part of our image.

Q: The flag or flags have been on quite the tour. Do you have a complete list of where it has been? Is there one ground where the flag has appeared which you are particularly proud of?
It is difficult to choose single highlights, particularly as every ground it appears at is a victory. At a push though, I would have to say it would be one stop which didn’t follow the normal plan.

At the beginning of May last year, we received pictures from Portland Timbers in the USA. There, in plain view, was our purple banner. Only none of us could fathom how it got there.
On closer inspection, we realised that the flag was about three times as big as our own, and that the fans had made a version themselves. This was all shortly after Robbie Rogers had ‘come out’, and then taken up playing again. It was the first time that we realised how big the campaign had got.

Q: Most of the time, the flag is hung up in the various grounds by groups of supporters or ultras whose club play there. How have the other fans reacted? Also the campaign itself seems to have been most successful in Germany. Is that coincidence or are there other factors? What’s planned next?
We tend to just coordinate the campaign. What happens on the terrace where the banner is placed, is up to the group involved.

The hanging up of the banner tends to be accompanied by other things like flyers, podium discussions, even choreographs (fan performances popular in Germany). The banner tends to therefore travel alone, and is sent from fan group to fan group around the grounds. This led to the flag getting dubbed ‘wanderbanner’ (the wandering banner).

The reaction tends to be mostly positive, although on internet forums or on Facebook, it can often be extremely discriminatory. However, the banner has then provoked a discussion on the subject between the fans, and those supporters who brought the banner into the ground always have a point of view based on fact, rather than prejudice.
Why the campaign has proved so popular in Germany, is down to a number of factors I think. One reason is that many fan groups in Germany have reflected on, or been involved in antidiscrimination work for a significant period of time.

I would go so far as to say, that without the fans we would never have been so successful in reducing other forms of discrimination. Another reason is perhaps that German fan groups tend to be well connected to other fan groups.

In certain instances, this goes beyond the national borders. This is the reason why things developed to an international tour. There is now even an official supporter group, in Sweden (Fotbollssupportrar mot homofobi). The next step will be an international network meeting – watch this space.

Q: The example of Thomas Hitzlsberger has certainly gained a lot of attention. Are we so far removed from a situation, where a larger number of football players could be more open about their sexuality? Is it realistic to expect that in the next 10 years, the sexual preferences of a player will no longer be an issue and will be fully accepted?
Through Thomas Hitzlesperger coming out, we have progressed from the situation last year, when (homosexuality) was still, for the vast majority of football, a massive taboo subject.
Football has been quite slow to address societal topics such as racism, antisemitism and homophobia. Gays and lesbians in the sport was always a particularly delicate subject, partly because there were no known gay players in the top leagues, and also because the topic as a whole was one apparently no-one really wanted to address or talk about.

A slightly dated, cliched image seemed to reign about how football might be if gay people were suddenly visible in the sport. As if suddenly all the football grounds would be pink, and we’d no longer meet the players in the beer tent, but rather in some kind of prosecco-bar.

Of course that is complete rubbish. I think plenty of people would be extremely surprised at who in football is gay, and that in some cases a gay footballer had scored the goal to seal a championship for their team. Someone like Thomas Hitzlsperger. With that in mind, it was an incredible important step from him. Coming out will always be a personal step for the person involved.

What we want to achieve though is that this step is easier to make, and that the term ‘coming out’ is no longer relevant, because a person’s sexuality in society and in football is no longer important. However, there is plenty still to do to reach that goal.

United fans' version

United fans’ version

Q: Do you have any suggestions for how us fans can improve on the situation in England? Is there a way to support the campaign too?
Everyone can help with this. That begins by considering what language you use. Many people don‘t necessarily realise what an effect that they can have on someone nearby, when in training they say a pass was ‘gay’ or a referee is called a ‘homo’ because he got a decision wrong.

Of course, the sexuality of those affected won’t necessarily be clear to the person using such terms, they may not mean to offend, but it makes life difficult, and makes it difficult to be open with people in future, for those affected.

I also think its very important to talk about the topic in general. That’s why I think it’s so important that Hitzlsperger has come out. I‘ve noticed how since then, the subject is being discussed intensively by people around me, even people who hadn’t necessarily thought about it much before.

Fans’ work doesn‘t have to be about large-scale activities. Sometimes just wearing a campaign T-shirt can help, as it can show others what the wearer thinks of homophobia. You can, for instance, get T-shirts, stickers and flyers from our website at fussballfansgegenhomophobie.de/
We are also delighted to hear from any fans who want to help or have new ideas. You can reach us at international@fussballfansgegenhomophobie.de

- This article first appeared in the FC United of Manchester official matchday programme ‘FCUM Review’ last season.

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