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'Lesbian panic' in women's soccer

This is reprinted from In Bed With Maradona with permission of the author.

By Keph Senett

Sports fans are an indulgent lot with our obsessive statistics, our gang colors, and our willingness to entertain a well-told fable, like the one about Paul the octopus who could flawlessly forecast game outcomes. With the recent kick-off of the Women’s World Cup, I have another, less fantastic story to tell, and it’s one that just might help you with your match predictions.

The equation of women’s athletics with latent lesbianism is nothing new, and soccer is ground zero for salacious locker room tales. There’s an old joke that asks how to avoid sleeping with everyone on your soccer team. The answer: Join a men’s league.

The truth is that there are lesbian soccer players at every level of the sport. For those of us playing in our queer city leagues it’s a non-issue, and to witness the numerous athletes in various sports who have come out as gay in the past several months it would seem to be a non-issue at almost any level. But this is professional soccer.

For the rest of the sports world, late 2010 and early 2011 was all about supporting an anti-homophobia agenda. High-profile basketball, cricket, and tennis players came out, and straight “allies” including Hudson Taylor (wrestling) and Ben Cohen (rugby) embarked on very public campaigns to speak out against anti-gay bullying. The San Francisco Giants agreed to make an “It Gets Better” video to support LGBT youth, with other franchises following suit.

But not everything's coming up rainbow in soccer. Homophobia underlies the fan culture, and organizing bodies like FIFA and the UEFA have been discouragingly ineffective in handling the issue. Though both associations have anti-discrimination policies (and in the case of the UEFA, a partnership with anti-homophobia organization The Justin Campaign which is named after the late footballer Justin Fashanu who hung himself eight years after he came out in the press), neither has made substantive policy changes. In fact, in early 2011 both organizations reconfirmed Vlatko Markovic for a fourth term as president of the Croatian Football Federation despite the fact that he told the press in late 2010 that “[a]s long as I’m president [of the Croatian Football Federation] there will be no gay players. Thank goodness only healthy people play football.” To date, aside from Fashanu, only one high-profile football player has come out of the closet: Swedish defender Anton Hysén.

It is crucial to note the underlying sexism in the previous sentence. When anti-homophobia advocates make this statement, we are really talking about male athletes. “High-profile” is euphemistic, and it’s this systemic disparity that contributes both to the lack of support for women’s athletics, and to homophobia in the game.

Let me get on the record with this: There are out LGBT professional soccer players. For starters, meet Ursula Holl and Nadine Angerer from Germany’s national team which beat Canada 2-1 in the official opening match of the 2011 Women’s World Cup. The other Cup game today went to France, who beat Nigeria 1-0, which brings me back to the story I was telling.

This year’s Women’s World Cup has been gripped by a kind of lesbian panic, the result of which has been both ridiculous (the United State’s sexy-nurse uniform) and chilling (Nigeria’s lesbian “witch-hunt”).

Nigeria’s coach Eucharia Uche recently boasted that she had cleansed the Super Falcons, Nigeria’s national women’s team, of lesbianism with the help of priests, and by expelling some players. The players were removed “not because they were not good players, but because they were lesbians,” said James Peters, former technical assistant for the Nigerian Football Federation. The story’s been widely reported in the mainstream press recently, but it’s actually old news. The blog New African Press ran an article on it back in March.

At right around the same time, German Football Association president Theo Zwaniger told the Congress of the European Football Association (UEFA) that he “… would find it brave and welcome, if a football player would come out. He (sic) [would have] the support of the DFB and from me.”

I believe that this – respect conferred or withheld – is the tournament’s Paul the octopus, and that the consequences will play out on the scoreboard. The teams that compete with the support and respect of their management, their governing associations, and their fans will certainly enjoy more focus and energy than those laboring under discriminatory scrutiny and fear. It’s not a perfect system, but surely it’s as reliable as a hungry octopus?

Homophobia and sexism are entwined. The women’s game deserves better than it gets, and that begins with recognizing the skill and dedication of the athletes – and refusing to be sidelined by nonsensical diversions. A player’s sexuality and her “attractiveness” are not important; whether or not she can help her team put the ball in the net is. As fans, we can honor our teams by demanding equality at the every level of the game, from the stands to the executives.

Regarding the blatant discrimination on the part of the Nigerian Football Federation, FIFA has been characteristically lazy in its response. LGBT equality advocacy group AllOut has started an online petition to pressure the organization to condemn Uche’s actions. Support women's soccer, and sign it.

Keph Senett is a Canadian writer whose passion for travel and soccer have led her to play the beautiful game on four continents. You can read more from Keph at her blog and follow her on Twitter @kephsenett