It's hard to point to a more traditionally homophobic corner of sports than English soccer. Robbie Rogers found so much homophobia there he left the sport entirely upon coming out. Robbie Keane, Rogers' teammate with the Los Angeles Galaxy, called the environment for gay athletes in English soccer "behind" and "brutal."
Yet in the heart of the sport - the Football Association - sits an openly gay man hoping to change all of that.
Chris Gibbons is the Inclusion Education Advisor for the FA. He goes to work every day at Wembley Stadium, the epicenter of English soccer. He works on the equality team for the FA, charged with educating athletes, coaches and staff on diversity issues including racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Gibbons was never much of a soccer player - he said he hasn't kicked a soccer ball since he was 6 - opting for rugby until about the age of 19. He's now a runner and triathlete, participating in marathons.
Now working to end homophobia in the sport he left as a youth, Gibbons knows he's not just battling realities within the change rooms and on the pitch, but also the perception the outside world has of England's de facto national sport.
"For me the reputation of football has never been a very good one," Gibbons told Outsports via phone from his home in London. "People have the perception that football is not an environment for gay men. You see visible gay women, but you don't see visible gay men from the outside."
Despite the perception (and, in truth, reality) of English soccer, Gibbons said he has been welcomed at the FA as an openly gay man by the staff - and he's not the only gay in the village.
"I was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere at the FA," Gibbons said. "People associate football with being a heterosexual white male. But the makeup of the staff comes from all backgrounds. It's as diverse as any working environment you could find."
Gibbons is used to diverse staffs. His previous landing spot was a five-year gig with Stonewall, an LGB advocacy group. His team at the FA has known he's gay from day one; He mentioned it in his interview, and they knew his previous employer was an LGB organization.
"Being openly gay isn't an issue at all," he said. "Everyone is a bit underwhelmed by me being gay. I'm not waving the rainbow flag all the time, but I don't make it a secret that I'm gay and I have a partner. The majority of people there don't bat an eyelid. There are a lot of gay women at the FA and a few gay men. I've never felt any kind of discrimination from anyone at all."
His advocacy with Stonewall has helped educate his job with the FA. At Stonewall, Gibbons worked with the group's campaign around homophobia in schools & universities.
His new position with the FA, which he's held since April, entails creating educational programs for participants at every level of English soccer. While developing materials to use in a new equality education program, he's also building a network of equality professionals who can execute trainings on their behalf. He's also creating online equality training with the Referees Association.
All of that is part of a new five-year inclusion and anti-discrimination plan put together by the Professional Game Match Officials, Premier League, Football League, Pro Footballers Association and the FA.
"I'm really enjoying developing training and equality education that will be disseminated across English football," Gibbons said. "Trying to figure out how to do that is very exciting. There's a lot of cross-over with the training I developed around homophobia and education. There's a lot of myth-busting and assumptions we make about people. And frankly, the solutions aren't particularly complex."
Gibbons believes those solutions begin and end with education. His goal is to target people at every level of soccer, from executives at local clubs all the way up to big-name professional players. If they can sit down with all of these people and talk with them about what is acceptable in soccer, Gibbons and the FA believe they can build an inclusive environment in soccer for everyone.
The FA has put some muscle behind the education plan, in the form of strong, punitive sanctions for discriminatory behavior. Starting this season, any participant in professional or grassroots soccer who acts in a discriminatory way on the pitch will get an immediate minimum five-match suspension. They must also undergo mandatory equality education and will face a fine. A second incident will elicit more severe penalties.
Off-pitch incidents mandate training, a fine, and could include a maximum suspension. Those actions could be as simple as tweeting #NoHomo or making a discriminatory statement like, "girls are rubbish at football."
While the FA policy doesn't target fans, those using homophobic chants and other discriminatory practices in the stands face action from the Crown Prosecution Service, which will ban offending parties from attending the World Cup next year and suspend them from traveling to matches for three years. The FA worked on the policy with the CPS.
Participants and clubs are taking notice. Of the 92 clubs in Football League and Premier League, 70 have already invited the FA to address these new policies with their club. While Gibbons said it's hard to get a squad of players into a room to listen for an hour, all participants realize they have a vested interest in understanding these new rules.
"I am encouraged by the reaction from the players," Gibbons said. "They want to play football. So when you tell them they'll be kept from playing, they pay attention. They want to play."
While he's excited for the potential of his work, Gibbons knows it will be a challenge. Decades of entrenched homophobia don't get wiped away over night. Neither he nor the FA are going away on this issue.
"There's been a lack of understanding about homophobia and its impact on footballers and anyone who participates in any way in football," Gibbons said. "For years, the FA focused on racism in football, and that took many years. I think football has a way to go on homophobia. As the country's national sport, I think it can have the biggest impact because it reaches so many millions of people."
You can follow Chris Gibbons on Twitter @gogibbogo.
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