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Years later, homophobic ‘rent boy’ chant still torments gay soccer fans

The slur remains a stubborn fixture of the U.K.’s soccer culture.

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Liverpool v Southampton - Premier League
Liverpool fans were criticized this summer by their team’s manager, Jürgen Klopp, for directing the slur towards an opposing player.
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

When midfielder Conor Gallagher stepped onto the field this month for a match between Leeds United and Crystal Palace, he was pelted with a disgusting chant that just won’t go away: “rent boy.”

For years, the cry has been an indelible part of the U.K.’s soccer culture, despite a litany of campaigns to curtail its use. The slur’s stubborn persistence shows how difficult it can be to eradicate homophobic traditions from male sports, especially with relative inaction from governing bodies.

So why was Gallagher called a “rent boy?” The chant has historically been directed towards Chelsea fans and players, and really, anybody affiliated with the club. Gallagher is on loan to Crystal Palace from Chelsea, so there you go.

Tracy Brown, the co-chair of Chelsea’s LGBTQ fan group, Chelsea Pride, is sick of it.

“When you hear the words ‘Chelsea rent boy,’ it basically means a male who is paid for sex,” she said. “It’s a true dark cloud over any gay man who goes to a football game and has to hear it.”

There are multiple stories about the genesis of “rent boy.” One theory traces the phrase back to the 1980s, when police found a Chelsea hooligan in bed with a male prostitute. There was also a concentration of LGBTQ night clubs and venues around Chelsea at the time.

Today, some say the chant is meant to disparage the free-spending ways of Chelsea’s owner, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who outspends other clubs just like George Steinbrenner’s Yankees.

Either way, the expression “rent boy” is inherently homophobic, says Jon Holmes, an editor at Sky Sports.

“There’s always the suggestion that people chant or say that chant or sing it because they don’t really do it with homophobic intentions,” he said. “They just do it because it’s a way to have a pop at an opposition player and maybe try to get some sort of minuscule advantage for your team somehow. I mean, it’s fairly preposterous.”

Leeds United v Crystal Palace - Premier League
Fans called Conor Gallagher “rent boy” in the middle of Rainbow Laces.
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Despite that piece of common sense, the Crown Prosecution Service, the principal public agency for conducting criminal prosecutions in the U.K., doesn’t recognize the chant as homophobic.

Earlier this year, the Football Association told at least one county FA that “rent boy” shouldn’t be considered discriminatory. The reported ruling was issued in response to an insult that was uttered during a match in October 2020 between feeder clubs AFC Shipham and Portishead Town FC.

Edleen John, the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Director at the FA, told Sky Sports last August the FA is working with authorities to get the phrase reclassified as discriminatory (the FA didn’t fulfill Outsports’ request to speak with John).

“We absolutely do condemn the use of the word ‘rent boy,’” John said. “It’s really negative, it’s not welcoming, it doesn’t create a sense of belonging, and frankly it’s disgusting.”

That statement was issued after Liverpool fans directed the chant at Billy Gilmour, at 20-year-old midfielder on loan to Norwich City from Chelsea.

Di Cunningham, the organizer of Norwich City’s LGBTQ fan group, the Proud Canaries, says the ubiquity of the expression drives LGBTQ fans away from soccer.

“We have these learned behaviors. But at some point people need to process that stuff that they might sing or chant offends other people, and it is not about ‘snowflakery,’” she said. “It is about engaging as many fans as possible together in your fan family so that you can offer better support to your team.”

For Callum Jewell, co-founder of Watford’s LGBTQ fan club, the Proud Hornets, “rent boy” and other anti-gay taunts bring back unpleasant memories.

“I think the words are, for a lack of a better term, ‘triggering,’” he said. “When you grow up gay, and you’re bullied a lot in childhood especially, there’s words that put you on edge, and just bring back all the horrible memories of every time that someone says shit to you.”

There are examples of Premier League players and managers pushing back against the slur. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp condemned his team’s fans for shouting “rent boy” at Gilmour. He also sat down with the founder of Liverpool’s LGBTQ fan group.

Premier League stars recently met with LGBTQ fan groups to commemorate Rainbow Laces, the annual campaign that promotes LGBTQ inclusion in soccer.

Nevertheless, the chant persists, and has traveled across the Atlantic. In November, FIFA banned Mexico’s fans from two additional matches for their insistence on chanting “puto,” the Spanish translation of “rent boy.”

Stern warnings, or even suspensions, are clearly not enough. That means Brown, and other LGBTQ soccer fans, can’t enjoy the beautiful game in peace.

“I want to go to a game where I haven’t got my phone going off from people watching it from TV,” Brown said.