Several British sports organizations took part in the Rainbow Laces Campaign, a nationwide event dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ bias in the sporting world, including the UK’s Premier League. Numerous players and managers across the league spoke out with messages of welcome and there seemed to be a general sense of positivity in the air.
And then in a bit of truly horrific timing, that same week’s West Ham/Chelsea match made headlines for what Sky News called “continuous” homophobic chants directed at Chelsea supporters. It was a reminder that even in the middle of one of the most welcoming celebrations on the Premier League calendar, soccer fans were still gonna soccer fan.
Throughout West Ham’s 1-0 victory at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge, West Ham supporters rubbed their victory in the face of the home fans by repeatedly chanting the phrase “Chelsea are rent boys, everywhere they go.”
Occurring as it did amid the Rainbow Laces campaign, the incident was an illustration of the type of fan culture that the campaign was created to stand against. And in truth, this homophobic mob mentality has existed among certain segments of Premier League fandom for a long time.
In the wake of this most recent outburst, West Ham LGBTQ supporters group Pride of Irons tweeted, “When you use homophobic chants, you aren’t abusing most Chelsea fans who will be straight, but all gay fans whether they support Chelsea or West Ham. We’re better than that and can come up with much smarter chants that don’t abuse our own fans...Be better. Be West Ham.”
Chelsea fans didn’t sit idly by, either, reporting the incidents to Metropolitan Police and filing an official complaint with Kick It Out, the sport’s anti-discrimination league. Kick It Out’s response put it bluntly: “We have informed the FA and reiterate our message: the ‘Rent Boy’ chant is homophobic and must be treated as such.’”
As Sky News reported, this is the third instance of the anti-gay “Chelsea rent boys” chant rearing its ugly head in 2019 alone. Previous incidents took place during an April match against Liverpool and a January face off with Nottingham Forest.
Chelsea F.C. is a particular target for this kind of homophobia, owing to its area’s reputation as one of London’s supposed home bases for male prostitutes. And it’s not alone, as Premier League rival Brighton & Hove Albion has also been repeatedly targeted with anti-gay slurs due to its affiliation with a city that features a large LGBTQ population.
In fact, just last winter, a fan was banned from attending soccer matches for three years after chanting homophobic slurs at Brighton. And that fan rooted for Chelsea. Which explains why despite England producing some of the greatest ironists of all time, you’ll never find them in the stands at a soccer match.
Like MacGyver, the “Chelsea rent boys” chant is a relic of the 1980s that should have remained there. Unfortunately, because it lasted long enough to become ingrained in soccer fandom, that makes it incredibly difficult to eradicate from the sport — even in supposedly more enlightened times.
By this point, you know the reputation of British soccer fans. And there is a portion of every club’s fanbase that makes it their goal to live up to that stereotype. (For a Stateside comparison, think of it as an extreme, anti-LGBTQ version of the mob mentality that grips fans among the Bleacher Creatures at Yankee Stadium or the Black Hole at an Oakland Raiders game, and the occasional ugly behavior that it produces. Or for more explicit homophobia, consider how that same mentality leads to the proliferation of “puto” chants at Mexican soccer or wrestling matches.)
So mix together a subset of genuine bigots and homophobes with a larger group of fans who feel like they need to join in because it’s what they’re supposed to do when they go to a match and that goes a long way toward explaining why “Chelsea rent boys” has lasted almost 40 years.
SkySports Senior Editor Jon Holmes further illustrated this atmosphere to Outsports, explaining “the chant is so ingrained in the culture from the 80s that it’s a job to educate people firstly about the fact that the chant is even homophobic. A lot of people don’t think it is and will argue that to defend themselves.”
Even worse, some supporters now view the “Chelsea rent boys” chant as part of their fanbase’s tradition which makes it that much harder to stamp out, regardless of appeals to human decency. Witness how long fans in other sports have clung to the perpetuation of similarly vile aspects of sports culture like the Tomahawk Chop or Chief Wahoo.
That’s the thing about sports fan traditions. Once they’re locked in, some fans will expend all of their mental energy arguing that “Chelsea rent boys” somehow isn’t homophobic instead of creating a new chant that actually isn’t.
The combination of mob mentality and a toxic sense of tradition has helped embed this kind of homophobia in Premier League fan culture. While it’s worth noting that this most recent incident happened in the middle of the Rainbow Laces campaign, it’s also important to remember that it could have also cropped up at any time during the season.
As to how to push back against these chants and the mentality that perpetuates them, that battle is still in its early stages. Holmes cited the recent founding of LGBTQ supporters groups like Chelsea Pride and noted that the clubs themselves have endorsed the efforts of such organizations.
It will be a long and arduous process to fight back against the ingrained homophobia of soccer fan culture. Although there is finally some pushback against it, this should be considered just the start of what’s going to be a lengthy process if the Premier League wants to achieve its goal of truly making soccer welcoming for everyone.