The conference Queering Football took place in Ljubljana from the 17-18 November, 2018, hosted at the university’s Faculty of Sport. It was the culmination of a two year, European project to address, and confront homophobia in sports. Under the title Queering Football: Addressing Homophobia at Mega-Sport Events the conference brought together European wide civil society actors, LGBTIQ fan groups and activists, fan organizations (such Football Supporters Europe), anti-discrimination-in-sports organizations (such as FARE), and representatives of the Slovenian state, football players and athletics unions. A glaring absence was the Slovenian Football Association, who despite numerous invitations, never replied.
The range of contributions are impossible to capture here, so some of the main points are presented, along with some thoughts on the topic. Through a combination of panels and workshops, the conference brought practical experiences into the discussion on how things have changed for fans, athletes, and sports institutions, and how major sporting events, such as the upcoming World Cups in Russia and Qatar (2018, 2022 respectively), can be pushed to ensure the safety and rights of gay fans and players, domestic and foreign.
The panels were a combination of short presentations on how an organization or individual is encountering homophobia, what they are actively doing about it, and what the challenges are in their work. Rožle Prezelj, a representatives of the Athletics union, spoke about the differences between collective and individual sports for individual athletes and how open they can be about their private life. In his opinion, it is less of a challenge for athletes in individual disciplines to be openly gay because they do not have to balance relations with team-mates in order to succeed. Moreover, the training team they surround themselves with is one they chose. That is not to say there are not still issues with athletes coming out, or with fans, but in Prezelj’s opinion, this has more to do with a wider social context that still views LGBTIQ athletes (and the wider community) negatively. This is also reflected in the public discussions around hyper-androgynous, and intersex athletes (most famously, Castor Semenya).
For Marko Levovnik, representative of the Slovenian sport syndicate that is effectively the football players union, homophobia was an issue that had hardly registered in their work thus far. He thought that addressing homophobia in sport is also a question of fans and of the union itself, as the division between these groups is less clear than it appears. Particularly the fans are influential here, as players know where fans are on the issue. A strongly homophobic fan scene will make any initiative to start discussions in the locker room almost impossible. In addition, in a country where 41% of players are not paid on time, he admitted that it was very challenging to also make the discrimination and repression visible.
Fan-activist Di Cunningham of the Proud Canaries (Norwich City), and Sofia Karlsson, gender equality officer for the Swedish Sports Confederation, spoke about the successes and problems of working with fans and institutions. The lack of support, or mixed signals from local FAs and UEFA/FIFA was a common theme. Fans being at best unresponsive, and at worst issuing death threats, also suggested this is a deeply divisive struggle even in social environments where homosexuality is no longer taboo. Speaking to the perhaps most extreme challenge presented at the conference was Alexander Agapov, of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation. They are working and organizing in a context where there are laws on the books to prevent LGBT being presented in a positive light. A vital point made here is also what is left for LGBT activists and the community after a World Cup or Olympics packs up and leaves? It is not enough just to demand Russia (for example) ensure fan and player safety during the tourney. Fans and organizations need to find ways for transnational solidarity and action beyond the media fest tournaments.
The conference was undoubtably a rich contribution to the ongoing struggle to make sport accessible on all levels. Yet the conference was not without a few lacks. As refreshing as it was to have the content come from mostly activistic perspectives, an academic contribution might have gone a long way to address some this wider context mentioned above. This point was driven home in a discussion I had with our Contentious Images collaborator Julia Tulke about the conference and this post. In our email correspondence she wrote:
I’m somewhat curious, though, as to the name choice of “queering football,” for that suggests a more wide-reaching gesture than just looking at LGBTQ* fandom and organizations. In my understanding of the term queering (which mostly stems from gender studies) as a practice it would mean excavating histories of queerness in football itself, interrogating the role of homosociality etc. Did any pushback against that come up during the conference?
The short answer to her question is no, but this is exactly where some additional, non-soccer, non-sport based participants could have brought important contributions to the debate. Importantly it might have prompted more consideration of where these struggles addressed intersect with others. One of the workshops picked up the idea of intersectionality and common struggle with others discriminated against. Yet a deeper discussion on queerness in sport was absent from this final round of the project.
In fact, there was little discussion around contacts to, and connections with activists/organizations beyond sport, in the wider society. What challenges exist within the wider struggle between those in sport and those in other parts of the society? How can struggles for LGBTIQ rights be connected to other issues in sport (gentrification, labor, racism)? Sport, in this regard, often poses a challenge to progressive organizing, as it too often dominated by problematic masculinity or too dominated by commercial interest that exercise too much control over stadia and media coverage. Yet, we also clearly recognize the sport and the sport stadia as social environments that are not isolated from the society, reflecting popular (and populist) discourses, trends, etc.
This is also where the conference, and LGBTIQ fandom in sport intersect with my own research. While this conference was dominated by NGO and institutional actors, this is a struggle for rights and recognition, contentious in ways that it is also outside of sports. This is part of a wider struggle and social movement. Because it is composed on one side of fans, it draws on the tools of fandom to make itself visible. But if I initially felt uncomfortable with the dominance of NGOs and civil society organizations over grassroots fan groups, it became abundantly clear that without these, the fan groups would have few if any allies.
If I think about it in the Slovenian context where I currently research, there is no initiative of LGBT fans in the first division. If there were, it would face a deeply hostile environment, and I doubt is would gain much attention. It is even a question if it could rely on support from the wider community. Though Ljubljana is generally pretty embracing of the more mainstream LGBT community, the same is not true for the rest of Slovenia. With many fires still to fight, it does not seem likely that there would be much support for taking the fight to one of the environments least sensitive to this. Particularly if there is no hint of institutional support from any other part of the sport.
Here there remain some questions over where LGBT fans in sports can draw on for support? Where does their struggle for recognition intersect with other issues in sport? How might such an intersection produce a productive union?
There were other threads flowing through this conference, most prominently the position of UEFA/FIFA in as a source of support and a pressure mechanism in any place where these mega events are held. But these are topics to fill another post. Here I have focused on the discussions most pertinent to my work, and were I find this struggle reflects its social importance the most. In sum, the conference provided insightful reflections upon struggles that remain all too hidden, opening new questions for my own research.
Celebrate Football, Fight Homophobia!