“I can’t change zat I’m gorgeous” purrs Arsenal hitman and French heartthrob Olivier Giroud. He stars, alongside teammates Mikel Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott, in the north London club’s promo video for LGBT charity Stonewall and betting firm Paddy Power’s Rainbow Laces campaign, which aims to help to eliminate homophobia from football.
According to (admittedly ambiguously-sourced) internet statistics, the chances of none of the 5000 professional footballers in the UK being gay is 1 quadragintillion to 1. That’s 1 followed by 123 zeros, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000/1.
The aim of the campaign is to work towards a footballing environment in which the gay pros who obviously are out there feel able to come out, if they so choose, to a fully supportive reception from society.
This is in considerable contrast to the women’s game, where members of 7 of the top 10 teams in the world are openly lesbian or bisexual, most notably England captain Casey Stoney. The atmosphere that surrounds the women’s game is very different; the crowds at games are smaller and the culture of virulent abuse of opposition players is less prevalent, and as such it feels a much safer space for those who identify as queer.
The project is without doubt a noble cause, but it hasn’t been without its problems. There have been accusations levelled towards Paddy Power of using LGBT rights as an excuse for an elaborate guerrilla marketing initiative, and that some of the slogans used have been in bad taste; “Right Behind Gay Footballers” is clearly a sexualised innuendo which itself reinforces stereotypes that ensure that long-term homophobia persists.
This caused displeasure among some groups and called into question the integrity of the 2013 iteration, and it was the main reason behind the Oxford Men’s Blues pulling out of their agreement to wear the laces during Michaelmas 2013. Goalkeeper Ben Szreter said, “Last year we [OUAFC] were all fully behind the spirit of the campaign, but when we became aware that there were issues that some anti-homophobia groups felt concerned about, we thought it best to reconsider our position. That being said, it seems that organisation this year is much better.”
This year’s campaign, which has replaced last year’s slogan with a theme of ‘changing the game’, does not paper over all of the cracks in footballing institutions (the FA bans trans-women from playing for women’s teams for two years post-surgery to name but one high-profile example), but it is widely considered to have played a positive role in bringing issues of homophobia to the forefront of the sporting agenda. It is hoped that it will be able to add OUAFC to an ever-growing list of supporters, including numerous Premier League and Football League clubs and players, politicians and sportswear manufacturers. Oh, and Piers Morgan. Thanks Piers.
The laces themselves are available through both Stonewall and Paddy Power, but it will also be possible to obtain them during Wadham Queer Week (6th week Michaelmas)