By Jon Holmes, Sports Media LGBT+
It’s often a slow news week during the international break and for club football, it means stories are harder to find.
That’s the context in which content has been published online relating to a Twitter trend about an Everton player that began on Wednesday night, sparked by tweets that shared rumours and memes.
This often happens nowadays on social media, even more so in the pandemic. Fans want to learn more about the players they watch on TV, and gossip is human nature.
Increasingly, we’re seeing Twitter trends about footballers in the men’s game where their sexuality is the focus of speculation. Sometimes these even escalate to the extent that the players in question reluctantly feel the need to address the rumours directly; often, the gossipy tweets just fade away until the next time a picture, video or story is shared around and people tweet out their opinions about it.
It was a similar situation on Wednesday – except this time, it was not sexuality but gender identity that formed the basis of the narrative. This Twitter trend grew and it was still listed in the UK top 30 on Thursday afternoon. The majority of tweets are people attempting to make jokes – a Little Britain clip, lots of Eddie Hearn ‘no context’ videos, one about a “sex change”, etc.
Articles about this trend were then published as a result, with headlines including words such as ‘crazy’, ‘ludicrous’ and ‘nonsense’. Inevitably, this highlights the gossip, and – intentionally or not – signposts readers towards the tweets. The rumour mill cranks up even more. This may all seem fairly inconsequential, just a brief diversion on social media, but there are ramifications.
Firstly, we can all agree that the concept of a professional footballer in the men’s game being trans or non binary is understandably very difficult for the vast majority of fans to process. There are barely any similar examples in history across the whole of global sport. However, we do know that gender dysphoria affects a small but significant percentage of the population, and we also know that there is now a small but growing number of trans people who either work in football or who are supporters. Some within this group are publicly out; many are not. That a player might be struggling with their own gender identity should not in itself be beyond our imagination.
Having established that, we can hopefully all accept why it could be damaging to perpetuate rumours about someone being trans, let alone exchange jokes about the topic. For fans who are trans, seeing the trending tweets will likely make them feel marginalised or unwelcome, while the tone of the published articles leads the reader to think that it’s preposterous to even suggest that a footballer could be trans. Without context or nuance, this can be very disheartening to that audience, particularly for younger readers who may be looking for signs that the game is inclusive and who currently lack role models they can identify with.
The Football v Transphobia Week of Action, which began on Wednesday and runs until March 31 which is Trans Day of Visibility, is an annual awareness initiative that seeks to widen understanding about the experiences of trans and non-binary people within our football community, and also their allies such as their friends and family members who support them.
Paul Amann is the founder of Kop Outs!, the Liverpool FC LGBT+ supporters group. He says: “We want all fans, staff and players to be in a footballing environment where they feel safe. It’s important to call out behaviour that leaves people feeling unsafe.
“Trans people already have greater risk of poor mental health, with 72% of trans young people self-harming, and 27% attempting suicide.
“Furthermore, 41% of trans people have been physically assaulted in the last five years, while two thirds have been harassed or discriminated against in the last year.
“Be an ally and challenge those who look to cultivate an environment in which hate flourishes. Don’t be a bystander.”
Surveys show the vast majority of the public want to be supportive of trans people and that they recognise the importance of tackling prejudice, especially within a part of society such as football.
It’s not always obvious how best to do that but Football v Transphobia (#FvT2021) provides an opportunity and a framework – tweet about why you’re a #TransFootyAlly and check out the campaign website for shareable information and downloadable resources.
As fans, our long absence from stadiums continues and the time away has reminded us that football needs us back urgently, and needs to treat us better too. We should want every supporter to feel comfortable about returning, as well as participating in the day-to-day discourse that connects us to the sport we love.
Let’s not allow a trending tweet that triggers transphobia to distract us from the bigger picture – Football for Everyone.
Jon Holmes is the founder and lead of Sports Media LGBT+, a network, advocacy, and consultancy group that supports the Football v Transphobia campaign.