Homosexuality in top-level sport
“Homophobia is not confined to the terraces”

Are professional footballers supposed to be gay?
Are professional footballers supposed to be gay? | Photo (detail): © siepmannH / pixelio.de

The coming out of a former footballer on the national squad made big headlines in the German media. Acceptance of gays and lesbians has made good progress in top-level sport, but still has a long way to go, believes the sports scientist Tanja Walther-Ahrens.

Ms Walther-Ahrens, Thomas Hitzlsperger’s coming out made very big news in the media and public sphere in Germany. Franz Beckenbauer recently claimed that he had been surprised by the degree of interest it had generated, saying “It should really be taken entirely for granted.” Do you agree with Beckenbauer – were you also surprised by the public’s reaction?

No, because I know that it cannot be taken for granted. It would be a good thing if acceptance of homosexuality could be taken for granted, but we are still a long way from that.

Beckenbauer also said, however, that if an active Bundesliga pro were to come out, the “reactions in the stadium could not be predicted. Football fans are not opera fans, they aren’t so sensitive.” What do you think?

It is a popular argument to claim that the fans have problems dealing with this issue. I think that’s rubbish. There are a great many gay and lesbian fan clubs in Germany, and there are even more fan clubs which engage in great depth with the issue of discrimination. On the other hand, there are of course plenty of homophobic football fans among the tens of thousands who go to watch matches: homophobia is not confined to the terraces, after all, but can be encountered to at least the same extent in the VIP lounge.

Why is there this almost hysterical quest for top gay athletes, especially in the world of football?

Because football is not only our national sport; these days it almost seems as if there is no longer any other sport apart from men’s football. By the time David Beckham came on to the scene, football pros had become pop stars. And professional footballers, like it or not, are simply not supposed to be gay, because being gay is associated with being a weakling or a pansy. Of course, discrimination is to be found in all segments of society, but the issue is dealt with on a much more emotional level in football than, let’s say, when we are talking about the proportion of women on supervisory boards.

Making it clear that gays and lesbians are welcome

Is homosexuality in top-class sport generally more of a taboo than in the rest of society?

I would say definitely not. Top-class sport, after all, does not exist in a vacuum. The views that are held in society are also to be found in top-class sport. The only difference is that a sportsman is required to possess many of those virtues that are traditionally regarded as masculine, i.e. he has to be strong, aggressive, assertive. That’s why discrimination of homosexuality in the world of sport is not necessarily more widespread than in the rest of society, but does has a different value and is perhaps more likely to be on the agenda because sport is all about physicality.

How important is Thomas Hitzlsperger’s coming out in terms of making homosexuality in top-class sport more a matter of course?

What is particularly important is for the issue to be raised more and more – at all levels: Thomas Hitzlsperger’s coming out is just as important as having youth coaches who no longer describe a weak pass as “gay”. It is important that clubs and associations make it quite clear that they welcome gays and lesbians. Most important of all, however, is to keep on talking about the subject and about how difficult it is to be homosexual. After all, it is about changing attitudes, and this can only be achieved over the long term.

Constant dripping wears away the stone

Until recently, you yourself helped shape this dialogue right on the front line as an active member of the DFB [German Football Association]. Were you successful?

I believe so. It may take a very long time, and you keep having to explain the same things over and over again, but constant dripping wears away the stone. These days, there are also associations like the Berlin Football Association which not only talk openly about the subject but actually take action themselves. They stage events and have brought out brochures for referees and clubs. The DFB has also done a few things, but obviously that is not all that is needed, as these issues of discrimination will never be disappear entirely.

You are also active in the European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation. How does the situation in Germany compare internationally?

In Germany we are a major step further on than in many other countries, though that has a lot to do with the laws on homosexuality that exist in the countries themselves. The laws for gays and lesbians are relatively liberal in the Netherlands and Great Britain too, so the football associations there engage fairly openly with the topic. Other countries lag further behind and claim that it does not concern them. And we hardly need to talk about Russia and many African or Arab countries where homosexuality is still a punishable offence: the laws there are quite clear, so the associations obviously cannot do anything about them – even if they wanted to.

So sport cannot play any sort of forerunner role in this context?

No, that would be too much to ask. On the other hand, of course, a good example is set when UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, stages a workshop on the subject of Homosexuality and Football, as it did back in 2006, or when individual national associations adopt a clear stance on such issues. After all, the officials themselves then become really quite competitive and do not want their associations to be seen as regressive.


Tanja Walther-Ahrens Tanja Walther-Ahrens | © Tanja Walther-Ahrens Tanja Walther-Ahrens was born in 1970, has a degree in sports science and works as a special needs teacher. In the 1990s, she played football in the Bundesliga for Tennis Borussia Berlin and Turbine Potsdam. Since 2006, Walther-Ahrens has been a delegate of the European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation (EGLSF). Since 2013, she has been a board member of the Berlin Football Association. She still plays football in the Berlin Landesliga (the state league) for SV Seitenwechsel.