For far too long, homophobic insults have been used to denigrate opposition players or fans, so its time the authorities took the issue seriously
For years, homophobia has been an easy, acceptable go-to for fans in order to denigrate opposition players or supporters.
Now this comfortable notion of vile abuse just being part of the game is being challenged, pushed back, and punished.
In January, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) – the main public agency for prosecuting crimes in England and Wales – announced that the “rent boys” chant often heard at football grounds in Britain, and especially aimed at Chelsea players either at the club or on loan, is a hate crime, meaning clubs whose fans sing these offensive songs can be punished as they would be for racism.
The chant was heard recently at the League Cup semi-final between Tottenham and Chelsea, and at Millwall versus Crystal Palace in the FA Cup third round where on-loan Eagles midfielder Conor Gallagher was targeted, while Billy Gilmour has also been on the receiving end during Norwich matches this season.
The chant itself dates back to the 1980s and the popular narrative regarding its origin is that a member of the infamous right-wing hooligan group, the Chelsea Headhunters, was found in bed with a male prostitute, or rent boy, during a dawn raid by police, with the news exposed by tabloids.
However, Chelseas in-house historian, Rick Glanvill, says that there is likely more fiction mixed into this tale than many would believe.
He tells GOAL: “The chant is ‘Hello! Hello! Chelsea rent boys, Chelsea rent boys’, to the tune of convicted sex offender Gary Glitter’s ‘Good To Be Back’, and it’s been sung by opposition fans when playing Chelsea since the late ’80s, early ’90s.
“Purely on the story behind the chant, it has the feel of an urban myth in its construction and the way it spread around the country, but there may be a much simpler explanation: fabrication.
“There were crackdowns by the Met Police on groups of fans provoking violence at matches, including Chelsea Headhunters, for example ‘Operation Own Goal’ around 1985 to ’88.
“Specifically, the chant seems to stem from the mid-1980s and an account in The Sun newspaper of a police raid on a so-called Headhunter called Dale Green, who reportedly shared a multi-bedroom house with a male friend.
“When the police broke in, Green was in the hall about to open the door but his housemate was seen elsewhere wearing only boxer shorts.
“However, the tabloid reported that the pair had been found in bed together. Out of that sprang the notion Green had hired a male sex worker, or rent boy in the parlance of the time.
“Remember, the same newspaper had a front page blaming Liverpool fans for the tragedy of Hillsborough not long afterwards.”
As a Chelsea fan, Glanvill says the chant makes him and many other supporters deeply unhappy – not on account of their sexuality, but on the fact that homosexuality should not be viewed as something to be mocked, demonised and insulted.
He says: “Irrespective of its origins, the taunt in the ‘rent boys’ chant is that all Chelsea fans are gay and sex workers and, as a Blues fan, hearing it directed at you could leave you in a quandary.
“What’s wrong with being gay? Nothing – but the act of a mob using this term as a slur is in itself offensive to most inhabitants of the 21st century, whatever our sexuality.
“There’s also the propagation of a nasty stereotype, prevalent at the height of the AIDS epidemic, that gay people are more promiscuous and sleazy than straight people – who, let’s face it, are just as liable to use sex workers as the next person.
“It’s also hugely divisive to the support base of those singing it as theres an in-built assumption that no one in the crowd could possibly be homosexual and therefore hurt by what they’re hearing.
“Or if you are gay and support the same team perhaps they are ready with the same ‘you’re alright, it’s the rest of you’ conceit that was whispered to black and Asian people for years.
“The chant has been used sporadically over the decades, far more enthusiastically by some fan groups than the rest. They only use it because they think it will provoke or ‘get at’ us.
“I just find it completely ignorant and preposterous, and although I’m never offended by a suggestion I might be homosexual, it’s the intention behind the chant, as a slur and an insult to the gay community, that makes it abusive.
“And, as the CPS has now confirmed, against the laws of the land.”
Coming from a time when homophobia was the norm in British society, the chant now lives on in football stadiums, where it can be stripped of all context and meaning to be thrown out as a casual insult by those who know little and care less about what they are saying.
This is now being challenged at a high level. Max Hill, the director of public prosecutions, says the CPS will push for harsher sentences for discrimination heard at stadiums, such as the “rent boy” chant, which could include jail.
“Hate crime has no place within society let alone sport,” Hill told The Mirror. “Recently, we have seen an increase of reports in racist and homophobic abuse at football matches and this is a disease we are determined to play our part in cutting out.
“This is vile and disgusting behaviour and the CPS stands with the majority of the public who want to see this stamped out.
“Some may argue it is harmless banter but it means people who are being discriminated against feel less welcome to enjoy a match and support their team in person.
“Along with racist slurs, we have reconfirmed that homophobic chants are unacceptable and could be subject to prosecution if there is sufficient evidence after a police investigation.
“As a mark of how seriously we take this offending we will always ask for harsher sentences as it amounts to a hate crime.”
The stance of the CPS has been welcomed by LGBT+ fan groups, such as Chelsea Pride. However, chair Tracy Brown says it now needs to be followed up by the FA and those who run the game at the top level.
Brown told GOAL: “It is fantastic that the CPS fully recognises the chant for what it is; five years ago, when we started Chelsea Pride, changing attitudes towards the chant was one of my biggest aims.
“But this is only step one. Step two is getting the FA, the Premier League, the EFL, the Vanarama Leagues – homophobia doesnt just stop at the Championship – to collaborate on rules that everyone can stick by.
“We want to see collective education, and we want to see collective bans – you can fine the club, and start docking their fans for away games.
“They do this in Scotland. Look at Old Firm matches where they only have about 500 away fans because of the continuous problems. They should do that here in England.
Our official statement regarding the Club World Cup and @FIFAcom pic.twitter.com/6bOE9xYrAF
“There is also a problem with homophobia from fans coming to and from games – you hear about so many hate crimes happening on trains.
“Fine these clubs, and put the money into fighting discrimination. It is not that complicated.”
Brown feels as if the issue with abusive chanting has got worse since fans returned after the coronavirus lockdown, and wants the media – particularly when broadcasting live from fixtures – to do more in combating the problem.
She said: “It may be now that more people are reporting it, but what I would like to see is television commentators calling it out when they hear it.
“During the Millwall v Crystal Palace FA Cup game, you had the commentator apologising for swearing, but nothing on the homophobia towards Conor Gallagher that you could clearly hear.”
Brown also wants fans to feel more comfortable in calling out abuse, but that the greater onus should be on clubs to police the problem properly.
She says: “I dont want anyone to put themselves at risk, but you can use the Kick It Out app to report abuse, and most clubs have a dedicated phone line.”
For years, clubs refused to engage in any action or condemnation against homophobia in the game. However this has started to turn and has been more notable than ever this season.
When Liverpool fans chanted at Gilmour in their Premier League meeting with Norwich in August, Jurgen Klopp blasted those supporters as “idiots” in a chat with Paul Amann, chair of the Reds official LGBT+ fan group Kop Outs.
Jurgen Klopp met with @LFC_LGBT this week to discuss the incident of homophobic chanting at Norwich City. The pair discuss the impact of such chants on LGBT+ supporters, why they should not occur again, and the importance of inclusivity. #RedTogether pic.twitter.com/J5Axce1PqR
Klopp said: “I never understand that, why you would sing a song that is against something in a football stadium, I never got that and never liked it.
“I can imagine now that people out there think, come on, its only winding them up and stuff like this. But thats the problem – most of the time we dont understand.
“Im not sure if people listen to me but it would be nice. I dont want to hear it anymore for so many reasons.
“If you dont think about what you sing: you are an idiot.”
Amann, speaking exclusively to GOAL earlier this month, said he met with the CPS, Merseyside Police and other authorities after the Norwich game in August, and was informed back then that the CPS were planning on prosecuting the singing of the rent boys chant as a hate crime.
He said: “We know the CPS position was very clear that they viewed this as a homophobic hate crime. This has not been a quick piece of legislation; it has been coming for a long time.
“I spoke with Elizabeth Jenkins [deputy chief crown prosecutor for the north west], and she was very clear that they viewed this as something prosecutable, but it was not always as straightforward as a race crime.
“Context for the chant has to be examined. However, in many cases, she agreed the context is assuredly homophobic.
“I dont know of any LGBT+ fans who desperately want to see fellow fans taken to court because of this – we would much rather educate, and inform people why this is wrong.”
Amann is proud of the strong stance his club has taken, with Klopp and Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson among the most high profile figures in football to speak out in support of LGBT+ fans.
He says that it is important that allies are as vocal as LGBT+ people when it comes to stamping out homophobic chants, and it is up to groups like Kop Outs to start that conversation.
He said: “Part of the role we need to play as LGBT+ fan groups is to engage with our fellow supporters, and say, why do we have to be so negative when there is so much positive to sing about.
“At Liverpool, we have a great manager, great players, were literally the best team in the world! [At the time of our interview, the Reds were FIFA Club World Cup holders.] There is no need to descend into insults or slurs.”
Jurgen Klopp has been nominated for Ally of the Year at the 2022 British LGBT awards ????️????Klopp has been a huge supporter of the Rainbow Laces campaign ???? pic.twitter.com/u4fwoy2QOW
Amann has been working with fans since 2011, and says he first brought up the rent boys chant as an issue a decade ago.
While he views some progress as being made – recounting how, after his video with Klopp, several fans had told him how they had challenged the rent boys chant during Liverpools Premier League game with Chelsea earlier this season – he still feels football has a problem with homophobia.
He said: “It makes LGBT+ supporters deeply uncomfortable that this sort of language is acceptable.
“Rent boy is a term explicitly for a man or boy who sells sex with other men. It is not a general term for a male prostitute. People splitting hairs over this clearly dont understand the language being used.
“This is not a chant which has come in during Chelseas Abramovich era, or anything to do with the size of their squad or the players they send on loan.
“It has been around for decades, and it is down to the deeply set homophobia which needs to go from football.”
So, law enforcement opposes the chant, fans oppose the chant, and clubs oppose the chant. And the FA, in a statement to GOAL, insisted it was pleased by the intervention and had rolled out new strategies to deal with homophobia.
A spokesperson said: “The FA strongly condemns the use of the term rent boy and we are determined to drive it out of our game. We welcome the updated guidance from the CPS and will continue to work closely with them, as well as the UK Football Policing Unit, in relation to the use of this term.
“We stand firmly against all forms of discrimination and we are striving to ensure our game is a safe environment for all, which truly embraces diversity and challenges hateful conduct both on and off the pitch.
“In late 2021 we launched A Game For All, our new equality, diversity and inclusion strategy, which outlines our ongoing commitment to actively tackle discrimination and will ensure this remains a core priority for English football for years to come.
“We believe that role models and allies are key to increased visibility and inclusivity and we are proud to stand in allyship with LGBTQ+ communities around the world. We welcome the Pride flag at all England fixtures at Wembley Stadium and we continue to show support for the Three Lions Pride supporters’ group.
“As well as The FA and our County FA network supporting the Rainbow Laces campaign, we also participate in the annual Pride in London parade. “We believe football is everybody’s game, and we willcontinue to do our utmost to use our influence to drive meaningful change so that our game is for all.”
The FA has shown some teeth in the past year when it comes to tackling homophobia, notably when Morecambe player Yann Songoo was banned for six matches for abusing an opponent in January 2021, later apologising for his actions.
When it comes to homophobic behaviour from fans, however, it has not stepped up yet in the way most supporters would like to see.
Homophobia in football should be regarded as unacceptable as racism, as Hill stated, and result in similar levels of punishment and condemnation.
February in the UK is LGBT History Month, as well as the Football v Homophobia Month of Action.