LGBT+ supporters say recent homophobic incidents show not rising abuse but fans more willing to confront it
By Rachel Savage
LONDON, Dec 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The bitter rivalry between the two clubs was often blighted by homophobic gibes.
Chanting "does your boyfriend know you're here?" and "we can see you holding hands," some fans of London football club Crystal Palace would goad their opponents from Brighton, a seaside city known as the "gay capital" of Britain.
But a match between the two teams on Monday passed without incident, a sign, LGBT+ advocacy groups say, of a concerted effort to stamp out gay abuse by encouraging fans to report it.
A string of alleged homophobic incidents at English football matches in recent weeks has focused attention on discrimination in the multi-billion dollar sport.
On Dec. 8, two supporters at a match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers were detained by police for homophobic abuse.
Behind the grim headlines, though, is a possible silver lining.
Three official LGBT+ supporters groups say the recent incidents are evidence not of deepening bigotry but instead of fans who are more willing to confront it.
"Across (the league) we are seeing an increase in fans reporting their own fans for discrimination. Whereas before it would hardly happen," said Stuart Matthews, who founded Brighton's LGBT+ supporters group Proud Seagulls in 2017.
Premier League clubs in recent weeks celebrated the Rainbow Laces campaign, football's attempt to confront homophobia in the game with items ranging from captain's armbands to fans flying rainbow flags.
That was accompanied by a flurry of fans reporting abuse to anti-discrimination group Kick It Out.
In addition to informing match stewards and the police, fans have discreetly alerted authorities by sending messages on social media as well as via a hotline and a dedicated app, said a Kick It Out spokesman.
"Many people are tired (of the abuse) and, even though they may not be from the LGBT community, our allies are saying enough is enough when it comes to discrimination," said Tracy Brown, the co-chair of LGBT+ supporters group Chelsea Pride.
According to research by Stonewall, an advocacy group, as many as four out of 10 LGBT people do not find sport a welcoming environment.
One concern for Brown is that the campaign to purge stadiums of abuse could inadvertently shift discrimination to streets and bars outside arenas after matches.
In December, some West Ham fans sang a notorious chant that described Chelsea fans as "rent boys", a possible reference to the west London area of Chelsea being a destination for gay hook-ups.
The chant could be heard after the game, said Brown, adding that many fans believed discrimination was increasingly common on the way to and from matches.
West Ham issued a statement on Dec. 2 saying they do not condone any discriminatory behaviour by supporters.
After Monday's game between Crystal Palace and Brighton, Emma Wright of Crystal Palace's LGBT+ group Proud and Palace, breathed a sigh of relief.
"We were really pleased that ... the match passed without homophobic chants picking up. We would like to thank our fellow Crystal Palace fans for their continued support and for an incredible atmosphere built on the rivalry and not homophobia."
(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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