A gay football player in the US was suspended after he punched another player who called him a gay slur on the field.
Henry Bethell, who plays for Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, had previously heard a teammate being taunted because of his sexuality and was himself a victim of verbal homophobia.
In October last year, it happened again. During a match against St. Joseph’s College Long Island, Bethell’s team was headed for victory when an opposing player blurted out, “I’m sick of this little f*ggot.”
A furious Bethell responded by punching his opponent in the face. “It just happened,” Bethell told Outsports. “I turned around and punched him. After that I kind of blacked out, like a flight-or-fight response.”
The punch led to a melee on the field, after which Bethell was suspended for three games while the homophobe and other St. Joseph’s College players were suspended for just one game.
Bethell said that the incident took place in the context of officials repeatedly not taking appropriate action during previous matches in which homophobic slurs were used.
“As a kid growing up, coming from Baltimore and playing all sorts of sports, this was stuff I heard routinely,” said Bethell, who was described as a star athlete.
“I’m proud of who I am, and I wouldn’t change it,” Bethell added. “It’s not wrong. And I’m proud to play soccer and have an opportunity to play in college. Sports has the opportunity to be a community for all different kinds of people, no matter who you are.”
The local and international sports world remains overwhelmingly closeted, with very few, especially male, players or athletes being open about their sexuality. In football, homophobic chants continue to be used by fans in several countries, despite the imposition of fines.
UK LGBTQ organisation Stonewall has found that 43% of LGBT people in the UK feel that public sporting events aren’t a welcoming space for LGBT people. This figure is likely far higher in South Africa.
The only openly gay male professional footballer in South Africa is goalkeeper Phuti Lekoloane, who came out in 2016. He has previously spoken about his devastation after being stigmatised and discriminated against by fellow footballers in the change rooms because of his sexuality.