Down The Rec With Rhys Chapman

WONDERKID is a short film that tackles one of the most important issues in football – homophobia. The story follows gay professional footballer Bradley McGuire, and depicts his inner turmoil with being unable to come out to the wider public. We met with Rhys Chapman, the film’s writer and director, in a village in East Anglia to chat about his film and its impact on football.

The fens are flat and monotonous. They are a continuous, bleak, low-lying marshland, equally droning and dull, lacking in both colour and momentum. The peaty ground that makes up this area feels clinically pervasive, like if you stay too long you’ll find yourself clogged up and jammed, in a constant state of claustrophobia. Nothing ever really changes round here. Ely is the capital of these parts, its magnificent 900-year old cathedral is known as the ‘Ship of the fens’; it’s built on a rare patch of land that pokes its head above sea-level and is visible for miles around. Surrounding the Isle of Ely is a succession of villages, villages like any other with a shop, a pub and a rec.

Haddenham is one of these, and its recreation ground is like most village recs in the country; refurbed clubhouse, sloping football pitch for the local side, demolished skate park with forgotten promises of a rebuild, and children’s play area covered in commemorative decorative graffiti. Rhys Chapman grew up in this area and some of his fondest childhood memories are of Haddenham rec.

“This is where I spent most of my youth. There would sometimes be hundreds of us down here on a Friday or Saturday, learning how to drink and smoke and generally just doing stupid stuff. There was normally nothing else to do around here.”

Growing up in a sparsely populated area like the fens in a pre-internet age, meeting up at the rec would be one of the few things for young kids to do. Rhys is now a filmmaker based in London, and in 2016 wrote and directed ‘WONDERKID’ to challenge homophobia in football. His love of film stemmed largely from his childhood spent in the fens. “Growing up in the middle of nowhere I would stick a film on and the next two hours are occupied. I’d be transported to a different place. There’s a magic and excitement to it.”

Rhys speaks fluently about his love of football, and how film can be the perfect tool to tackle huge issues in the game. “Film is the most transformative medium. It’s the quickest and easiest way to get someone’s attention and educate them, and even to strike a chord with them. I looked for an issue within football to make my film have more meaning and power, and hopefully maybe to change something within the game, and this seemed to be the one that needed addressing.”

The stats don’t lie. This is a real issue in a game that has come so far in the past few decades. In the top four leagues of professional football in England, there are no openly gay footballers. That’s around 5000 professional footballers, and not one is openly gay. Stonewall estimates that about 5% of the population is homosexual, so statistically speaking there is likely to be around 250 gay footballers currently playing in England. What is it about the current football climate that discourages players from coming out? We have openly gay politicians, actors, comedians, rugby players, rowers – but not a single professional footballer. However far football has come, it clearly hasn’t come far enough. Rhys is one person who has campaigned extensively to overcome homophobia in football culture.

“Once you bring to someone’s attention the fact that there are no openly gay professional footballers in England, and in that respect how football is so far behind society, it’s quite an interesting thing to explore. We were generating publicity about the subject through this film I wanted to make; anything I did with journalists was as much about the subject as the film itself. It’s perfect using a film about the struggle of a gay footballer to make people understand and feel compassionate towards any gay footballers that might be out there, creating a human element to something that in mass culture gets joked about like it’s a weird sexual fetish.”

STILES: Racism in the 1970s was confronted head-on, and clearly there is still a long way to go, but why is a similar thing not happening with homophobia now?

Rhys: This is an interesting point. You can’t hide your skin colour, so the problem of racism in the terraces was addressed because there was no option. You can hide your sexuality, so it becomes a choice for a footballer to come out or not, which develops into a huge inner battle for a closeted gay footballer. The black players that came through in the 1970s received horrible abuse, and any closeted gay footballer might build up an anxiety of being found out in fear of hearing similar things.

STILES: In many ways racism and homophobia are not even considered on the same playing field. Remember those Chelsea fans in Paris? Do you think if it was a homophobic act it would have been taken as seriously?

Rhys: I don’t think so. Homophobia is pretty much seen as a joke, or dismissed as ‘banter’. But I think this is something that I can see is changing, mainly through a lot of the work that’s being done. Everyone now understands racism within football, but a lot of people still need to be taught about the severity of homophobia, which Kick It Out have been trying to do.

STILES: A really interesting point WONDERKID brings up is that while the media puts the onus on footballers themselves to set a good example for younger generations, the bad example is often set by people in the terraces.

Rhys: Due to modern celebrity culture, footballers aren’t portrayed as real people by the media. They have a type of religious following, and because the fans don’t feel like these are real people with real feelings, they probably feel like their words can’t hurt them. There’s also this idea among fans that because footballers are paid so much money they can’t really complain, and they feel there’s a justification because they have paid a lot of money to be there and to be entertained so they have a right to abuse them. The media definitely promotes this separation.

The scene in the film where the fan is shouting abuse at WONDERKID is supposed to portray how he doesn’t think these people are real; he wants more of an effort out of the player, and the word “faggot” is used to convey he thinks he’s soft, without understanding the severity of what he’s saying. Kids pick these things up, especially from genuine role models like their dads. Then when he scores the fan is completely oblivious and just celebrating, and it’s almost like a panto, like a routine where the fan doesn’t think the player has heard what he was saying.

STILES: Do you think this comes from the tribal element of football?

Rhys: Yeah, absolutely.

Historically, football is a working class or “working culture” game, and as a result it’s always been tribal, especially if you compare it to rugby. In rugby the fans are unsegregated, you can drink while watching the game, and there’s no organised violence to the level we still see nowadays in football. And, conveniently, there’s also openly gay players.

In a heavily masculine tribal culture like football you exploit the weaknesses of the opposition - boys don’t cry, hide your emotions, etc. In other sports, it’s accepted as part of that person, but in football it’s used as something to beat you with; away fans for example would jump on anything like this.

STILES: Here’s a big question - do you think football culture has grown up enough to handle an openly gay professional footballer?

Rhys: Personally, I think enough of the key stakeholders in the game would know what needs to be done to protect that player, but there would be teething problems. Right now, if someone shouts something racist in a stadium, a steward would be told and the fan would hopefully be kicked out or banned. But homophobia would need to be educated on so people report it. Fans sing homophobic chants now and no one really bats an eyelid, so stewards would need to be briefed to know to be more vigilant to look out for it, to protect that player.

STILES: As far as I can tell there are three main factors that would stop a footballer from coming out: the media, the fans, and the dressing room. Which do you think is the most influential in the mind of a closeted gay footballer?

Rhys: The Gay Football Supporters Network has told me that they spoke to the Professional Footballers Association, and they are aware of seven gay professional footballers in England. They asked them what their reasons were for not wanting to come out - one didn’t want to speak to them at all, and the other six all gave the reason that it’s because of the media attention they would receive. They don’t want the weight of being the gay footballer. Even though they understand it could be largely positive, it still carries a stigma. The career of a footballer is short, and it’s understandable that they just want to be footballers and enjoy it while they can without the burden.

If you’re an average player there’s also the danger of the coach not wanting to pick you, or picking other players to get rid of the unwanted media attention that would surround the club and the training sessions, like what happened to Michael Sam in the NFL.

People in the media are becoming aware of this, but there’s no denying when a footballer comes out it’ll be big news. The referee, Ryan Atkin, that came out was planned months in advance, and was being used as an opportunity to show that this sort of story could be broken properly. It was during the transfer deadline period, and it was by far and away the most read article on the Sky Sports website. There’s no denying the Sun will write something horrible though.

STILES: What needs to change then?

Rhys: What everyone realises is that we need to stop striving for this mysterious gay footballer to come out. It’s about creating the environment that’s welcoming to the gay community, and normalising the presence of LGBT people in football so that mass football fans are welcoming and understanding, in the same way they now understand racism should not be tolerated.

A lot of work has been done with LGBT fan groups to create visibility in the stadium so other fans understand that people like that are there. The fear of the unknown disappears. Hopefully this also says to the players that they will be accepted. The Rainbow Laces campaign is another example of this, and will probably be considered like the Racism Out campaign was to my generation.

STILES: Do you think that once the first player comes out it will cause a domino effect and more will inevitably follow?

Rhys: Absolutely, especially if it happened to an elite player. A lower league player might have some more problems from the terraces in the smaller stadiums, but overall I’d be confident in saying yes.

STILES: How did you do your research for WONDERKID?

Rhys: I got to know a lot of the LGBT supporters groups such as the Gaygooners and Proud Lilywhites (from Arsenal and Tottenham respectively). It’s actually through the Gaygooners that I got in touch with Ian McKellen who was really behind the project from the start and even did the voiceover for our trailer. At that time there were only four LGBT supporters groups in this country, Arsenal, Spurs, Man City and Liverpool. Now there are thirty-four, and that’s all in the past three years.

STILES: You’ve been screening the film for Premier League academies, how’s it gone down?

Rhys: When we screen it to them, we don’t tell them that it’s about a gay footballer, just that it’s an educational film about a footballer. It’s written like you’re not supposed to know at the start that he’s gay, and if you watch it like that it unfolds really nicely, so it generates a lot of suspense.

Mostly people really enjoyed the film, but it’s very different at different clubs. Chelsea’s youth teams are very well media trained – some of them were hiding their eyes in the love scene, but in the Q+A afterwards they were asking all the ‘right’ things. Liverpool were really laid back and asking all sorts of questions, some I’d never heard before, while Tottenham definitely showed the most compassion.

At every academy the first question I always get asked is if I’m gay, but we lead them down that route. Troy Townsend (who works for Kick It Out) creates an environment where the academy players are allowed to ask whatever they want without getting told off. During the film I just sit in the corner, then Troy talks to them for a bit, then he gets me up and he asks me why I wanted to make the film, so I say, “I wanted to be a footballer growing up but I never quite fitted into the environment”, which normally leads them naturally to ask the question.

STILES: You also went to Moscow recently to screen the film, how was that?

Rhys: Scary. It’s illegal to promote any LGBT events in Russia, but we actually screened it in the German embassy, so in a way it was kind of semi-legal. To get over there I applied for an embassy visa, but they wouldn’t give it to me, which I later learned was because they couldn’t guarantee my safety. In the end, I got in on a tourist visa at the last minute.

When we went to the embassy to screen it there was absolutely no one there until about 5 minutes before it started. LGBT groups over there have private social media groups, where they post events like this, but you have to register for the event to get the address which they send out just before the event itself, so that the authorities have less time to track it. When the authorities know about an LGBT event or march or protest they try to shut it down before it even starts, and I even heard stories about thugs, actual thugs, being hired to go and take care of it and to make sure a similar thing isn’t organised.

So about 5 minutes before the film started loads of people piled in – including the taxi driver who’d taken me there. The reaction we got was great, I felt a massive sense of gratitude from everyone there and after the screening I stayed for hours signing autographs and taking photos, but the whole experience of the country was surreal. I spent a lot of the 36 hours that I was there just hiding in my hotel room really.

The really scary thing is that Russia is one of 72 countries where it’s illegal to be gay, and it’s not even the worst place; Qatar is one of 10 countries where homosexuality is punishable by death. Russia and Qatar are the hosts of the next two World Cups, and we need to put huge pressure on both countries and FIFA to protect any LGBT fans (or players) travelling out there. Football is an inclusive and welcoming sport, where no one should live in fear of persecution for who they are.

WONDERKID is available to watch for free online, right here. Cheers, Rhys.

Written in February 2018 for STILES Issue 1.