The Italian football striker Antonio Cassano has said he hopes there are no gay players in his national side. Following media reports of two metrosexuals and two homosexuals in the squad, Cassano was asked at a news conference whether he believed it was true. In his response he said he had been warned to expect such a question and wondered what was a ‘metrosexual‘. With regard to gays in the squad?

“I hope there are none. But if there are queers here, that’s their business.”
Antonio Cassano, 12 June 2012 

It was a sentiment of breathtaking intolerance and insensitivity. It reminds me of his exuberant former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who bragged in 2010 that it was “better to have a passion for beautiful women than to be gay.”

Cassano has since apologised, claiming to have been misinterpreted. Regardless, it is troubling that such prejudice remains so prolific in football and elsewhere. In the English Premier League, and the three divisions below it, there is not a single openly gay player. It is a stretch to imagine none of them are gay. There are 500 players in the Premier League alone. The ONS reckons about 1% of the British population is gay, a further 0.5% bisexual. While many Premier League players are foreign, one might reasonably expect a handful of gay players in each of the top four divisions.

It is 22 years since a player for a major British team came out as gay. Justin Fashanu faced a serious backlash, including criticism from his manager Brian Clough and even his own brother John. He hanged himself in 1998.

Justin Fashanu was not the first homosexual to take their own life. This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the brilliant computer scientist Alan Turing. His skills earned him an OBE for his war efforts breaking Nazi codes. But a fateful turn of events led him to admit a homosexual relationship in 1952. That, of course, was illegal until it was decriminalised in 1967 (in England & Wales). Turing was forced to choose between imprisonment and chemical castration. He chose the latter, and poisoned himself two years later.

Alan Turing received a posthumous apology in 2009:

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him … So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.
Gordon Brown, British Prime Minister, 10 September 2009

It is a terrible indictment of our past that we allowed the ‘sin’ of homosexual behaviour to be declared a crime. Indeed it is a terrible indictment of our world that it remains illegal in 74 states. It is even worse that some countries see fit to execute people for the way they chose to conduct a consensual sexual relationship.

How should the Church respond to such persecution?

Here in the UK, a consultation has just concluded on whether gay couples should be allowed to marry. They may of course enjoy the equal union of civil partnership, but understandably many feel the nomenclature of ‘marriage’, recognised in civil law, is important. Necessarily, in statute, marriage would require redefinition, which is opposed by the Church of England, the Roman Catholic church and many (but not all) members of other faiths and the wider Church.

Now that debate is open, the argument is important for both sides. It is a prominent issue, and the outcome could be epochal. But the tone of the debate is often deeply disheartening. While accusations of homophobia are often too freely bandied about, many Christians are much too eager to judge. Condemnation has superceded love.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
From the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Matthew 7v1-5

What bothers Jesus more? Is it homosexual behaviour or judgemental behaviour? He is very clear about His attitude to judgement. For me, it is a lesson I need to relearn again and again. To my shame I judge others for all sorts of minor infringements in this world. From time to time, it is important to correct others, but not through the prism of judgement.

There are those in the Church who would argue the debate over gay marriage is not one they would have chosen; but they feel compelled to engage with it. However, it is relished by others, and for some Christians, their opposition to homosexuality is at the core of their belief. What about forced marriage (astoundingly it is still legal in the UK)? What about poverty? Or family breakdown? Or debt and usury? Or health and education? Surely a refocus is needed.

The UK has changed dramatically in my lifetime. It was not until 1980 (in Scotland) and 1982 (in Northern Ireland) when homosexuality was decriminalised across the UK. It was only in 2000 when the age of consent was equalised for heterosexuals and homosexuals. But the change in attitudes has been enormous.

In a generational sea change, many MPs are now openly gay. Examples of those outed by others, including Peter Mandelson (by Matthew Parris in 1998) and David Laws (by the Daily Telegraph in 2010) are very much the exception to the rule.

To be gay may be a minority status, but it is normal for many. If a Justin Fashanu emerged today, I believe he would be supported and widely accepted. I very much hope so.

Notwithstanding the legitimate debate over the definition of marriage, I hope the Church may see fit to make a stand on the persecution of gay men and women around the world. I hope it will be more supportive of gay men and women here in the UK.

Perhaps it is time for the Church to ask itself how to get more gay men and women through the door, not to condemn them the moment they arrive.