QUEERING THE PITCH
Kafka’s Gregor Samsa represents one version of masculinity’s vanishing point. Here is another: after the British Football Association had charged two rival players with misconduct following a fight during a match between Chelsea and Liverpool in February 1999, the man who threw the first punch alleged that he had been provoked by his opponent’s cries of: ‘Come on, come on, give it to me up the arse.’ Of course, many would argue that verbal abuse is simply an inevitable part of a highly competitive game which thrives on insults and banter. But there are limits: racist taunts are now officially tolerated much less than they once were, whereas, according to a recent newspaper discussion of this episode, ‘homosexuality is still largely seen as a symptom of weakness and thus mercilessly pilloried’ (White 1999: 2). The article appeared under the headline ‘Queering the pitch’, punning on two senses of the word ‘queer’: as a pejorative term for ‘homosexual’ and as a verb meaning ‘to spoil’ or ‘to put out of order’.
It is not difficult to see why homosexuality should be the object of what is probably soccer’s ultimate taboo. In the name of the game some of the most intense emotional feelings among
and between men are openly displayed on the pitch and on the terraces, making football a contact sport in more ways than one. ‘I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women’, records Nick Hornby at the beginning of Fever Pitch, his phenomenally popular evocation of a twenty-year infatuation with the sport; but his earliest memory highlights ‘the overwhelming maleness of it all’ (Hornby 1992: 15—19). To fall in love with ‘maleness’ as a man falls in love with a woman: Hornby’s treatment of football’s boredom and its breathtaking highs is far more nuanced than this. Yet it takes only a pinch of exaggeration for an unsympathetic gay critic to discover in the game’s mesmeric power ‘an essential, deep and graceful masculine mystery of flesh, sweat, skill and leather which non-believers cannot possibly comprehend’, a parodic re-description that slyly insinuates a rather different sort of male performance (see Simpson 1996: 34). Football couldn’t really be about that, could it?
This chapter is about the place of same-sex desire in modern culture, its history and its effects. And foremost among these effects has been the gradual unravelling of any simplistic divide between ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, part of a wider recognition that the relation between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ is much more fluid than the division between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ with which these terms are sometimes confused. One of the lessons to be drawn from football’s fear that its pitch might be permanently ‘queered’ by the presence of gay players is an awareness of just how precarious and self-defeating the balancing act required by the game’s demand for ‘real’ men actually is. The dilemma it poses seems inescapable: those who are somehow not masculine enough are obviously suspect and therefore unsuitable. But, on the other hand, men who appear to be too masculine are also a problem since there is always the worry that they might have something to hide. We can see traces of this predicament in some of the responses to the public prosecution of Oscar Wilde for what the court called ‘acts of gross indecency with another male person’, an event which played a decisive role in redefining the acceptable boundaries of gendered identity. Shortly after Wilde’s sentence to two years hard labour, the novelist George Gissing — scarcely a gay sympathiser — told a fellow writer:
I have a theory that he has got into this, not through natural tendency, but simply in deliberate imitation of the old Greek vice. He probably said: go to, let us try the pederastic pleasures, and come to understand them. No doubt whatever he justified himself, both to himself and to others, by classic precedent.
(Gissing 1994 : 339)
In other words, Gissing thought that Wilde was guilty as charged, but that he had shown lack of judgement rather than evidence of what might have been considered a truly perverted disposition. Oscar Wilde may have been overly influenced by the revival of interest in Hellenic culture — this provided, after all, a language within which such diverse figures as Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater could imagine a renewal of Victorian society — but he was not a ‘real’ homosexual.
This neo-classical project formed part of Wilde’s own self- exculpating rhetoric at the trial when he spoke of ‘the love that dare not speak its name. . . that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect, and that pervades great works of art, like those of Michelangelo and Shakespeare’ (quoted in Cohen 1993: 200).