Story by Freda Spencer
BARCELONA – When the doors opened to “La Salle” Lounge at Camp Nou, the home base of Futbol Club Barcelona, more than 100 seats were quickly filled, bringing the event hall to capacity.
A full house is nothing new for the elite soccer team, which boasts the largest social media following among sports teams in the world and is currently ranked first in its league. This event, however, was of a much different kind than the soccer games that attract thousands of fans from around the globe.
“FC Barcelona wants to be the first club that declares itself against homophobia. They want to celebrate respect and I am pleased that FCB has adhered itself to the international day against homophobia and transphobia,” said Santi Vila, the minister of territory and sustainability for the government of Catalonia.
Minister Vila introduced the “Barça against homophobia” event, highlighting the club’s recent commitment to promoting diversity and tolerance in relation to sexual orientation and identity.
Prior to Vila taking the stage, FC Barcelona Foundation’s Vice President Jordi Cardoner and Director Ramon Pont signed a manifesto formalizing the commitment. The campaign also includes the release of posters and a video promoting equality and tolerance.
Spain has a long history of inclusive and progressive policies regarding the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, or LGBT, community and remains among the leaders across Europe for equality. It’s beloved national sport does not boast the same reputation, however, which is why many consider the commitment a significant step toward support for equality in the country.
“We are really glad to hear that they’ve joined this campaign… In sports it’s very difficult to fight homophobia because it’s a very gendered environment, so it’s quite difficult to take homophobia out of all sports,” said Antonio Garcia Iglesias, the press chief for the Gay Liberation Front of Catalonia and Observatory Against Homophobia, who attended the event.
In 2013, Spain was named the country most accepting of homosexuality, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington D.C. Spain legalized same-sex marriages in 2005, making it one of the very first countries to do so. In early May, Spain was ranked sixth in Europe in terms of LGBT-friendly laws and policy by the “Rainbow Europe 2015” report. International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, or ILGA-Europe, the advocacy group that produces the annual report, takes a number of factors into consideration including discrimination, family recognition, protections against hate crimes and other policy-related issues within each European country.
In 2014, Spain’s overall level of equality earned a 73 percent ranking, putting the country third from the top of the list. This year, it’s equality ranking was 69 percent, bringing it down to sixth place. ILGA officials asserted that the drop in rank was not necessarily an indicator that the climate has worsened. The change was partly due to the inclusion of more factors regarding “intersex” people – or individuals whose anatomy does not allow them to be distinctly defined as male or female – into consideration for this year’s report, which is a policy area Spain has yet to address in the progressive way it has others.
Many members of the Spanish LGBT community are aware of this drop in ranking, however, and hope that the country’s role as a leader for equal rights remains, looking to this recent commitment by FC Barcelona as a sign of improvement in terms of social equality. “Any LGBT person here in Barcelona is in the mindset that we need to remain up there on the list, and this campaign is very important in helping make this happen,” said Jacques Schoofs, president of Barcelona’s Panteres Grogues, translated as Yellow Panthers, an LGBT-inclusive advocacy and sports club that offers more than 20 sports and activities to gay and straight individuals.
Schoofs was one of four speakers on a panel at the event. Adolfo Díaz Almazan, who attended with a group of fellow volunteers with Pride Barcelona, an LGBT advocacy group that organizes city-wide events, moved to Barcelona with his husband from Mexico and Canada in part because of Spain’s openness and protections for gay rights. He expressed his excitement over the positive impact the team’s pledge can have on Spain’s societal acceptance of homophobia.
“I think this is a good thing for the community to say ‘hey, your secular orientation should not be something to determine whether or not you should be treated equally.’ Every event like this is a step forward because even if they don’t do much in terms of law, the other side of the society will become concerned and create awareness,” he said.
In terms of equal treatment for the LGBT community within fútbol, society’s acceptance is not always on equal footing with the progressive laws and policies in place.
“Often, radical fútbol fans are more conservative, or they want to disassociate political ideas from the sport,” said Ignasi Perez, professor of political science, including sports and society courses, at IES Abroad, an international non-profit study abroad organization that administers programs for U.S. college students.
Marc Parramon, of the FC Barcelona communications department, acknowledges the aggressive and oftentimes offensive actions of fans at Camp Nou. “It’s very difficult when fans start shouting things, unfortunately. We’ve heard racism, homophobia, etc. and it’s a very complicated thing to change,” he said.
Spanish fans are not isolated in this. Countless championship games have been marked by reports of racist, anti-semitic and homophobic actions and chants by fans from across the globe. Last year when Mexico played Cameroon in the World Cup, historically homophobic and offensive terms were chanted throughout the game by Mexican fans, and although FIFA vowed to investigate, the fans were never punished. This set a precedent, and was not well received by the LGBT community.
“I think FCB has done what it should do, and it’s a first step in the right direction,” Parramon said about curbing the bigoted actions of some fans. He cited the public campaign against homophobia as well as policy reforms and social programs the club has supported, including cracking down on extremist groups.
“We have a law that allows us to prosecute homophobia even in its most subtle way… In 2007, a very important law against hate was passed and it gave us important tools to fight it. For instance it allows us to keep exhaustive surveillance of all undesirable groups to keep track of them,” said Attorney Miguel Ángel Aguilar García during the event.
Schoofs, of the Yellow Panthers, says that educating people is one of the most effective ways to shift sentiments among fans for the better.
“What is clear is that this continuing education on inclusiveness needs to continue. It’s not something that you achieve and then it stops. There are always new people growing up, and new situations that happen. It needs to target very small children and also the elderly who have not yet conceived the idea of inclusiveness,” said Schoofs.
Mostly all involved agree that FC Barcelona’s official commitment should only be the beginning of the club’s – and the sport’s – journey toward a more homophobic-free environment. Iglesias emphasized the importance of individual players upon public opinion.
“We are glad that [FC Barcelona] took this step but we would like to see it taken farther. We think their video is a good example but we hope to see the players this weekend with a shirt or something supporting [this movement] because that is the real moment – that’s the moment that they show real support,” he said.
Schoofs also acknowledges how important the individual players are in molding closed minds – and points out that there is no elite fútbol player, now or in the past, who is openly homosexual. “I think the environment is important, but it is also important that we have some role models, those that are comfortable enough to come out of the closet, though I would never push anyone,” said Schoofs.
He adds that he does not expect this in the near future. Until then, the club’s commitment to actively moving forward with its campaign may be on hold. Activists, professors and the club’s representatives seem to be in agreement that at the moment, all energy will be put toward the club’s upcoming UEFA Champion’s League final.
“In the next three weeks, Barça is facing many games. I’m sure that they don’t want to take away from the sport. They want to be concentrated at this time,” said Perez.
Schoofs, who is determined to continue to improve the climate for the LGBT community as much as possible, recognizes the difficulties in timing. “I want to pick up this discussion in September when the new season starts. I want to have this campaign included in the new season, and also talk to other associations to push them to follow this example going into their new seasons… we need to change our focus and we need to change the attitude of the club as a whole.”