Who was it? Was it real? What did it all mean? The @FootballerGay Twitter account that supposedly belonged to a homosexual Championship footballer but was deleted on Tuesday before his identity was revealed prompted a range of questions and recriminations.
Perhaps the most important one though is: what effect does the strange affair have on sport’s LGBTQ+ community? As one of a minuscule number of openly gay professional footballers globally and the only Australian male player to have ever come out, 26-year-old winger Andy Brennan is well placed to answer. His view is unequivocal: whether @FootballerGay was a hoax or not, we must only take the positives from it.
“I personally hope it isn’t a hoax, but even if it is I think you just focus on the positives,” he tells Telegraph Sport, two months after coming out. “The positive energy it created with all the supportive reactions from people was more important than anything negative, and that’s what you have to focus on – otherwise you let the negativity win.”
@FootballerGay certainly received support on social media, with former England striker Gary Lineker among those expressing solidarity. For Brennan, the incident was reminiscent of Australian cricketer James Faulkner’s Instagram post in April about his “boyfriend”.
The man in question was actually Faulkner’s housemate and the post was not intended to be taken literally. But despite the misunderstanding, Brennan was heartened by the widespread messages of support Faulkner received.
In general, the past couple of months have been extremely uplifting for the Tasmanian Brennan. Formerly of A-League side Newcastle Jets, and now at Australian second-tier team Green Gully in Melbourne, Brennan revealed his sexuality in May – deciding that he could not bear the secrecy and deceit of pretending to be someone he was not.
Brennan was extremely nervous about coming out, but has been overwhelmed by the support since: “The reaction has been amazing, I haven’t had one negative comment. That was something I feared a lot with everyone I told, but everyone – team-mates, family, friends – has been amazing.
“I’ve had no problems with opposition fans either, everyone’s been really supportive. The way it’s affected my life has been only positive, it’s been so much better.”
Brennan’s experience chimes with many gay sportsmen and women who have been liberated after coming out. And when listening to the hugely upbeat Brennan, it is tempting to wonder why so many try and suppress their sexuality.
He explains, though, that a fear of rejection can make opening up extremely daunting: “It’s all created by the environment you’re in. I pushed it away because I didn’t think it was normal, and thought people would judge me. And like I wouldn’t be able to play football and be friends with the same people. I thought it would change my life completely.
“People throw in derogatory comments about gay people, and you think you can’t be yourself around them. I’ve heard mates say things several times, and they would have no idea about how I felt. And even if you don’t acknowledge it, it creates this environment in your own mind when you think I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. God knows if I can cope or not …”
Thankfully for Brennan, he is now not just coping, but thriving – and increasingly willing to confront those who use homophobic language. On a couple of occasions since coming out, he has heard slurs from team-mates – though never aimed at him, and said almost out of habit. As a consequence Brennan believes that education around these issues is crucial.
“The more people that come out the better, and then education is paramount,” he says. “It’s one thing to say ‘don’t say this word because it can make people feel bad’, and saying ‘don’t say this word because it will make Andy feel bad’ Then you start thinking about putting someone down directly, and that’s a lot more emotional and less abstract.”
To Israel Folau and everyone growing up how I did, afraid to admit who they are: I would never aim to tell you what I feel is right or wrong. However, what I can tell you is what you have done and what you are doing, in such a public manner, would have made 16-year-old me feel like I don’t belong. Already feeling so alone, not able to accept what deep down I knew to be true, I would now be reading about one of Australia’s supposed sporting heroes condemning homosexuals. 16-year-old me, reading your words, would have made me further deplore who I was. Push away and hide, as I don’t belong. I would have more than ever felt I have nowhere to turn to, no one to speak to. You were a role model for so many young people, and yes, some of those people are gay. I wish you could take a minute to think for those young people, and how what you have said might affect them in their struggle to find who they are, and ultimately accept themselves. For most, accepting yourself as a gay person is not easy. I hope they are able to see through what you have said, and not let anyone influence their ability to be themselves. For me now, I am not 16, I am 26. I have never been prouder or happier to be who I am. #sport #prideinsport #pride #folau @minus18youth #kickitout @standupeventsmelbourne @daviddavutovic
A post shared by Andy Brennan (@andybrennan36) on Jul 5, 2019 at 2:13am PDT
As Brennan speaks, he admits that he did not foresee himself becoming an LGBTQ+ spokesperson. But he has, on occasion, been unable to resist. In response to homophobic comments made by Australian rugby player Israel Folau, Brennan posted on Instagram this month that, as a 16-year-old, Folau’s words “would have made me further deplore who I was”.
Consequently, a 16-year-old gay Australian footballer sent Brennan a message thanking him for the post. As with the @FootballerGay imbroglio, Brennan ultimately drew positives from a potentially negative situation: “Obviously, what Folau said was awful, but there were also loads of people who condemned what he said and showed a lot of support for people in my situation.”
On the question of whether he will soon be joined by other openly gay footballers, Brennan chooses his words carefully. He would never be as presumptuous as to tell someone whether they should or not come out, and simply says instead: “If I can help other people then that’s a pretty powerful thing to be able to do.”