For the first time, two of Stockholm’s professional sports clubs, including representatives from their professional football teams, will participate in Stockholm’s Pride Parade this Saturday.
While many applauded the move, it has also sparked a passionate debate within the male-dominated, masculine arena of Swedish football, and throughout the entire Swedish sports community.
Earlier this spring, AIK, Sweden’s largest sports club and the parent organization of a popular professional football team, invited its rival club and football team, Hammarby, to join them in the annual parade. Both clubs announced the landmark decision in the beginning of July.
“We have come to this point after many years of hard work,” says Jessica W. Sandberg, press spokesperson for the Stockholm Pride Festival, the largest pride festival in the Nordics.
“Both AIK and Hammarby are making history. Not only are they making an important statement for equal rights for all, but they are challenging many people’s attitudes in their own community.”
But some football fans, more known to chant, scream, drink alcohol and sometimes illegally shoot off fireworks in stadiums or brawl outside of them, disagree. In recent days discussions on football forums and fan websites have taken on a more serious tone.
Some have responded with overt homophobia, but the majority who are opposed to their clubs’ participation argue, at least in public, that it is wrong for sports clubs to get involved in what they consider external affairs that are unrelated to football.
“To participate in a festival that takes a stance on an issue is to make a political statement despite how good or right the question may be,” writes Daniel Sundqvist, Chairman of Bajen Fans, on a Hammarby fans’ website.
Hammarby board member Henrik Appelqvist disagrees, and says fans who oppose the decision are in the minority.
“This was a political issue once upon a time, but we are way beyond that now. We decided to participate in the Stockholm Pride parade to make a clear statement that Hammarby is open to everyone,” he says.
Sweden has a reputation as being one of the most open and liberal societies in the world and has historically been at the forefront in providing rights to homosexual, bisexual and transgendered people.
In the mid-1990s, gay couples were given legal partnership rights. And this April Sweden became the fifth country in Europe to allow same-sex marriage. Even the Church of Sweden has said that same-sex couples should be allowed to participate in religious wedding ceremonies. They will make their final decision this October.
However, if you compare the Swedish sports community to the Swedish military, for example, whose soldiers participate in the Stockholm Pride Parade in an official capacity and march openly in uniform, it becomes even more evident that the former has been slow to address homophobia. Only a day before the parade, none of the sports clubs’ popular male football players have committed to marching through Stockholm on August 1st.
“In many ways football is the final barrier to break in Sweden when it comes to homophobia, or what I call collective homophobia,” says Frank Ågren, Chairman of SFSU, the Swedish Football Supporter’s Union. He recently came out in favour of his club’s decision to participate in the parade in his weekly newspaper column.
“Most fans wouldn’t consider themselves homophobic or anti-gay, but it is still common place to hear fans screaming ‘fag’ at a game,” he says.
Many, like Johan Strömberg, Chairman and President of AIK, have been surprised how controversial the decision has been.
“I can’t believe this is such a big question. Now that I see the emotions it has brought up, I am even more convinced that we made the right decision to participate. It is an obvious decision for us to stand up for human rights and equality,” he says.
Despite the controversy, there is no doubt that AIK and Hammarby’s support of the Stockholm Pride Festival is a game-changer, an impossible achievement ten years ago and unlikely in most any other country in the world.
“The question now is whether or not this discussion of homophobia in sports will die out or if we are able to grow it and make real change,” says Mr. Ågren.
“That real change will come when we can make an impact in the locker rooms, with the players’ association and with the younger players.”
By Gabriel Stein