Voices: My gay wedding is on the same day as the World Cup final – and I’m dreading it

As soon as I heard the news, I felt sick. My wedding is on the same day as the final of the football World Cup. After waiting decades for gay marriage to be legalised, 44 years to meet the love of my life, then having to cancel our first wedding because of Omicron, I’m devastated.

Because I find football triggering. It takes me back to the most intense homophobic bullying I suffered at school. Yes, this followed me everywhere, from the playground to the corridors to the school bus, but it was always worst on the football field. There, my inability to kick a ball was held up as proof that I wasn’t a “proper boy”, that there was something wrong with me. A boy who didn’t like football? In the working class North in the 1980s, this was unheard of. So I’d be subjected to ritual humiliation, taunted for being a “puff” or “queer” and even, on one occasion, punched in the face in the changing rooms.

“Why didn’t you go to the teachers?” I hear you ask. Because in those days, the teachers would snigger along, or at least turn a blind eye. With the advent of Section 28 – the Tory government’s law forbidding anyone employed by local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality – the teachers might have been reluctant to do anything.

All these years later, I’m still affected by my experiences. Low self-esteem and the long-term impact bullying can have on the psyche is a theme that emerges in all my novels, from The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle to the soon-to-be-released Becoming Ted.

And, although I appreciate that not all gay men feel the same way about football as I do, the majority of those I know do. Like me, they panic if sunbathing in the park and a football lands near them – and they’re expected to kick it back. They shrink into themselves when they see a gang of rowdy football supporters getting on public transport. Or they switch off the TV when the news shows footage of the latest outburst of hooliganism.

It’s not as if I haven’t tried to get over my fear. I’ve been to Premier League matches and to the pub to watch big international games. And I had years of psychotherapy to teach me to love myself as I am, to teach me that what the football bullies said about me wasn’t true. But still the fear clings on.

Now the World Cup final is taking place on my wedding day, a handful of straight guests are putting pressure on us to have screens showing it. And I’m terrified that I’ll end up getting married in what amounts to a sports bar brimming with toxic masculinity, with men expressing aggression through an outlet that for some reason has become socially acceptable.

At the same time, I don’t want to be a killjoy; I want all of our guests to have a great day and appreciate that football is important to some people. I also appreciate that success in the World Cup can be good for the morale of the country, providing a major opportunity to bring people together. I don’t want to be in the position of hoping England crash out in the early rounds.

But I’m struggling. It doesn’t help that the host nation for this tournament criminalises and demonises homosexuality – and even, according to some reports, sanctions persecution. Or that the UK foreign secretary James Cleverly has said gay football fans travelling to Qatar should be “respectful” and “compromise” – in other words, hide who we are.

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But I’m drawing comfort from the outrage expressed at this in the media, and from the support the current England squad have shown the LGBTQ+ community. In 2021, captain Harry Kane wore a rainbow armband to mark the end of Pride Month and has said he’ll wear an anti-discrimination armband during matches in Qatar. In the same year, player Jordan Henderson praised the chair of an LGBTQ+ fan group, tweeting that “football is for everyone, no matter what”. Gestures like this might seem unnecessarily “political” to many fans, but to those of us who were damaged by football culture they matter.

So my partner and I have decided that, if England do make the final of the World Cup, we will have a screen showing the game during the drinks reception at our wedding. The sound might be turned down and the TV may be tucked away in a corner, but it will be there.

And who knows? This might even bring to a close my difficult relationship with the game, severing my association between football and homophobia by bringing it into my proudest moment as a gay man. And the next time I’m in a park and a football lands near me, I won’t be frightened to kick it back.

Becoming Ted will be published by Headline in January 2023 and is available for pre-order now