This article is not intended to change anyone’s mind. I want to state this up front, because I wasn’t sure whether I should write it at all and by doing so risk giving those who continue to sing the chant more attention.
Being told that something is homophobic, that it’s hurtful to both many Chelsea fans as well as many within the Liverpool fanbase, should be enough to stop anyone singing it. It should be enough, and given those who did attempt to start the song on Saturday after being told of its homophobia by Kop Outs and Jürgen Klopp himself ahead of the match were, by most reports, quickly shut down, perhaps it even will be. [Note: Since publishing this article, I have learned from a friend who was at the top of the Kop that the song was started often in the area where he was standing: “it was like every seven minutes.” We might have a longer way to go than reports from the Main Stand initially suggested to me.]
Rather than trying to convince anyone for whom that isn’t enough, though, this article is intended as a resource for anyone who has felt frustrated trying to explain the homophobia inherent the chant to someone who insists they “don’t mean anything by it.” For most, being told a homophobic song is alienating to queer supporters of any club, including fellow Liverpool supporters, would be enough to stop singing the song. That’s many of us.
I’ll even admit that I sang the song up until perhaps 2012, when I was kindly informed of its meaning and stopped singing it. This article, then, is my attempt to pay it forward: someone explained it to me, and I hope this can be a helpful gloss that can be used for anyone who maintains a willful ignorance so as to be able to keep singing the song whilst claiming they aren’t expressing homophobia while doing so. As with anything, intentions don’t matter if what your actions do is cause harm.
Put simply, a “rent boy” is a young male prostitute, generally of lower-class and not charging overmuch for his services. It’s an old slang term, one that re-emerged in English popular culture in 1969 but was used colloquially before then. From its earliest usage, it was culturally tied to the West End in London, an area which includes Chelsea.
Many young boys came to London in the 1960s and 1970s and struggled to make ends meet, turning as a result to sex work as a means to pay their bills. While there were other places one could pick up male sex workers in this period, Earls Court in Chelsea was one of the more well known, and it existed as such because the area also contained a number of bars (and other spaces) that at the time and since have been frequented by queer people looking to have a drink in a space where it is safe to be openly queer.
This is a crucial element. It is still not now, in 2021, safe to be openly queer everywhere. A recent spate of homophobic beatings in Liverpool speak to this fact. When someone queer is openly themselves in public, historically and today, it is an act of bravery, as every LGBT person knows there’s always a chance they will face abuse — verbal or physical — for simply being who they are. Chelsea was one pocket of London where, in the 60’s and 70’s, one could go out and feel at least relatively safe as a queer person.
That history is why the chant is associated with Chelsea, specifically. It would not work if there was no association between the area the club is in and gay people. It also serves as a reference to the club gaining the money of Roman Abramovich. That new money especially angered fans of Liverpool and Manchester United, more established clubs with more established history. And Chelsea was associated with LGBT people, historically; Chelsea was a queer-friendly place where it was possible to pick up male prostitutes.
The punchline of the chant, or joke, is then meant to be that Chelsea players (and the cub’s male fans) sell themselves for sex with other men. While sex work is certainly demonized in popular culture, the punchline of this particular chant is specifically to gay sex. The term “rent boys” is gendered, and that’s crucial. The joke is not that they sell themselves, it’s that they sell themselves to other men, and that all of this is meant as, at best, insult.
The idea of (often closeted) men picking up young queer boys for sex — or straight boys who have turned to sex work out of poverty — is meant to be the joke at the heart of the chant. The subversiveness of the queer element, then, is what makes it specifically insulting when sung in this context, and historical associations with queer people is what makes Chelsea, unlike Manchester City, for example, the target.
The “gay” part is not incidental, it’s central. It would land differently otherwise. In fact, it wouldn’t land at all without it. And if a joke relies on gay sex as the target of the punchline for it to land it is necessarily homophobic.
If the term were empty of meaning, as some attest when trying to defend their continued singing of it, it would be applied to spaces and contexts that have no association with queer history. It would be applied to other situations and, most crucially, other clubs. It isn’t.
Football fans in England have long been assumed to be straight and male. Dads and lads. In this context, sport is not something that “women and queers” are interested in.
This is the context I grew up in.
This is the context that many of us grew up in. And that assumption is sometimes dangerous.
Caoimhe O’Neill recently wrote for The Athletic about what watching football as a woman can be like. I identified with it a lot. But while my gender is pretty much always readable in public spaces, the fact that I identify as queer isn’t. I don’t necessarily hide it, but I read as straight. This gives me a level of safety in public that not all queer people have, and, in this context, a level of safety that queer men in particular don’t have.
That’s because the assumption that football fans are straight and male isn’t benign. Many queer people who go the match do so purposefully closeted. They do this because they worry that they would receive physical or verbal abuse from homophobic people — often fans of their own team — if they didn’t.
It is important to state here that this means that people who simply want to enjoy a football game do not feel they can do so as authentically themselves and still be safe, certainly not in 1969 and far too often still not in 2021. That they cannot, without putting defenses up and hiding a part of themselves, experience the joys (and hurts) of being involved in a crowd while feeling safe.
Chants like the rent boy chant — and reactions that suggest removing homophobic chants is being “overly PC” — serve to remind queer supporters that they still don’t quite belong. That they were and still are Other. That the main audience for this sport (and the highs and lows that come with supporting it, the things we all love) is not them.
When he was on The Anfield Wrap after the Norwich match, Paul Amann of the Kop Outs spoke to John Gibbons about what such a chant can feel like in the ground. A homophobic chant makes a queer fan remember that they don’t belong. That their fellow fans on some level don’t want them there.
Before the chant began, those fans would have felt part of the collective. But when a group of people sings something homophobic, those queer fans are reminded that in reality they aren’t quite part of that collective. That feeling of alienation due to one’s identity is not something we should want to do to anyone, let alone our fellow fans.
Long before the conversation about this particular chant was revived, Jordan Henderson spoke to The Athletic about why he chooses to be a part of the Rainbow Laces campaign. His answer was long and considered, and suggested that it’s not simply a PR exercise for the Liverpool captain. Part of his answer is central to the conversation around this chant:
This [Rainbow Laces] campaign is important if there are still supporters who don’t feel they can be themselves or, even worse, have to hide who they are for fear of getting abused or being discriminated against … As long as even one supporter questions whether they are welcome or can enjoy football because of their sexuality, the campaign is important. It sends the message: you are welcome, we are on your side, and the small-minded idiots who make you feel uncomfortable have no place in football. Simple as that.
In this day and age that anyone would make another person feel uncomfortable or unwelcome because of their sexuality is mindblowing. I can’t get my head round it. I like to think at Anfield that isn’t the case but then I don’t sit in the stands so I can’t claim to be an authority. Here’s what I can say: on behalf of the players I want to make it clear that everyone is welcome at Anfield.
The author of the article, Alex Kay-Jelski, had written about the Rainbow Laces campaign before and found Henderson’s sentiments — which came beside those of other players and managers — to be a welcome change to the passive activism in times past. Henderson’s comments, he wrote, offered “hope” to anyone who “grew up thinking football wasn’t for them,” and for anyone who felt the need to conceal their identity for fear of abuse.
It’s important that we consider the rent boys chant in this context. While the chant itself doesn’t explicitly abuse LGBT fans, what it does do, both in general and especially now that everyone has been told it’s homophobic, is contribute to the general hostile atmosphere many queer people continue to experience.
If you think the casual homophobia inherent in the chant — indeed, the homophobia that makes the chant work — is not important, you are saying that you feel that singing a homophobic chant is more important to you than allowing other supporters feel like they belong.
The rent boys chant is not the same thing as the violence that has been visited on queer youths in the city center in recent months, certainly, but in the way that it ignores — or worse, actively weaponizes — its ability to make supporters feel as though they don’t entirely belong, it’s not completely separate either.
Letting casual homophobia stand emboldens explicit homophobia. The chant is not harmless if it reinforces the idea that being queer isn’t “normal.” As Liverpool fans, we should want no part in that.
No fan should feel isolated and alone. Rather than making excuses about what abhorrent things other clubs sing to us as though it can somehow absolve us of singing our own abhorrent song, we should try to live up to the values expressed when we sing You’ll Never Walk Alone.