Coronation Street's gay footballer storyline changing conversation on homophobia
The struggles of Weatherfield County's James Bailey have got Coronation Street viewers gripped. Actor Nathan Graham and the FA's Jehmeil Lemonius feel it's a football story that can have a lasting impact
Last Updated: 17/05/20 12:23pm
Weatherfield County's James Bailey has felt increasingly weighed down in recent weeks.
The young footballer's personal struggles have been an ongoing storyline in Britain's most-watched soap opera, Coronation Street. James received support when he came out as gay to his mum and brother last year, but after telling his dad Ed in February, the reaction was far from positive. A social media slip-up then saw rumours begin to circulate around the County fanbase, leading to James deflecting awkward questions from the club's manager and press officer.
With the soap having been stretched longer across the schedules due to the pandemic, James' difficulties have been prolonged - and last Friday, a confrontation on the cobbles with a supporter who was making homophobic taunts threatened to turn violent.
For Nathan Graham, the actor who plays James, the character arc is now approaching a critical moment. "It's like this pressure cooker, all in there bubbling away," says Graham. "When this fan comes over and gives him abuse, it's too much and he lashes out.
"James has still got the issue of his dad not accepting him. He's not publicly out because he's not ready for that. So he takes a step back and realises he needs to readdress his approach to the whole thing. As people, we can only take so much before we get to our tipping point."
Graham is speaking to Sky Sports to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, an annual awareness day that has been observed for over 15 years. The theme for May 17 in 2020 is 'Breaking The Silence', and falls at a time when James' journey in Corrie has become a major talking point for the soap's 8m viewers and for a wider audience too. In the absence of a visible gay or bi role model in men's professional football in the UK, the story will be having a particularly significant impact on anyone who sees themselves reflected in James.
"Soaps and TV dramas are good at raising awareness on topics that aren't necessarily out there," says Graham. "If it starts to create conversations within different communities or areas of the football world, and if young kids are watching who play football and who might be gay themselves, it shows it's important to shine a light on this subject."
Growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, Jehmeil Lemonius would have benefited from such representation. He's now the Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the Football Association and has been playing as a forward for Stonewall FC - the UK's first gay football club, currently playing at Step 7 of the non-League pyramid - for several years. As a teenager, Lemonius' talent could have taken him into the professional ranks, but to make that happen he also needed considerable self-confidence - and that was harder to come by.
"If I look back and think about my experiences when I was younger, and I was trying to come to terms with my own sexual orientation, it was a very confusing time," says Lemonius. "I didn't know anybody who looked like me who may or may not have been gay. The only one that was sort of around was Justin Fashanu, whose life obviously ended very tragically. That's not the kind of experience that you'd want to impact on you while you're navigating who you are."
In February, Fashanu was posthumously inducted into the National Football Museum's Hall of Fame, an occasion that was both celebratory and poignant. After the journeyman striker took his own life in 1998, his complex story was frequently distilled down to a simple cautionary tale, one that had a disconcerting effect on the next generation.
"A lot of my difficulties were in trying to find a sense of belonging in the football community whilst knowing that being gay was this element of my identity that didn't reconcile," says Lemonius. "It was a challenge and I think if I'd had that reconciliation, my experience would have been overwhelmingly more positive.
"It points to the power of visibility and you can't ever underestimate that. You can't be what you can't see and unless you have those positive role models in place, people are always going to feel like elements of their identities aren't valid in certain spaces."
The intertwining of both homophobia and racism in the Fashanu story has made him a totemic figure in the fight against discrimination; a charitable foundation in Justin's name was recently launched by his niece Amal. Graham believes the Coronation Street storyline involving James has a grounding in that legacy but fits the modern men's professional game, with its high percentage of black players. "Representation matters. Somebody could be watching the show and see a mirror of themselves, especially if they're a young black man who's gay."
He hopes viewers gain a greater understanding of what constitutes discrimination and how to address it. James' father Ed has previously told his son he should hide his sexuality in order to avoid homophobia, making the contrast between how neither of them can hide their race and so have to deal with racism.
However, when Ed is on the receiving end of racist comments at work, it sets off a chain of events that make him think differently about what his son is going through. "Unfortunately, homophobic and racist abuse still happen, but a footballer like James shouldn't have to feel they're alone in experiencing that," says Graham.
Lemonius is encouraged by the deeper nuance that's being explored in the soap - an intersectional approach. "As I've come out and navigated that journey, I've always felt more conscious of being black before being gay, particularly in LGBT spaces. These are two different barriers that someone like James would definitely have to come to terms with. You can add on top of that somebody who might have a disability, or be of a different gender."
Welcoming cultures, winning mentalities
To help Graham learn more about the experience of being a sportsman who's gay, the rugby league player Keegan Hirst - who came out publicly in 2015 - talked him through some of the parallels between his own journey and that of James. "The scale of the two sports is obviously very different," says Graham, "but from what Keegan said, it sounds like the RFL has a zero tolerance towards homophobia within their sport, which made him feel like the environment was safe for him to come out. I feel like within football, it's not a zero tolerance."
In his job, Lemonius helps to deliver the FA's 'In Pursuit of Progress' objectives, which feature a strong commitment to supporting LGBT+ inclusion in football. He's encouraged by the progress that's been made - "the game's going in the right direction" - but with such low visibility in the British men's game, it can be difficult to demonstrate the need to have that particular conversation.
"There can be a victimless mentality - a feeling that 'we can't be homophobic, because there aren't actually any gay, bi or questioning players on the pitch to be homophobic towards'. A character like James Bailey helps people understand that they do exist in men's football - and they could be players or coaches, as well as fans."
That victimless mentality maintains a status quo. "LGBT people tend to suppress a lot of trauma and discrimination anyway, on a daily basis in some cases. It means that for someone experiencing a microaggression or smaller form of homophobia that's more covert, the chances they're going to report it or speak out about it are quite slim." Meanwhile, players who aren't LGBT and who experience those same microaggressions are even less likely to report them - and so the culture persists.
Within every football environment, there are key individuals who shape and control those cultures, and they can help to reduce the pressure on players. "Ultimately, they're just athletes - they've been training their whole lives to play football and that's all they want to do," says Lemonius. "But if they're able to be their authentic selves as well, we're going to get the most out of them. I'm hoping we can really empower coaches to create those environments, but we're battling against years and years of cultures, and it takes time.
"We all want to enhance and maximise the performance of athletes, and that doesn't just go for being LGBT. A lot of the men's England squad are people of colour, so when England play in countries where there's racist abuse, that's obviously going to have an impact on the team's performance. The way the country rallied around the whole squad after they played in Bulgaria last November was really powerful - for them to know that all their identities are valid, that identity is a strength not a weakness. I think coaching is recognising that, by moving away from archaic methods and shifting towards a psychological element."
Little things can make a really big impact... asking people inclusive questions - just leaving the door ajar so they know you're a trusted person that they can talk to about anything.
Jehmeil Lemonius on creating welcoming cultures
In forthcoming episodes, James will get the opportunity to be more open with his team-mates, and the reaction of his club skipper at Weatherfield County will be crucial. Finding truth in that scenario matters a great deal to Graham and the Corrie team. "If the captain - the leader - is accepting, then if anyone else gives James flak, he's going to come down on them and say no, that's not how it's done here," says the actor. "I think that's a good thing to showcase. Breaking the silence is about feeling supported - when you're ready, you're ready. There should be no timeframe put on anybody to come out and nobody should feel pressured to do so."
With Mental Health Awareness Week beginning on Monday, there's a correlation to other situations that could be causing distress in the dressing room. In his work, Lemonius suggests practical ways to offer assistance on a wide range of topics, and he looks towards senior players to set an example. "For LGBT+ inclusion, we talk about allyship and it's the same - whether you're supporting a player who's going through some financial difficulties; a player having problems with their partner, or family troubles - all of these are about being a good team-mate, and absolutely skippers help to set those cultures in clubs.
"But there can be a disconnect on LGBT+. Particularly when I deliver training at academy level, I find the players are used to having gay, bi and trans people in their schools and they're getting education that's inclusive now as well. But when they go back to the academy, it's not spoken about and that ranges from captains through to coaches and managers. Ultimately it comes down to culture.
"I find sometimes little things make a really big impact. For example, asking people really inclusive questions - just leaving the door ajar so they know you're a trusted person that they can talk to about anything. It could be the type of language that you use. If people feel comfortable talking to you about other personal issues, then you're already creating an environment that's inclusive. You might then feel they're holding on to something else."
As James' story unfolds and he becomes less reticent, Graham has focused on achieving an honest portrayal. "Within life, we all struggle with certain things, and we hide those we don't want people to see. For me, it was about really trying to own the struggle of the character, to not be disingenuous, and to feel the weight of each circumstance.
"As a black man myself, I've received little bits of racist abuse but I've never felt I had to report it - it's never been too much that I couldn't handle. You can draw on those situations and then imagine what it would be like if it was even worse."
The drama will intensify for James in the coming week, both within his family circle and among his team-mates. Yet despite the many challenges facing his character, Graham insists Coronation Street is mindful of its responsibility to be constructive. The story arc's conclusion is expected to support the work being done by Lemonius and his FA colleagues.
"It's important to highlight the barriers that still exist, and it's not always easy," says Lemonius, "but ultimately, I don't know any LGBT person that's ever come out and regretted it."
What is IDAHOBIT?
Learn more about the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia at May17.org
Outside of Corrie and the club's fictional fanbase, Weatherfield County's James Bailey will not be a familiar football name - but the character might yet have a legacy of his own. "I just think back to when I was 15 and if I saw this storyline on TV, I don't know where I'd be now," says Lemonius.
"I'm hopeful that a lot of young people will be really inspired. This storyline says that there isn't just one type of LGBT person - and without a doubt, there are LGBT people in men's football."
Coronation Street continues on ITV1 on Monday at 7.30pm.
Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. If you'd like to inspire others in sport by sharing your own story of being LGBT+ or an ally, please contact us here.