Greater Goals

A German football club tries to kick out homophobia

St Pauli’s fans have contributed greatly to the football club’s queer-friendly image, undertaking initiatives such as painting conjoined male and female symbols across the stadium. BHAVYA DORE
01 August, 2016

One day in June 2013, members of the board of the German football club St Pauli found they had an unused flag pole atop their stadium. Of the three poles, one flew the club’s name in brown and white, one had flown the word Kiezhelden—referring to the club’s neighbourhood social projects—but a third, which flew a flag of one of the sponsors, had just been vacated.

So the board members approached Dirk Bruellau, the president of Queerpass St Pauli, a gay and lesbian fan club of the team. “Maybe you are interested, they asked me,” Bruellau recalled. So Queerpass installed the stadium’s first rainbow flag—a symbol that has, across the world, become synonymous with queer pride. Since 2013, the flag has been flying at the Millerntor Stadium, the team’s home base, in the heart of Hamburg and down the road from the Reeperbahn, the country’s most famous red-light district.

“As a gay person, if you see that, it makes you think, this place is safe for me,” Bruellau, a thin man in spectacles and a black “Sankt Pauli” T-shirt, told me in May. “It also means you can get more gay fans who might otherwise be discouraged by the homophobia in football.”

This was not the first time the club had forayed into social activism. In the 1980s, the club—which adopted a skull-and-crossbones sign as its official flag—turned from an ordinary football club into one that took on discrimination and right-wing extremism, gaining a cult following. In 2002, Cornelius Littmann became the club’s president, the first openly gay one in the Bundesliga—Germany’s biggest professional football league—and served until 2010. Since then, with the rainbow flag on its new kit, on-pitch demonstrations, anti-homophobia stadium art and outreach initiatives, FC St Pauli has been at the front lines of the fight against homophobia in football.

While Germany allows same-sex civil unions and has had prominent gay public figures (Berlin once had an openly gay mayor), when it comes to football, homophobia is alive and well. Till date, not a single active player has come out as gay. In 2011, a gay Bundesliga player said, in an anonymous interview to a magazine, that he was forced to hide his identity and abandon his relationship in order to preserve his career. “I pay a high price for living my dream of playing in the Bundesliga,” he said. “I have to put on a show and deny my true identity every day.”

In 2010, the agent of the former German captain Michael Ballack described the national team as a “bunch of gays,” a remark meant as an insult. In 2014, after the former national football team player Thomas Hitzlsperger had come out following his retirement, another young gay player said, in an anonymous interview, that homophobic chanting in the stadiums had become worse. He said he had been called a “faggot” and insulted in the dressing room.

Football’s deep associations with conventional masculinity make it hard for many fans to accept that being gay and kicking a ball are not mutually exclusive. I met Moritz Hermann, a Queerpass member, who was playing in a tournament among fan clubs of the team. Last year, Queerpass finished second in the tournament, he told me, and the team brought the pride flag to the trophy presentation ceremony. “You could see the surprise on people’s faces,” he said.

Even in the Millerntor, where fans pride themselves on being progressive and well behaved, inappropriate remarks during a match are not unknown. Hermann recalled a remark by a spectator on how one player was “playing like a fag.” But this was the Millerntor, so there was one key difference. “The other fans got upset and he got trouble from them,” Hermann said. “They said they would complain to security.”

And given the club’s official policy on this, it was not an empty threat. Multiple signboards at the stadium list out the rules, adopted by the club in 1991, that enshrine its values. At the Millerntor, a homophobic slur or a sexist taunt can get you booted out of the stadium. Likewise, carrying banners that are derogatory to oppressed identities can get you banned from future entry. Prohibited items can be confiscated and, if required, a police complaint made.


I met the club’s current president, Oke Goettlich, during a game in late May. He said that even the professional players are educated on the club’s values and history when they join the team. But the players are not the most powerful carriers of the team’s message.

“On the one hand we have the rainbow flag on our kit, but it is not just about being on the kit.” He added, “What is important is the daily work which is powered by our members and fans.”

Indeed, fans like Bruellau have greatly contributed to the club’s image. When Bruellau took me around the stadium on a May morning, he showed me the stickers on display in the fan shop, with slogans such as “Good night, white pride,” “FckNzs” and “Love St Pauli / Hate Racism.” Symbols of queer pride—two conjoined female symbols, and elsewhere, two conjoined male symbols—adorned the walls; Bruellau said that fans had painted them.

Since 2007, the club’s action group, put together by Bruellau and composed of representatives from different St Pauli fan clubs, has been undertaking campaigns on designated “action days.” For instance, at a 2013 match, fans coordinated to raise rainbow flags and a banner proclaiming, in German, “love who you want.” In April 2013, Bruellau and others organised a talk on homophobia in football, in the stadium’sfan headquarters.

St Pauli has also fervently fought xenophobia, welcoming refugees from conflict-torn countries. The club provides free weekly football lessons to refugee children. It has helped raise money for refugees, and last season, set aside a number of tickets in each game for them.

Sexism, too, is not tolerated at the Millerntor. Gabriele Kroger, another member of the action group, has often heard sexist taunts during games—something she has been used to since she started playing football at age 14. “It is better now than it was 30 years ago,” she said, as we spoke under a sign emblazoned with “Football Has No Gender” put up at an entrance. “But it still shows up sometimes. In every game there might be one fan like that.” But, “there are always two or three others who will oppose him,” she said.

The club’s large fan following hasn’t translated into major success on the field though. During the 2011–12 season, they dropped from the highest division of the Bundesliga to the second one. This season, the club finished fourth in the second division—a significant improvement from its fifteenth-place finish last year, when the threat of relegation to the third division had been very real.

But during our meeting, Goettlich was optimistic. He said he wants the club’s sporting success to be the best possible statement for its other activities. But at the same time, he talked about the difficulties one encounters in mixing activism with football.

“We have to think a lot when we get new sponsors,” he said. “are they in line with our guidelines? Do they stand for human rights?” FC Pauli wants “to be as successful as possible so we can display our values to a bigger audience,” Goettlich continued. “But we want to be successful from within the guidelines we have adopted, and therefore we are missing some financial options actively.”

Fans, too, understand the balancing act between football and activism well. “Just because you enjoy the matches, doesn’t mean you have to switch off your brain.” Martina Schroeder, a member of the anti-homophobia action group, told me.

“Football is important, but there is also something more.”