It has been an unsavoury soundtrack to English football matches for decades and shows no sign of going away this season.
The chant “Chelsea rent boy”, a homophobic slur aimed at the west London club’s players and fans, has already prompted action on two occasions in the new Premier League campaign.
The first came when Sussex Police confirmed they were investigating reports of abuse at the game between Brighton & Hove Albion and Luton, when homophobic chanting by visiting fans aimed at Brighton’s Billy Gilmour, formerly of Chelsea, had been widely reported during the match.
Then, yesterday, Nottinghamshire Police arrested two Nottingham Forest fans for alleged homophobic chanting during their side’s game at Chelsea.
The Athletic examines the origins of the chant, the laws in place to punish those who use it and how clubs are dealing with the issue.
What is the origin of the homophobic chant ‘rent boy’ often targeted at Chelsea fans and players?
The term “rent boy” is a British slang for a male sex worker, first used in the 19th century but which became increasingly widely used from the 1960s onwards.
The origins of the specific chant in relation to Chelsea are difficult to pin down, but it is said to have emerged in the 1980s after tabloid newspaper reports alleged a member of the Chelsea Headhunters, an infamous right-wing hooligan group, had been found in bed with a male sex worker during a police raid.
“It has the feel of an urban myth in its construction and the way it spread around the country, but there may be a much simpler explanation: fabrication,” Chelsea’s club historian Rick Glanvill told Goal in February 2022.
What laws are in place and are the police involved?
In January 2022, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) confirmed that it considered the term “rent boy” a homophobic slur — and therefore a hate crime. This means anyone who uses it could be liable for prosecution under hate crime laws.
Ahead of the FA Cup final in 2022 between Liverpool and Chelsea, Liverpool fan Paul Boardman was barred from entering the stadium after being heard shouting the term at Wembley Park station.
Police seized Boardman’s ticket and gave him a dispersal order. Boardman later pleaded guilty to using threatening words or behaviour to cause harassment, alarm or distress, contrary to Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. He was sentenced at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on December 5, 2022 and fined £500.
What does the English Football Association say?
After years of campaigning by Chelsea Pride and other LGBTQI+ fan groups, the FA finally included the term on their list of punishable chants in January 2023 — one year on from the CPS ruling. It means any football fan found to be chanting the term could see their club, and themselves, have disciplinary action taken against them.
The move by the FA came after the term “rent boy” had been heard in chants at several Premier League and FA Cup games last season including Chelsea vs Manchester United, Nottingham Forest vs Chelsea, Manchester City vs Chelsea and Manchester United vs Everton.
“Today, The FA has formally written to all clubs across the Premier League, EFL, National League, Women’s Super League, Women’s Championship and Steps 2-4, to remind them that it can pursue formal disciplinary action against any club whose supporters engage in discriminatory behaviour, now including the use of the term ‘Rent Boy’,” the FA statement read.
“This important step follows the recent successful prosecution of an individual by the Crown Prosecution Service for homophobic abuse, specifically relating to the term ‘Rent Boy’.
“The FA has now informed all clubs that it considers the ‘Rent Boy’ chant to be a breach of the FA Rules. These rules apply to the conduct of supporters at both home and away fixtures, and clubs at all levels of English football have a responsibility to ensure their spectators behave appropriately when attending matches.”
How have Chelsea as a club tackled this?
Chelsea issue guidance to all clubs who visit Stamford Bridge. Ahead of each game they explicitly refer to the ‘rent boy’ chant and advise clubs of the possible penalties for fans singing this or any other discriminatory chants.
If chanting is heard inside the ground on a matchday, an announcement asking fans to stop using the term will be made over the tannoy alongside similar on-screen messages. This is used as a first step to deter further chanting and happens as security teams at Chelsea seek to identify any individuals who are responsible. They will then be removed from the stadium and can be subject to banning orders or prosecution.
Chelsea’s operation for away matches is similar. The club ask for security briefings between clubs to specifically cover the issue and remind stewards what to do if it is heard or reported to them. The club also holds calls with sets of supporters for matches that are deemed to be high-risk or if the likelihood of chanting is high. For example, last season, Chelsea held these calls with Liverpool to address homophobic chanting and tragedy chanting ahead of both Premier League games.
The club also held a conference during the 2022-23 season which brought Premier League clubs, the Premier League, FA, Met Police and other key stakeholders including LGBTQI+ fan groups together to discuss homophobic chanting and how to tackle it and implement change. Brighton are another club whose fans and players have been subjected to homophobic abuse in the past — this is because Brighton and Hove has a large LGBTQI+ community.
As a result of last season’s conference, Chelsea now have increased and regular contact with other clubs regarding the issue.
“Our Ground Regulations specifically outlaw the use of threatening behaviour, foul or abusive language and discriminatory abuse, chanting or harassment relating to age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion and belief, sex or sexual orientation,” the club said in a statement released to The Athletic. “Chelsea FC takes all forms of discriminatory behaviour very seriously and believes all forms of discriminatory chanting, including antisemitism, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic chanting to be abhorrent behaviour that has no place in football.
“We ask all fans if they if they hear something that makes them feel uncomfortable, they can report it. During the match, they can scan the QR codes on the back of every seat, text 88777 or 07894 93 77 93, with the stand, row, seat number, description of the offender and incident. After the match, they can call 0207 386 3355 or email [email protected].”
What do Chelsea’s LGBTQI+ groups say?
Chelsea, as a club, work closely with Chelsea Pride, the LGBTQI+ supporters group founded in 2016, with a focus on supporting them in their continued campaigning.
The victim impact statement shared by the Chair of Chelsea Pride, Tracy Brown, continues to be used in most prosecutable cases.
“I’ve been going to Stamford Bridge for over 30 years and you sort of get used to hearing it,” says Brown, who adds the chanting was particularly prominent following the men’s World Cup in Qatar. “My hope going into this season was we wouldn’t have the same thing happen. Unfortunately, before every single game, there is that bit of apprehension. I’m almost listening out for it rather than watching the game. I’m expecting it to happen.”
In July, Wolverhampton Wanderers were fined £100,000 ($126,000) by the FA after failing to prevent their fans from using the discriminatory chant during a home game against Chelsea in April. It was viewed as a landmark moment but Brown, like many other campaigners, believes the most important thing that will bring about change is education.
“Fans are fans and you have to educate them. Giving a club a huge fine doesn’t really solve the problem. Take away half of their allocation for away fans and hit them where it hurts — then they might actually start listening,” she says.
Brown goes on to explain the chant is used to taunt LGBTQI+ fans and calls this “unacceptable” and “horrendous”.
“If you walk into a football ground and you hear a chant and it makes you feel uncomfortable to the core, it needs to stop. It is a taunt towards our community, which is unacceptable.
“We have had fans say to us, ‘I’m not going to come back, it’s just too much’. And that’s where it’s really disheartening.”
What are other clubs doing?
Luton Town issued a statement before their recent visit to Chelsea (which came two weeks after the alleged incidents at Brighton) to remind fans of their “zero-tolerance” stance on discrimination, a move that was welcomed by the club’s Supporters’ Trust.
Kevin Harper, media officer for the Trust, told The Athletic that it supports the “sanctions that are in place for those who do discriminate”.
On a wider level, Pride in Football — a network of LGBTQI+ fan groups in the United Kingdom that involves the majority of supporters groups of Premier League clubs — has tackling homophobic abuse in football as a core principle, with a specific focus on the term “rent boys”.
“We’ve all agreed to try and engage with our fellow fans and try to eradicate that chant through education,” Paul Amann, founder of Kop Outs, Liverpool’s LGBTQI+ fan group, said.
“I don’t believe there’s any way that we could or should prosecute our way out of this. It’s much more about engaging with our fellow fans, talking with them about the impact of the behaviour, explaining the homophobic nature of it and getting them on board.”
Amann appeared in a video interview with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp to talk about the chant back in 2021 after it was directed at Gilmour, then on loan at Norwich, from the Liverpool away end during the first game of the 2020-21 season.
Since the video, Amann, who has worked closely with Liverpool on this, believes it has helped educate and further eradicate the chant but like Brown and others is well aware there is still work to be done in addressing homophobia.
(Top photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)