The story of John Blankenstein, the first referee who said he was gay: the day he was taken out of a Champions League final and his legacy in the fight against homophobia

John Blankenstein was the first openly gay soccer referee (Facebook John Blankenstein Foundation)
John Blankenstein was the first openly gay soccer referee (Facebook John Blankenstein Foundation)

By family tradition, John blankenstein he had to dedicate himself to football. His father played, and so did his brother and sister. However, his mediocre performances with the ball at his feet forced him to take a different path, but not that far. When he was 17, he decided to be a referee. In those times, moreover, He came out of the closet and openly said he was gay.

John Blankenstein was born on February 12, 1949 in De Bilt, a small town in Holland. Over time, the family moved to The Hague and there the young man began his career as a soccer referee, first in amateurism and then in the professional league. His good performances earned him the appointment as international, a merit that led him to lead parties in different European countries.

Her sexual orientation was never a secret. Not for his family, not for the world of sports. In an environment that is still macho and homophobic like football – which was even more so in the 1980s and 1990s – the Dutchman knew how to build an outstanding career.

"Sometimes fans would yell things at him, but he didn't think it was because he was gay, just because he was a referee. He was very relaxed on the subject and said that it was not personal, that in those moments he was concentrating on the game and that they wanted to distract him with the things that were yelled at him. The only thing he said was that if one day a player looked him in the eye and said something about that subject, then it would be personal, "he said. Karin Blankentsein, John's sister, in a phone chat with Infobae.

The Dutchman developed an outstanding career in his country and in Europe (Facebook John Blankenstein Foundation)
The Dutchman developed an outstanding career in his country and in Europe (Facebook John Blankenstein Foundation)

Running games in the Netherlands, England or Germany didn't bring John much trouble. The concern for his family was when he had to go to Russia, a country that has historically had discriminatory policies towards the LGBTIQ + community. However, in those years there was still no internet like today and the news regarding the referee's sexual orientation did not reach that far. In fact, in Russia, the Dutchman experienced some unusual situations such as the time that the leaders of a club invited him to a luxurious dinner with many women. The objective of those leaders was to tempt him with those companions to charge for them on the playing field.. They never even thought that the referee could actually like boys.

Blankenstein had a good career and there was nothing to suggest that what should be the best day of his life would turn into his worst nightmare. Barcelona and Milan they were going to dispute the final of the Champions League of 1994 and the had been chosen to be the referee of that match. That was to be the highlight of his career, but four days before the game a communication reached the Dutch Football Association. The letter reported that John had been fired from that game The reason? The Dutch defender played in Barcelona Ronald Koeman and the coach was the legendary Johan Cruyff, so it was thought that a judge of the same nationality could demonstrate some partiality.

This explanation never satisfied John and, to this day, his family uses another hypothesis for his departure from the final. "At that time the owner of Milan was Silvio Berlusconi and the he is not a very gay friendly person. We are almost sure that this is the real reason. If it had been for what they told us in the first place, no referee could be in charge of an international match between clubs since there is always a player from your country, "said Karin, who a few years ago used some contacts to determine if suspicions were true, but he never managed to confirm them. Sadness invaded John after that decision and his sister saw him shed some tears. That same year he retired from professional arbitration.

Although he was openly gay, Blankenstein was not an activist during his years as a referee. It was only when he retired that he began to contact organizations in the LGBTIQ + community and became a point of reference. This brought him some problems with Dutch Football Association, where he had started to work after leaving arbitration. “The institution did not like what he did. At that time they thought very differently than today. The president at the time was anti-gay and that was a problem for JohnBut he said, 'I'm proud of who I am and I want to work for my community,' ”his sister recalled.

After his retirement, Blankenstein worked in his country's Football Association and became an activist for sexual diversity (Wikipedia: Nationaal Archief, National Archives of the Netherlands)
After his retirement, Blankenstein worked in his country's Football Association and became an activist for sexual diversity (Wikipedia: Nationaal Archief, National Archives of the Netherlands)

During his career, John had met many footballers who were gay, but did not say so publicly. Many of them even had a wife and children. He thought it was sad and that it wasn't fair that they had to hide their true identity or feel compelled to keep it a secret to continue their careers. Therefore began to work so that the environment of soccer – and of sports in general – became a safe space for those who decided to come out of the closet.

On July 1, 2006, tired of his differences with the directors, he stopped working at the Association. "I am free, now I can do what I want," he told himself, but he could not fulfill his dream. Less than two months later, On August 25, he died at the age of 57 from kidney disease. Karin, her sister, decided that her ideas could not be truncated and took the responsibility of continuing her legacy. He met with some people who shared his interests and in December 2008 created the John Blankenstein Foundation, an institution that aims end homophobia and the taboo of homosexuality in football and sports in general. The entity, which began as a small initiative but which over the years began to have greater significance, seeks create a safe environment for athletes to express their sexuality freely.

In dialogue with Infobae, Karin, current president of the John Blankenstein Foundation, He reflected on how to approach this issue and gave details of the entity's work.

Karin Blankenstein, John's sister, is the president of the Foundation that continues the referee's legacy (Facebook John Blankenstein Foundation)
Karin Blankenstein, John's sister, is the president of the Foundation that continues the referee's legacy (Facebook John Blankenstein Foundation)

– Why is homosexuality still a taboo in men's football?

– In the world of football it is very difficult to come out of the closet. Many years passed and the situation remains the same. I understand it: a good footballer can play and earn money for only about 15 years. Only afterwards can you retire and relax. But that is only for some, there are many who are not so important and who earn very little money. So they are going to play in countries like England, Germany or Belgium, but there are countries like Russia or the Middle East where they don't accept gays. The reality is that your career is very short and that many players go abroad to make money when they grow up and that is much more difficult when you are publicly gay. There are countries you cannot go to, even today.

– What are the tasks that you undertake from the foundation?

– One of the most important things is the workshops. We go to the teams and talk to the players, the coaches and the leaders about these issues. Our talks are not to bring people out of the closet as that is their decision, not ours. We go to professional and amateur clubs, as well as other sports institutions. In the workshops we speak with young people between 15 and 18 years old. They don't know that the person giving them the talk is gay. So we ask them what they think of gay people and what is the first thing that comes to mind when they hear that word. In the answers they tell us about everything and that is good because they feel free to do it. Then the person giving the workshop tells them that he is gay. Suddenly, the young people realize that they said everything and that the person in front of them did not get angry. So, We ask them to imagine that they are playing for three or four years with a team and that all of a sudden a teammate comes out of the closet. What would they think of him? That he is no longer a good player? That he is no longer your friend? I think that's the best way to speak it. What happens is that many times their ideas are influenced by religion and there are players who think that they would be afraid to play with a gay partner.

– Afraid of what?

– They think, for example, that a gay partner is going to look at them in the showers. That's when we in the workshops asked them if someone did that to them before and they all say no. So we ask them why would anyone do it from now on. We also say to them, 'You like a specific type of women and gay guys also like a specific type of male. Maybe your partner thinks you are ugly '(laughs). We have to speak it with humor to achieve a good energy in the workshops. We never tell them that what they think is wrong because those players may have grown up in houses where their parents told them that being gay is wrong. Who are we to speak ill of their parents? The only thing we want is to put a seed in his head and that it may grow. With this we do we believe that Some member of a team might dare to tell his teammates that he is gay and perhaps in ten years he will be a good soccer player. That is what we want. It also happens that here in Holland we see more and more boys or girls who have two dads or two moms. That means that in a few years we are going to have soccer players with two dads or two moms. We also think about that.

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The Foundation gives workshops in football clubs and sports institutions (Facebook John Blankenstein Foundation)
The Foundation gives workshops in football clubs and sports institutions (Facebook John Blankenstein Foundation)

– Why do you think that in countries like Argentina or the Netherlands, society is progressive in many fields – with laws such as equal marriage – but homosexuality is still taboo in sports?

– Men believe that gays are not strong, so they do not think of them as soccer players or as referees and that is a problem. They cannot imagine that a good soccer player can be gay and that is a stupid thought. Many times it is thought that players do not come out of the closet for fear of the reaction of the fans, but they are only a small part in the stadium. This season we will talk to fan groups about this topic, even the toughest ones. We will not tell them that what they think is wrong, but we will ask them to tell us what they think is going through a person's head when they are yelled 'gay, gay, gay'. It's like when a black person is yelled at in reference to the color of their skin, and today we have the Black Lives Matter movement. When there are songs that discriminate against people of color, we can see the pain on the soccer players' faces, but when the songs refer to sexuality, not, because gay soccer players are in the closet.

– Why in women's football there are many players who are openly lesbian and activists of sexual diversity, while in men's football it is still something hidden?

– Because women are good people (laughs). I think we look more at people for who they are inside, while men think much more about sex. Men like to see two women kissing, but when they see two men they don't like it and are even scared. I play soccer and when I was younger that was not a problem among women in teams and it is not today either. Maybe it's because we have a different view of the subject. Anyway, I think this is increasingly limited to a small group of men. In the Netherlands, the issue of gay footballers is increasingly discussed, it is in the media and society is more open.

– What can clubs or federations do to offer a safe space to those players who want to publicly tell that they are gay?

– They have to let the players know that the club is open to that. It can also happen that a player does not want to tell everyone about it, but maybe some leaders. So let them know that they can trust. There are also simple things like the multicolored flag. It's just a symbol, but you can put it in the stadium and that says everyone is welcome there regardless of religion, skin color or sexual orientation. I think the clubs have to say something on the subject. Here in Holland, for example, every year we have a weekend in which the team captains play with the multicolored ribbon and clubs are increasingly open to such initiatives. If only one weekend in the year the club proves to be open to these issues, that is already very important for a gay footballer.

The Foundation promotes the use of the multicolored flag on captains' ribbons and in other spaces in clubs (Facebook John Blankenstein Foundation)
The Foundation promotes the use of the multicolored flag on captains' ribbons and in other spaces in clubs (Facebook John Blankenstein Foundation)

– The John Blankenstein Foundation is offered as a safe space for those athletes who want to contact you, do you receive many inquiries?

– Yes, they contact us and we have people on the board of directors who are there for that. I do not know who the contacted ones are, I do not know their names and I do not want to know them. They entrust their secret to one of our board members and there it should stay. This is how we handle ourselves.

– A few weeks ago, a letter from a Premier League footballer was made public who, anonymously, recounted the suffering he undergoes because he cannot publicly say that he is gay. Do you know similar stories?

– It's almost always like that. There is the case of the German footballer Thomas hitzlsperger, who came to play for his country's national team and who came out of the closet three or four years ago. He was a very strong player, but when you hear his story it's always the same: he was afraid that someone would find out his secret and ruin his career. The stories are always alike: everyone lives by false rules, has a wife, and has children. That is their life, so when they finish their careers it is very difficult for them to tell their wives 'Sorry'. It's almost impossible. So why should they live like this? Footballers must be judged by what they do on the pitch, by their quality as players and not by anything else, that is their life.

– What changes have you achieved and what goals have you achieved with the Foundation's work in recent years?

– Today people talk about it. Journalists in Holland and around the world talk about the subject, there are even some interested in following us in our workshops. Five or six years ago no one was interested and now everyone is. It is not just the press, today there are many people who wonder what the problem would be if a soccer player were gay and who say that the important thing is that he is a good defender or a good midfielder. That is the change we are seeing and we are proud of what we achieved from a small organization in which we are all volunteers. We managed to change the world a little bit.

From the Foundation they seek to end the taboo of homosexuality in football and other sports (Facebook John Blankenstein Foundation)
From the Foundation they seek to end the taboo of homosexuality in football and other sports (Facebook John Blankenstein Foundation)

– On your website they say that they hope their work will not be necessary in a few years, what do they hope to achieve?

– We hope that in about ten years -or, perhaps, less- we can stop working on this issue, that it's one of the last stupid things left in sports. When I was 17 years old and John was starting refereeing, we talked about this issue. Today he would be 70. That means that we have been talking about this issue in sport for more than 50 years Can not be! Why? But we believe that sport is changing.

– Are you optimistic?

– Yes, we see that more and more countries are interested in our work and women play a fundamental role, especially the soccer players.

– Do you think we'll see a professional footballer come out of the closet soon?

– We believe that in about five years that could happen. We thought maybe a group of five or six players could all come out together in the same weekend, that would be great. Beyond that, with the workshops we give we seek that young people of 15 or 16 years old can come out today, and maybe tomorrow they will be the great soccer players. For them it will no longer be a secret as it happened with John, who was 17 when he came out. That is the easiest way. Hopefully this is the case in Holland and around the world.

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