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Jordan Henderson's move to Saudi team may not ruin his legacy as LGBTQ+ ally, say UK public

Jordan Henderson, centre, playing in an English Premier League match between Liverpool and West Ham United.
Jordan Henderson, centre, playing in an English Premier League match between Liverpool and West Ham United. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Andrew Naughtie, Euronews
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Whether or not Liverpool player Jordan Henderson can still be considered a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights will hinge on whether his transfer to Saudi Arabia silences him.

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Polling in the UK has shed new light on public opinion when it comes to one of sport's most contentious issues: whether players can still call themselves LGBTQ+ allies when they move to teams in highly conservative countries.

The survey from YouGov comes after Liverpool FC player Jordan Henderson accepted an offer to join Saudi team Al Ettifaq – this despite his history of supporting LGBTQ+ visibility in football and campaigning against homophobia in the sport.

His transfer, which cost Al Ettifaq some €14 million, has been criticised as a betrayal by Liverpool's LGBTQ+ fan organisation, Kop Outs, which condemned Henderson for participating in a PR campaign for an exceptionally repressive government.

 "Given choices he has recently made, Kop Outs doubt & question if @JHenderson was ever an actual ally," the group said in a statement.

"We are deeply disappointed that he is choosing to work as part of a sportswashing operation, attempting to distract from a regime where women & LGBT+ people are oppressed, & that regularly tops the world death sentence table."

However, according to polling firm YouGov, the British public is unsure whether it is possible for players like Henderson to still call themselves LGBTQ+ allies after joining or working for teams in repressive country.

A clear majority, 60%, agreed that a player who joins such a team cannot be called an "ally" if they do not speak up in favour of LGBTQ+ rights after moving. However, the public appears less hawkish towards players who do continue to support the issue in public after they transfer.

LGBTQ+ respondents were notably more likely than the overall public to consider such players as allies provided they continued to speak out, or began to do so, after joining or working for a team in a repressive country, with 60% considering this a form of allyship.

The findings indicate that the future of Henderson's role as a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights hinges not on the political stance of the team he's joined, but on what he says and does after he moves to one of the world's most hostile countries for sexual minorities.

A matter of life and death

Saudi Arabia is notorious for meting out harsh punishments to LGBTQ+ people, including fines, imprisonment, lashes, torture, deportation and the death penalty.

Saudi authorities impose these penalties for an extremely broad range of conduct, not just sexual activity. There have even been cases of social media users being arrested for posting pictures of themselves in shorts.

However, Saudi Arabia's official tourism body claims that the country welcomes LGBTQ+ visitors.

The campaign group Stonewall, whose Rainbow Laces campaign has enlisted top footballers to campaign against homophobia on and off the pitch, has expressed hope that Henderson's move will not mark an end to his work.

“We are grateful to Jordan Henderson for using his platform to stand up for LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports and fitness, including by wearing our Rainbow Laces," Robbie de Santos, Stonewall's Director of External Affairs, told Euronews.

"In the ten years since our campaign started, public attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in sport have improved considerably, and this is thanks in no small part to bold allyship from athletes such as Henderson," he said.

"We can’t deny the reality of lives for the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia, and we hope that Henderson continues his work to build towards a world where sport is everybody's game."

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