Why LGBT fans are so hurt over Jordan Henderson’s Saudi move
New Al-Ettifaq captain Jordan Henderson recently admitted criticism of his July transfer from Liverpool to the Saudi Pro League club has “really hurt” him, as fans called into question his sincerity for his pro-LGBT stance.
Henderson insisted his intention has “always been to help causes and communities” and that he had not “changed as a person”, however the interview, in The Athletic, has seemingly done little to dissipate the disappointment of the LGBT community.
The United Kingdom’s only male professional footballer to have come out as gay, Jake Daniels, recently described the transfer as a “slap in the face”.
Some may wonder what business one player has questioning where another plays his football and 99 times out of 100, this is the case, but this particular situation is part of a larger market deviation which has come under feverish scrutiny.
Many heads have been turned in the past 12 months by some of the world’s best players making off for the Saudi Pro League in its highly authoritarian namesake country.
These transfers have garnered attention mostly for the overnight visibility the previously irrelevant league has gathered, but in Henderson’s case, his move to Al-Ettifaq has crossed swords with his personal belief system, which has become a large part of his identity.
Henderson says there is no conflict, telling The Athletic, “I strongly believe me playing in Saudi Arabia is a good thing … what I can do is sit here and say I have my values and beliefs.”
Whether or not more players from the west moving to Saudi Arabia is a good thing is a matter of opinion, but Henderson is not just any player – he is the public face of football’s acceptance of LGBT players, officials, and fans.
Henderson still believes he can serve in this capacity, but undermining this is just how deeply hurt the LGBT community remains given the former Liverpool captain has chosen to play in a country where gay people are so gravely persecuted.
When Henderson slipped on his rainbow captain’s armband and rainbow laces while playing for the Reds the past three years, it was more than just a gesture, as was his vocal public message “everyone is welcome at Liverpool Football Club”.
Henderson’s commitment to this cause, in the eyes of the LGBT community, was not just one part of the English international’s general life outlook of helping the less fortunate – such as when he raised funds for the National Health Service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Champions League winner’s promises to LGBT fans, in their eyes, represented a whole-hearted pledge which he had sworn to live by every day and in every aspect of his life.
Given Henderson’s most conspicuous expressions of his support for this community have come on the field, LGBT fans expected him to also wave off any interest from a league owned and operated by a country which is so vehemently anti-gay.
Some will suggest it is easy for fans, who have no fiscal stake in Henderson’s career, to expect such a financially imprudent decision as turning down Al-Ettifaq.
It is this exact issue where the clear divide becomes evident: Henderson seemingly expected fans to appreciate his support for their beliefs when it was offered, but surely not expect them to hold him to such a standard in the face of such an enormous fiscal opportunity.
Unfortunately for Henderson it is exactly this sort of 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week commitment LGTB fans have come to expect from champions of their cause.
LGBT people don’t have the luxury Henderson does to be someone other than themselves if they want to visit Saudi Arabia; as we understand in 2023, to be gay is not a choice.
Henderson, as an outspoken ally to LGBT people, was expected by the community to hold himself to a similar standard.
Whether this is fair or not is arguable; on one hand, Henderson shouldn’t be expected to prioritise anything above himself and his family when making such a career decision, and in accepting a move to Al-Ettifaq, he has clearly put himself first.
However, the former EPL champion has made LGBT allyship a large part of his identity, not just as a person, but as footballer; in his career, he has constantly put others first.
Many fans love Henderson for this quality, and it is fair enough these same fans can feel as if they’d been sold a lie when he put himself and his family ahead of his vocal passion for his causes.