Middleweight boxing champion Billy Joe Saunders has apparently been reported to the police for an alleged hate crime after he photographed a male shop assistant wearing makeup and hoop earrings, posted the photo on Twitter, and tweeted a series of messages criticising the assistant.
The tweets began “Walking through [the shopping centre] Meadowhall Sheffield and see this” with the photo, adding, “confused”, then progressed to Saunders opining, “don’t think it’s right for kids to see”.
The boxer, who represented Great Britain in the 2008 Olympics before turning professional and winning the middleweight title, has over 91,000 followers.
His initial tweet of the assistant from Urban Decay, a makeup shop, was retweeted over 200 times, prompting a storm of responses from concerned Twitter users criticising Saunders variously for bullying, mocking, and shaming the assistant.
“You’re a disgrace, a bully using his platform to belittle others,” wrote Sarah Habershon.
Others questioned his logic.
“So seeing a man with hoop earrings in is more damaging to kids than watching people get paid to fight,” replied another Twitter user, Livvy Godfrey.
Saunders responded to the criticisms with “he might be a nice kid like but not my cup tea” before rejecting suggestions that he was bullying the assistant. “If his [sic] comfortable with his sexuality he shouldn’t have a problem with this picture,” he wrote, and “So You take a pic of some 1 and then it’s cyber bullying really [?]”.
He then called those questioning his tweets “small minded” and argued: “People who can’t take banter should not be on social media.” When this did not quell the outrage, the boxer threatened to “give people abuse if they keep righting [sic] to me over a pic I took” before posting a video of a talk by Ben Shapiro, the US Conservative commentator, attacking the notion of transgenderism.
The shop assistant and beauty adviser, Jonny Marsh, who has been working at Urban Decay for seven months, told BuzzFeed News he wanted to speak out about what happened so that the incident did not pass unreported.
He described how it felt to discover that his photo had been posted on Twitter with the suggestion that his appearance is not appropriate for children to see.
“[I felt] vulnerable,” he said. “Flabbergasted that someone could do this. It took me aback because this guy has obviously got plenty of followers. I was just working normally, didn’t even realise that this photo had been taken, went home to relax and then my brother’s girlfriend messaged me and said, ‘I’ve seen this online.’”
Marsh, 25, came out as gay aged 13 and said while he does not identify as either male, female, or transgender, he also sees himself as both male and female and so doesn’t mind which pronouns are used to refer to him. “I don’t really put a label on it, I’m just me,” he said.
After seeking advice from his employer, Urban Decay, which he praised for its response to the incident and for its commitment to diversity, Marsh said he contacted police to report Saunders.
South Yorkshire police would not comment on any investigation when contacted by BuzzFeed News, adding that it is national policy not to until someone is charged.
Marsh, who said he stopped reading the comments after the first few as they were too upsetting, described Saunders’ tweets as homophobic and transphobic. “You shouldn’t put anyone down for the lifestyle choices,” he said.
“People shouldn’t say things like that when they don’t know anything about you. Especially in regards to the kids – most children love me because I’m a lovely person. I’ve got a bit of makeup on and I look a bit different and I’m effeminate – that shouldn’t be the decider of if I should be around children or not.”
The decision to photograph him unaware and post it online with such comments was, said Marsh, a “low blow” and indicative of the current climate in Britain “when everyone is looking to point the finger of blame on a minority group…it’s so not what we should be promoting.”
After coming out at school in Sheffield, Marsh said, he was subjected to bullying but makeup helped him be who he is.
"I wouldn’t be the same person today if it wasn’t for makeup – it’s inspired me to be the fabulous character that I am today. It's like putting on a bit of a mask and when you've got your battle makeup on anyone could say anything and it won't affect me – the words don’t mean anything."
But since the tweets, Marsh now fears reprisals.
“I just want to feel safe at work and not have to worry about someone’s tweet and opinions coming back to bite me in any way physically or mentally. It makes me feel very, very, very vulnerable. I love working there and I am trying to stay as positive as possible about the whole situation.”
The response from the public, colleagues, and friends, however, has been overwhelmingly supportive, he said. “People have just been like, ‘Keep on doing you.’ One thing this has brought to light is it reaffirms how much love I’ve got around me.”
Marsh, who had not heard of Saunders before this incident, said: “It makes me speculate how he feels about his own sexuality, deep down. It makes me think, ‘Wow, you’ve got nothing better to do.’ This is someone supposedly doing well for themselves, representing Great Britain. They’ve obviously not got enough happiness in their life that they have to come and be hurtful and hateful towards other people. It’s very strange.”
He also called on the British boxing authorities to speak out about what has happened. “A response would be nice and I would appreciate that,” he said. “I don’t think he should be allowed to represent Great Britain.”
Asked what else he wanted to say about what happened, Marsh said: “I don’t want any more hate or abuse to go that person’s way because even though they have done this small but hurtful thing, that’s not what I’m about. I’m about love, peace, and happiness – that’s all I want to spread.”
In a post on Facebook, Marsh wrote that what has happened “makes me feel stronger in myself and more proud to be me”.
BuzzFeed News contacted Saunders’ representatives, who declined to comment.