Retired German footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger came out as gay in early January, and thus added yet another eloquent voice to the continued debate about the dearth of openly gay players in professional team sports. He cited the examples of trailblazers like John Amaechi, Gareth Thomas and Tom Daley as inspiring him to make his secret known, but at the same time, he said, the very fact that these people had to take on such responsibility as representatives of gays in sports was frustrating to him. The stories of how well their coming out was received was inspiring, but to Hitzlsperger the media’s interest in finding “the first gay footballer” almost functioned as a deterrent against coming out. It’s easy to see where he’s coming from. We all wish that someday we’ll have reached the stage where being gay is so normalized that the pressures of “representation” are considered moot.
I’ve written extensively about this from a variety of angles, and to hear Hitzlsperger make this exact point, must prompt people like me, who have put much hope into and with that a fair amount of pressure on, gay players to come out and pave the way for others, and by extension to act as role models for aspiring players and gay fans, to consider whether this expectation has been a reasonable one. The wish to see more openly gay players itself is both understandable and reasonable, but if those most directly affected by that well-intentioned pressure tell us that it could actually make it harder for them to take the final step, we at least owe it to them to listen. That said, Hitzlsperger acknowledges that another serious obstacle to him coming out was that he was adviced against it when he still played for Wolfsburg in his native Germany. Long-time readers might also remember that back in 2009, Michael Ballack’s agent, Michael Becker, suggested that there were several closeted gays in Germany’s World Cup squad that year, only to add, rather absurdly, that this might help explain why Germany was defeated at the semi-final stage. With that in mind, Hitzlsperger’s reluctance becomes even more understandable, although few other countries can boast of a more welcoming environment for gay athletes.
The exception to that rule could, perhaps surprisingly, turn out to be the United States. With Jason Collins recently becoming the first openly gay player in the NBA, NFL prospect Michael Sam coming out at the very beginning of his professional career, and Robbie Rogers returning from his time-out from soccer after coming out sign with L.A. Galaxy, the US has truly become a home of the brave. Robbie Rogers spoke to the British gaymag Attitude for their latest issue, touching on some of the same points as Hitzlsperger. He, too, mentioned the examples of no-drama openness set by other accomplished performers, in this case the R&B artist Frank Ocean, yet he shared with Hitzlsperger the reluctance to being made into an example. “I didn’t not want to be a guinea pig”, he said of his decision against coming out while playing in England, and later to temporarily retiring from football upon revealing he is gay. However, as he has since returned to the game, Rogers’ message is an optimistic one: In the interview, Rogers says he’s been welcomed with open arms by the football community and that football fans deserved the chance to prove the assumption that their perceived anti-gay attitudes would drive players from the game to be wrong.
Where do these two testimonials about the state of gay in professional football leave us? On the upside, mostly. There’s still a long way to go until we’ve reached a level where homosexuality is a non-factor, and especially in the UK, the home of European football. Until that happens, the need for trailblazers will remain. The relevant question is how best to create an environment in which they can come out and thrive. There are places to start without necessarily having to put all the emphasis on waiting for the “first gay footballer” to step forward, although that woud certainly be welcome. For example, the national footbal associations, and the notoriously meek UEFA and FIFA, should finally commit to a serious effort to raise awareness against homophobia and to make football a more inclusive sport, and not least, FIFA could make sure that the embarrassing decision to award the 2o22 World Cup to Qatar, a country in which homosexuality is illegal, is made right.