During the last few decades, the international football community has witnessed great stars, triumphant glory, and magnificent victories. It has also witnessed great sorrow from deaths of players on the pitch to fatal car accidents, large match-fixing scandals and suicides. However, one topic has eluded conversation during these time periods and has only resurfaced in recent months in the community – Being gay in the international football world.
Being gay and coming out in public is something virtually unheard of in the international football community. While there is no doubt a decent number of players who identify as gay, bisexual transgender, etc, there is still a great stigma attached to being a sexual minority in the football world. “How would the fans react?” “What would their families think?” These are some of the questions wondered by gay footballers. Their anxiety and fear often keeps them in hiding; afraid of showing who they really are to the world. I recently asked friends on social networking how they would feel if one of their favorite athletes turned out to be gay. Mostly everyone agreed that their sexuality would not change how they feel about them. In fact, some even said that they would respect them more for standing out in a world that’s dominated by masculine heterosexuality. I also agree that as a LGBT supporter, I would support my favorite athlete(s) in their decision to come out openly.
The last footballer to openly come out to the media and general public was Justinus Soni “Justin” Fashanu in 1990. Born in London in 1961, Fashanu made his debut with Norwich City in 1978. He played for Norwich City’s first-team, Adelaide City, Nottingham Forest, Notts County and Brighton & Hove Albion before moving to North America to play with Canadian and American teams in the late 1980s. Fashanu’s career unfortunately came to a tragic end in 1998 when a seventeen year old boy accused him of sexually assaulting him after a night of drinking while he was living in the United States. The local police in Maryland visited his apartment in April to ask him questions but did not make an arrest or search his flat. Fashanu panicked and fled back to England soon after. One month after that, on the morning of May 3, 1998, Fashanu was found hanging in a local lock-up garage that he had broken into. He left behind a suicide note claiming that he was already presumably guilty and did not want to further embarrass his family and friends. Also in the note, he proclaimed his innocent and insisted that the sex was consensual with the teenage boy. At the time, the age of consent was 16 in the state of Maryland. To make matters worse, American authorities revealed to London authorities in September of 1998 that they dropped all charges due to lack of evidence and had no search warrant or intentions of searching his apartment. This tragic story stunned the international football community and left many searching for answers. Fashanu left behind a legacy to date as the only English player to ever come out openly as homosexual and continue his career.
Last month, nearly twenty-three years after the first international footballer came out as gay to the public, US born winger and second striker Robbie Rogers announced his retirement from playing The Beautiful Game. Being only 25 years old, the international community was stunned at his announcement. Rogers was born in Southern California in 1987 and began playing his international career after one season of playing with the University of Maryland’s professional men’s soccer team. He joined Dutch side Heerenveen in 2006 but made no first-team appearances with the club during his time there. From there, he joined the US club Columbus Crew in 2007 and played with them for four seasons. It was arguably the best part of Rogers’ career, winning the 2008 MLS Cup with Columbus as well as two Supporters’ Shields in 2008 and 2009. In 2011, he opted out of a contract extension with Columbus and signed with English Championship side Leeds United one month later. He didn’t play very much with Leeds and had injuries throughout the first six months of his stay before making four first-team appearances with the club. He joined League One side Stevenage on a loan-deal from Leeds United in August, 2012 and played with the club up until January of 2013, making six first-team appearances before returning back to Leeds after his loan ended. Rogers and Leeds agreed on an announcement in which Rogers would leave the club based on mutual consent in January of 2013. During this time, Robbie Rogers also played for the United State’s Men’s National Team on and off again since the age of 18.
In February of 2013, Robbie Rogers announced on his blog that he was retiring from football all together at the age of 25. He revealed that he had something to get off his chest and finally wanted to free himself. He admitted in the blog that he was gay: “Rogers stated — “Secrets can cause so much internal damage. People love to preach about honesty, how honesty is so plain and simple. Try explaining to your loved ones after 25 years you are gay. I always thought I could hide this secret. Football was my escape, my purpose, my identity. Football hid my secret, gave me more joy than I could have ever imagined”.
The outpouring of support Rogers received from the international community was welcoming. Many fans and teammates alike wanted him to continue playing as he is in the prime of his career at the age of 25 but respected his decision to retire from all competitions. Rogers admittedly used football as an escape to hide his true identity. But the fact remains is that his friends, family and ex-teammates all supported him and would have loved to play with him regardless of his sexual orientation. Perhaps it was anxiety and fear that made Rogers choose to retire instead of playing as an openly gay man. To date, he is only the second footballer to come out as gay since Fashanu in 1990. While I disagree with his decision to retire at 25, I understand and respect his choices and wish him the very best of luck in his future endeavors.
With recent homophobic attacks in Serbia and Russia, it’s no surprise that footballers are afraid to come out to the general public. They fear that their friends, loved ones and clubs will judge them for who they are and not how they play the game. They fear how their teammates would react to having a gay player in the dressing rooms with them. They fear how parents would view them while taking their kids to a game that they are playing in. Many of these fears are within themselves, but there is undoubtedly a stigma in the international community regarding gay players that must be erased. The time has come where sexual minorities should not fear playing The Beautiful Game as they truly are, openly and proud. The time has come where we as fans and supporters must be supportive of their choices and respect who they are as people and athletes. Wiping out homophobia and other prejudices from our communities is not an easy task and it takes every one of us to do all that we can to educate others about discrimination and try our very hardest to make the international game a positive and friendly environment where you can be free to be yourself above all else.