Forgive me for rolling my eyes every time a straight person in sports tells me how “impossible” it is to be out in sports.
That’s the word most recently used by French soccer player Olivier Giroud to describe the current state of soccer for gay men.
When talking about the story of Thomas Hitzlsperger — the German and Premier League professional soccer player who came out shortly after he retired — Giroud claimed the current state of the sport made it “impossible” for a gay athlete like Hitzlsperger to come out while he was still playing:
This is when I told myself that it was impossible to display his homosexuality in football. In a changing room, there is a lot of testosterone, rooming together, collective showers … It’s tricky but it’s like that.
Gay athletes show it’s possible to be out
Funny, that’s exactly what people said about being openly gay in professional sports in the United States until soccer player Robbie Rogers did it in 2013. Not only did he come out publicly, but the Los Angeles Galaxy traded the league’s leading scorer at the time to acquire Rogers. Eighteen months later Rogers and the Galaxy won the MLS Cup.
It’s what Anton Hysen believed years ago. The English-born Swedish professional soccer player came out and found acceptance in the locker room, continued to keep contracts in pro soccer, and was even signed for a season by a team in the United States. He said years after coming out that he heard a homophobic comment exactly once.
It’s what Jason Collins was told before he came out publicly in the most high-profile way imaginable: a cover story for Sports Illustrated. Nine months later he was signed by the Brooklyn Nets and scored a big upset in the first round of the playoffs.
It’s what Collin Martin was told before he came out publicly. The Minnesota United player is an occasional starter and spent most of the 2018 season as an unused sub. When he came out and was accepted by his team management and teammates, he defied the nonsensical notion that you have to be a “star” to be accepted as a gay teammate.
It’s what Ryan Atkin was told, too. The professional soccer referee in England heard how badly fans would attack him for his sexual orientation if he came out. Of course, as a referee he was already public enemy No. 1, so he had already developed a thick skin that could take some ugly jibes from idiot fans.
Justin Fashanu paved the way for gay soccer players
Yet it’s the story of Justin Fashanu that gives us the best insight into why Giroud, and other athletes who say it’s “impossible” to be out in sports, are so flat-out wrong.
In 1990, at the height of the AIDS scare, Fashanu came out in English soccer, a world deemed, at the time, “impossible” to be out and gay. What’s maybe most notable about Fashanu is that he was the first black player to command a £1 million transfer fee in the Premier League.
Reality is, he had already been shown the possibility of doing the “impossible” by virtue of his race in a largely white league. The courage it took to simply be black in English soccer built the courage to be openly gay as well.
Any athlete saying it’s “impossible” to come out as a gay athlete in European or North American soccer is simply telling a lie.
Out gay athletes, like Fashanu, are uniquely resilient. To get to where they are they have already chosen to share their true selves with parents who had lifelong expectations that contradict their sudden reality. They have ventured into a dating scene that is completely foreign to what they have been taught all of their lives. They have confided in teammates whom they have been told since the first day they kicked a ball would reject and hate them simply for who they are.
These are paths few straight people have to walk. Out gay athletes have already faced their fears head-on and acted in the face of them.
Of course almost every gay professional athlete continues to be too afraid to come out publicly. They see what Giroud sees, instead of what Rogers, Collins, Hysen, Atkin and Fashanu have shown us all: It’s not “impossible” to be openly gay in soccer.
Straight athletes could embrace sports equality more
Instead of telling the world how “impossible” it is to be people who already exist, it would be much more helpful for people like Giroud to triple efforts to demonstrate just how accepting the straight person is.
The Rainbow Laces campaign is a great opportunity for athletes like Giroud to do that. And it’s great that he has also been featured in a gay magazine. To be sure, I’m thrilled Giroud has been part of visibility campaigns and says he wants to help.
Yet no straight athlete — including Giroud — embraces LGBTQ equality in sports like they really want to change something. None of them make LGBTQ charities or causes their top priority. They put on colorful shoe laces a couple times a year, give an interview to a media outlet, and say “my job is done here,” moving onto a charity and cause that is closer to home for them.
If Giroud truly wants to bring about chance, he could wear the Rainbow Laces in his shoes in everyday life. He could find like-minded straight athletes and make a point of visiting gay bars, attending benefits of LGBTQ charities and talking more often about our equality.
Straight athletes never embrace our issues like we need them to, instead telling the rest of us that the situation is impossible. That’s why it’s up to LGBTQ athletes to prove people like Giroud wrong by coming out publicly. Virtually every time we do that, we model just how very wrong he is.