A fortnight ago American soccer player Robbie Rogers, a former Leeds United player, came out. In a statement published on his blog, Rogers described his relief at finally being rid of the secret that he had harbored for years and the happiness he felt with his decision:
Life is only complete when your loved ones know you. When they know your true feelings, when they know who and how you love. Life is simple when your secret is gone. Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work, the pain from avoiding questions, and at last the pain from hiding such a deep secret.
He spoke of how football had been his purpose and identity, but an escape as well. “Football hid my secret, gave me more joy than I could have ever imagined.”
And then he said he would no longer be playing. “Now is my time to step away,” he writes. “It’s time to discover myself away from football.”
Coming out is hard, and we each do it in our own way. I respect Rogers’ courage and admire the public manner in which he shared this with his fans and the rest of the world. There are countless gay teenage athletes, girls and boys alike, in whose lives this statement will make a difference, however small and fleeting that may be.
“Life is so full of amazing things,” he writes at the end of his statement. “I realized I could only truly enjoy my life once I was honest.”
A powerful message, but a mixed one, too. I found it sad that Rogers’ coming out would coincide with his retirement from soccer, as if he couldn’t be gay (a word he doesn’t actually use in his 400-word statement) and play the sport at the same time. It could be a coincidence, but I suspect not.
But it’s enough that he said it
He’s the not the first, of course. Dozens of professional athletes have come out, though many, like Robbie Rogers, only after they stopped competing. But their stories count. Olympian biathlete Joan Guetschow, one of the first lesbian athletes to come out while competing, once described in an interview how the Billy Jean King story helped her come out at as young age “I was relieved to know… even a great athlete like her felt similar to the way I felt.”
Gareth Thomas was another athlete who did it while playing. In 2009 he came out as the only gay professional rugby player (and by the way received the quick support of both his team, the Cardiff blues, and the Welsh Rugby Union). In an interview with BBC, Thomas expressed his hope that one day a young gay rugby player could come out and be accepted as a “talented gay rugby player”.
More gay and lesbian athletes—and actors and politicians and singers and all those who share the public stage and could serve as role models for gay youth—need to take this step. I believe they have an obligation to do so. In fact, I believe all gay men and lesbians have an obligation to be out not only to our friends and family but out at our workplace and in our community as well.
I have a hard time convincing even some of my gay friends about this, the public part, I mean. But I wanted to try anyway and I thought a letter might be a good way to start. A letter to someone who was comfortable with their sexuality but has come out only to close friends and maybe members of the family. I have an athlete in mind, but it could be anyone who enjoys some degree of visibility, an actor or teacher or singer. A scientist or politician, perhaps. Or indeed anyone with a professional, work or community audience. Which I suppose is probably all of us.
Maybe you’ve forgotten what it was like back then. Before you came out to yourself and then to your friends. Before you accepted who you are, long before that acceptance deepened into a kind of affirmation. Before you became proud, not so much of being different but of having come this far and being able to live your life authentically, or, as much as you can “given the circumstances.” Now the thought of deliberate disguise seems absurd. This hard-won self, with all its imperfections and failings of character, may betray a friend in a moment of weakness but won’t deny its nature. But making a statement, this public declaration, that’s another thing, you say. Too in-your-face.
You say, “What I do in my private life is no one’s business. I’m out to the people who matter. To my family and friends.”
But you’re not out at work, and if you’re an athlete or actor, not to your public.
Maybe you’ve forgotten what it was like to be gay in high school. Of course you have memories of back then, and some of them are unhappy. But they have no edge. You’ve lost that visceral feeling, the pain in the gut that Rogers noted, the intimidation of the locker room, the overwhelming pressure not to stand out. And even if you didn’t stand out and played football or ran cross-country for the school, you forget how ill at ease you felt when your teammates bragged about their sexual exploits or when they joked about faggots, and how that made you even more watchful of what you said and did.
The locker room of professional athletics may still be homophobic, but you’re more confident now. You’re a professional doing his or her job, with respect off and on the field, and you’re not alone any more. Maybe some of your teammates even know. But that’s as far as it goes.
You don’t deny your sexuality but instead relegate it to the backstage. It’s not a closet you withdraw to and you’re not ashamed of it, nor should you be. The bars and gay-friendly restaurants, the houses of your friends, straight and gay, sometimes your parents’ home, too—these are places you can be yourself, comfortable with those who are like you or who accept you.
But it is a small space you have carved for yourself. And though you have found allies and lovers and like-minded friends, your circumspection is not all that different from the watchfulness that marked your youth.
You’ve forgotten how alone you once felt. You were sure there wasn’t anyone like you on the team, and maybe even worse, there wasn’t a gay hockey or baseball player anywhere.
But you’ve moved beyond that, you say. Who even wants to remember those years? You’re comfortable now, maybe even happy with who you are. What you do in bed isn’t anyone else’s business, you say.
Perhaps you’d be right if it were only a question of what goes on in the bedroom—who’s on top, where you most like being kissed, what turns you on. Yes, this is no one’s business at all. It could even be seen as just one more variant of the sexual act, a somewhat broader category of fetish than a penchant for feet, say.
But it’s not just the act of sex. It’s all the stuff that happens outside the bedroom that’s important. And this is often very much a public affair.
You know that already, though. If we’re in a long-term same-sex relationship, we pay different taxes, have different health insurance coverage and have a different (zero) share in our partner’s retirement benefits than a married couple will. If our company gives an extra allotment to its married employees, it probably doesn’t give the same to us.
It not just laws and policies. I’m not talking about the big things, the ones that create “statements”, like whom we bring to the company picnic or how we introduce our boyfriend at a cousin’s wedding. I’m thinking instead of all the times we hear colleagues talk about their (opposite-sex) spouses and lovers, all the thousands of references to (straight) sex that come to us, narrated, illustrated, sung about and painted. You’ve listened quietly to stories countless times. Sex is supposed to be the quintessential private act, (usually) played out in the most intimate of domains: the bedroom. But it’s not, in fact, so private. It’s always there, this attraction. The act itself may (often) be concealed but desire is everywhere to be seen. And isn’t that our difference—desire?
And because it is desire and not color of skin or the shape of our lips that marks us, we are perhaps the only minority that can render its property of difference invisible, in a way that those of race or disability or age cannot.
We are the only minority that has struggled for equal rights while at the same time claiming the privilege to remain invisible—as if we already lived in that ideal tolerant society in which our difference no longer matters.
Not all of us, naturally. Millions of gay men and lesbians have come out not only to friends and family but also at work and in the various communities which they’re a part of. And some to their fans and teammates and voters. But we could certainly be a lot more visible.
But you say you don’t pretend to be straight. You are simply discrete. You say you haven’t given your colleagues or audience cause to believe you’re straight or gay, either way. You think that in the eyes of others your sexual orientation simply doesn’t have a value: it’s unknown or inapplicable, to be supplied later, if at all—a perfect null value.
But people, like database designers (for a different reason) are uncomfortable with nulls, and in their dealings with colleagues and acquaintances will ascribe a default value, often subconsciously, to all sorts of properties they know nothing about, including sexual orientation. You are assumed to be straight in the absence of evidence or cues to the contrary. Your reticence in speaking about your life—the part you say is no one’s business—makes you an accomplice to this ascription. And this matters.
If our sexual orientation were more often in-your-face, so to speak, as inescapably present and visible as skin color, perhaps we would reach that society of tolerance we dream about more quickly. We are not a silent minority, but in certain fields—I think of cinema and sports—we are a relatively (and in the NFL, a completely) invisible one.
I sometimes fantasize about a massive coming-out party, televised across the world, a kind of We-are-the-world happening, with gay and lesbian actors and athletes, all those men and women we’ve seen in the movies and Nike and Gatorade endorsements, in sit-coms and post-play interviews, now joining their voices in an amazing song of self-affirmation, not for themselves really, and perhaps not even for gay young people alone.
But that’s not going to happen. Coming out is so hard partly because you have to do it on your own. Solo.
Saying that what you do in your private life is no one’s business is a wish, not a position. Legislators have already made it their business. Bullies and bigots—including those that sit in the stadium bleachers—have long made it theirs, too. Our society may have become more tolerant and the school yards and playing fields somewhat safer but gay teenagers still have a four times greater risk of suicide than their straight counterparts. Until gay youth can grow up in a climate free of fear and intimidation it is everyone’s business what you—we—do in our lives.
You say you don’t need to make a statement. But your silence is a statement. And it says, “I consent to my invisibility and inauthenticity.”
Our life is a witness to our values and beliefs.We have a responsibility to our self and our history to bear witness to what we believe is true and right. We have a responsibility to our young gay brothers and sisters.
You may have heard about the “You Can Play” project. It joins gay athletes and their straight allies to challenge the homophobia in both the locker and room and the bleachers and work toward “ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.”
They aspire to creating a culture of sports which says: “If you have skill, if you have work ethic, if you can skate, pass, shoot, run, jump, hit, row or play – then you can play.”
This is indeed a world where it really is no one’s business who you sleep with. With the unique opportunity that your talent, hard work and self-discipline have given you, you have a chance to help make this world happen.