When the Welsh rugby captain, Gareth Thomas, publicly came out as gay, his move was widely commended. Then and since, I saw several press reports speculating on the possibility of prominent professional footballers (as in “soccer” players) following his lead. The prognosis was gloomy. Football has a notably more macho culture, and the fans (especially the British) have a lamentable reputation for thuggish behaviour. In the UK, explicitly racist and homophobic abuse by some fans is a sufficiently serious problem that the Football Association has a formal program in place to combat it.
Even in football though, times are changing. The German professional footballer Mario Gomez has made an impassioned public plea for his closeted colleagues to come out. It will bring them, he says, a feeling of liberation that will leave them better players.
Gomez, who has not said whether he is gay, told a German magazine that being honest about their sexuality would improve gay players’ performance.
“They would play as if they had been liberated,” Gomez said. “Being gay should no longer be a taboo topic.”
Perhaps. Two other German professional footballers, and the national federation, have taken a contrary view. Phillip Lahm (the national captain at the World Cup) and Tim Wiese, the goalkeeper for the national side, have both said that any player who came out would come under unbearable pressure from the fans. The last time a German player outed himself (Marcus Urban, way back in 1997), it immediately ended his career. For the last British player to go public, it may have ended his life. John Fashanu outed himself in 1990 when a tabloid newspaper paid him a six figure fee to do so. Some years later, young man accused him of sexual assault. Fashanu denied the allegation, and killed himself.
Will it be easier now? Probably somewhat, but not too not much – at least not yet. In other fields, progress has been remarkable. Germany now has an openly gay vice-Chancellor, and Berlin a gay mayor. In many countries, openly gay or lesbians in politics, in the judiciary, in business and even in the Church are now commonplace. For most young people, being gay is just not an issue. Although homophobic bullying remains a serious problem which drives some young people into serious depression and possibly suicide, for countless others, coming out in adolescence is made easier by the proliferation of gay-straight alliances – and by the increasing number of positive adult role models they now see around them, encounter in the news media, or meet in fiction or on-screen.
This is why Gomez’ call for his colleagues to come out is important: every single one who does makes it easier for the young people who follow. I’m not holding my breath for German (or British) footballers to take up the challenge just yet, but there will surely be some in time, and probably sooner than we think. In other sporting codes, there are many examples beyond that of Gareth Thomas in rugby. At my satellite sites Queers in History and It’s a Queer World, I have been gathering short notes on prominent gay lesbian and trans people across all fields and occupations. I have so far just barely scratched the surface, but already I have been amazed at the number of examples I have found from sport. The lesbian tennis players Martina Navratilova and Billie-Jean King are the obvious and best-known, but there are many others, both male and female, from a wide range of sporting codes. See, for instance, John Amaechi, Professional Basketball Player, Matthew Mitcham, Olympic Diver , and Renée Richards, Pioneer Trans Athlete. These are just a handful of posts I have up so far – there are many more in preparation.
(Matt and Andrej Koymasky have an exhaustive listing of LGBT biographies you could explore – but be warned that not all their inclusions as “gay” are substantiated. (Some appear to be based on no more than rumour, and very few give a source). Still, the sheer number of their entries for sport is breathtaking).
Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization
Dubermann, Martin: Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (Meridian)
Naphy, William: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality (Revealing History)
Stern, Keith: Queers in History
- Germany and Bayern star Mario Gomez urges gay footballers to go public (guardian.co.uk)
- Mario Gomez urges gay football players to come out (telegraph.co.uk)
- Darren Purse on the game’s last taboo (guardian.co.uk)
- Homophobia Still Common In World Of Football (news.sky.com)
- Gareth Thomas: a league of his own (guardian.co.uk)