Feature writing

LGBT issues

‘The Gay Footballer,’ real or not, challenges English soccer to champion LGBT equality

The Daily Beast

July 18, 2019

On Twitter “The Gay Footballer” claims to be an English pro-soccer player about to come out. That he’d be one of a kind shows how urgently change is needed in “the beautiful game.”

We are here again. A male English professional soccer player is reportedly about to come out as gay, and the tick-tock has begun on this historic event.

There are no professional male footballers presently playing in England who are out. The coming out would certainly be timely, fresh after the World Cup success of the U.S. women’s team and its many out-players: Megan Rapinoe, Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger, Adrianna Franch, Tierna Davidson, and coach Jill Ellis.

That is, if the person behind “The Gay Footballer” Twitter account is for real. The account apparently belongs to the footballer concerned, and it burst into life on July 5, with a tweet announcing that he was an EFL (English Football League) player, that he had come out to his family, that he was under 23, and was “a proud gay man, hoping to break the mould.” He would soon come out publicly, he added.

On July 6, The Gay Footballer revealed that he had come out to his club’s manager and chairman, and received their support, and their commitment to ensuring that he has the right support from within the club and outside it when he comes out. His playing and position within the team will not be affected, he was assured.

His latest tweet elicited more headlines. Posted on July 15, it said that the footballer intends to come out “as soon as possible” and “I am looking to going public prior to the start of the new season.”

He hopes that other closeted LGBT pro-soccer players “can take comfort and hope from such disclosure and can feel suitably empowered to, if desirable, reach the same decision.”

He added that he hopes he will encourage other gay people at every level of the game, or those who felt their sexuality prevented them from playing it. His coming out, he says, he hopes will be a “catalyst for change.”

So when will this happen? The new soccer season starts at the beginning of August, so if The Gay Footballer is for real, then we can expect this momentous coming out to happen within the next two weeks.

This is not the first time that we have hovered in such tantalizing territory. In 2015, two star players were rumored to be about to come out. Back then, Manchester United (and England) player Luke Shaw denied he was one of them.

The buzz around that supposed coming out echoed the current buzz around The Gay Footballer.

“The stars are thought to be planning to go public before the start of next season,” Britain’s Mirror reported. “We can also reveal that another well-known player came out to friends in 2011. But a homophobic word was then daubed in paint across his car. It is understood he is now reluctant to come out publicly in case he is the target for more abuse.”

Just as with The Gay Footballer, those players—one an England international—were understood to have already told family and friends, and, the Mirror reported, were being supported by their clubs and the Football Association. They did not come out. Presently, there is no Premiership player who is out.

The Gay Footballer, if genuine, would be making soccer history, following in the path of Robbie Rogers, who became the second soccer player in Britain to come out (after Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990 and died by suicide in 1998). Rogers played for L.A. Galaxy until his retirement in 2017. Ex-Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger retired before his 2014 announcement that he was gay.

Earlier this year, Chelsea and England player Ruben Loftus-Cheek denied, via Twitter, that he was a gay premiership player: “Any player who came out as gay, they’d have my full support and respect. But the rumor isn’t true.”

And so the mystery continues, and quite naturally the question of “who” supersedes the less sexy, wordier question of why it has taken so long, and doesn’t the lack of out players in 2019 show that football—both organizationally and among its fans—should get its house in order, and confront and expunge the homophobia that has prevented a player from coming out until now?

This stands true, whether The Gay Footballer is for real or not.

The fact that it has taken so long for a footballer to come out tells us everything about the prejudice that still exists in the game.

What kind of response will this first gay footballer get from his team, bosses, and the fans on the terraces? Why is the immediate instinct to worry about these things? Why should that footballer have to walk this path alone in his chosen career? He will be under the most immense pressure to be both a perfect player and a perfect ambassador.

He will, like a lot of LGBT people in public life, be under an intense microscope, and be expected to say and do the right thing. The problem with so few LGBT people out in football (and other areas of working life) is there in the name of the mysterious person’s Twitter account—that person becomes The Gay Footballer.

Why should one footballer be expected to be a lone standard-bearer? Shouldn’t football be able confront its homophobia without the need of a gay footballer to show it the way? If it did, might there be more out-gay footballers by now?

There are some positive indicators at the top of the game. As exclusively reported by The Daily Beast, at last year’s World Cup in Russia, the Football Association backed the LGBT supporters’ contingent, Three Lions Pride, with its rainbow-themed supporters’ banners and scarves.

Back then, an FA spokesperson confirmed to The Daily Beast the FA’s endorsement of the banners and scarves, as well as the FA’s support of the LGBTQ+ soccer fans traveling to Russia and their “important” presence at the World Cup supporting England.

The FA spokesperson said: “We have been building links with LGBT+ fan groups by using England home games as a focal point. We continue to support their good work, and back their use of a Three Lions rainbow crest at the England games at the FIFA 2018 World Cup.”

This past Sunday, if the account is to be believed, The Gay Footballer met with his club and was heartened by their support. The club understands, the author wrote, that in order for a player to perform as well as they can, it’s important that they are “at peace” with themselves.

He has come out to his family, and thanks them in this latest tweet for their support, and thanked all those who have reached out to him across mainstream and social media.

He concedes the manner of his “ways” to come out, via this Twitter account, is “unorthodox,” but if this is really a gay professional footballer, then he is clearly determined to do things his own way.

What is resting on his shoulders, and what he wants for himself, shines another light on the current failure of the game to address its institutionalized prejudice.

“It is not a personal desire to be perceived as a pioneer of any kind,” The Gay Footballer writes. “My hope is simply to be able to pursue the career and dream I have had since childhood, while simultaneously being permitted to be true to myself.”

That, in its simplicity, could be said for many LGBT people in their places of work. That LGBT people should have to state that as a wish, as an ambition and aspiration in itself, is a shameful indictment of workplaces, organizations, and society itself. Everybody should be able to go to work, and not feel that they have to conceal who they are.

The footballer is “confident,” he says, in his decision to “place within the public domain that I am gay and intend to continue my career as a professional footballer.”

If he is for real, then his determination, and sense of pride, is to be congratulated. And one hopes that his online build-up to the big day serves other important catalytic purposes.

If this is for real, one would hope he does not come out alone; that other gay pro-footballers might join him. His pre-coming out tweets should also serve as an impetus for football, organizationally, to design a campaign around his coming out to not just support him, but in support of LGBT equality as a whole, and as a strong, coordinated effort to combat homophobia.

Whatever, if he is who he says he is, The Gay Footballer should not be doing any of this in isolation. And the true test of English football’s responsibility to support him—and its success in doing so—will be in the first games he plays after his announcement, and what chants come from the terraces.

One would hope that when this bit of LGBT history is made that football and its fans will be as focused on doing the right thing as The Gay Footballer is.