It’s Great When Top Athletes Come Out, but When They Come Out Matters, Too

Thomas Hitzlsperger playing for Everton in 2012
Thomas Hitzlsperger playing for Everton in 2012

Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

On Wednesday, German soccer player Thomas Hitzlsperger came out in an interview with Die Zeit. While he’s not a household name even outside soccer-phobic America, he’s still a pro player with a great career, playing for three top British teams, as well as Lazio Roma. He also played 52 games on the German national team, meaning he’s in the upper echelon of the sport.

Although Sweden’s Anton Hysén came out in March 2011, and Robbie Rogers came out in February 2013, Hitzlsperger is the first top player with international visibility to come out. Alas, Hitzlsperger retired last September and will not be playing professionally as an out player. More power to Hitzlsperger, and the best of luck to him for the rest of his life, but how much applause does this coming out deserve?

At least among male athletes, it has been exceedingly rare for an actively competing athlete to come out. Gay Games Ambassador David Kopay came out after retiring from the NFL, as did Esera Tuaolo much later. So did former NBA player John Amaechi and the MLB’s Billy Bean, all Gay Games ambassadors, and all dedicated advocates for the fight against homophobia in sport. Despite being retired, their impact comes from their willingness to share their experiences as closeted athletes, with the goal of making coming out easier. But what was incredibly heroic for Kopay in 1975, and even for Tuaolo in 2002 or Amaechi in 2007, should not be so hard today. A lot has changed in a very short time, and our expectations have justifiably risen.

As a rule, athletes shouldn’t be outed. The treatment of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been shameful. Outing may be legitimate when a public figure has taken a position against LGBTQ rights, but sexual orientation is a private and personal matter. Still, an athlete who comes out becomes a de facto role model for other athletes, and in particular for young people who feel excluded from sport by real or imagined homophobia. That’s true whether the athlete is active or retired, but the impact is far less when the athlete is retired.

When Robbie Rogers came out last year, he did so while announcing his retirement. My reaction to the news was similar to my reaction to Hitzlsperger: great, congratulations, good luck, but so what? LGBTQ people come out in much more difficult circumstances, including risking rejection, violence, homelessness, and even death from their family. So while I was happy for Rogers, and glad to have another visible gay athlete, I didn’t see his coming out as having a great impact in and of itself.

Rogers has since returned to professional soccer at the LA Galaxy, and more important, even before returning to the pros, he had become a great advocate for LGBTQ inclusion. Jason Collins’ career in the NBA wasn’t officially over when he came out in April 2013, but he wasn’t signed to a contract at the time and hasn’t been since. But he, too, has become a voice for LGBTQ people since coming out, including speaking at a historic event at the United Nations last month.

There are hundreds of thousands of out athletes in the world. They compete in mainstream sport, they compete in LGBTQ sport events like the Eurogames or the Gay Games. They send a message to mainstream sport that LGBTQ athletes exist, and they send a message to the LGBTQ community that athletics is as valid a part of gay culture as any other aspect. They are heroes who are forgotten when we become obsessed with celebrity coming outs.

We should appreciate top athletes who come out. But when they come out matters a lot. Among the fears that keep athletes, in particular young ones, in the closet is the dread of being excluded from one part of their identity, sports, in order to be open about another, their sexuality. When athletes wait until retirement to come out, they do nothing to assuage those fears (and indirectly reinforce them). The only way to show young people that being a great athlete and being gay are not incompatible is to create that world by being a great gay athlete. Robbie Rogers became a great advocate after retiring; he has become an even better one since returning to his sport.

Athletes who have come out while competing, such as divers Matthew Mitcham or Tom Daley or soccer player Anton Hysén, are great models, just by competing as out and proud gay or bi men. Athletes who think that what they do has an impact on the world can make that belief a reality by coming out while active in their sport. Don’t wait: Coming out after retirement can change lives; coming out before retirement can change many more.

Thomas Hitzlsperger coming out now merits applause. Thomas Hitzlsperger coming out two years ago would have merited a standing ovation. He can’t go back in time, so what he does as an advocate now is important. In the world of soccer, with its merited reputation for homophobia, strong voices are needed to promote change. Since yesterday, Hitzlsperger has already discussed his desire to work for progress on these issues, particularly in the world of football. And I’m sure that at the Gay Games in Akron in August, or in next year’s European LGBTQ soccer championship in Hamburg. there are plenty of gay football teams that would love to have a pretty good midfielder on their side.