David Testo

This week David Testo, formerly of the Montreal Impact, came out.  It’s made some noise in the gay press, but for the most part, it has passed with relatively little notice.*  In a way this is progress.  Testo plies his trade in the USL, which is a lower tier of the American soccer pyramid than MLS.  In contrast, when Anton Hysén, who plays in something like the fourth tier of Swedish football came out, it was world news.   I guess that when the second player comes out, and it is no longer a major story.  (Hysén’s father was a former player for Liverpool FC, which may have contributed to the amount of coverage of his story.)  It is important to recognize however, that neither Testo nor Hysén plays in his nation’s premier league or national team let alone starring for one of the world’s most prominent clubs.

In all honestly, I had never heard of David Testo before this week.  He has not played in MLS since 2005 (before I started watching), and even then played only briefly for the Columbus Crew.  Although the Montreal Impact are about to join MLS, Testo has been released from the team, which is unfortunate timing.  He is 30 years old and a journeyman; he will not be football’s first openly gay star.  A decent guy no doubt, a role model for sure, and a hero to a ready-made fan base (which includes me) definitely.  But not a star.

None of this should take away from Testo’s bravery.  He is a pioneer–an active openly gay player in a team sport, and a team sport that is followed more devoutly worldwide than any religion. Testo still has a career ahead of him, whatever club and league he plays for.  He will finish his career as an openly gay player.

He could have played it safe; he did not have to come out.  Instead he was true to himself.  Eventually.  What struck me most is what he said:

“I really do regret not having come out earlier,” he added. “It’s something that I’ve struggled with my whole life and career.”

How many times has a gay former athlete in a team sport said that players should stay in the closet because of homophobia?  Finally an active player publicly regrets not coming out sooner, the only possible rejoinder to this “stay in the closet” mentality.  Rather than focusing on the homophobia of the locker room, the fans, or the sponsors, Testo’s story is about dealing with his own internal struggles and finally overcoming them.

Testo was not living the secret gay existence.  Rather he was openly gay, just not to the public at large.  (Former teammates have praised Testo and given their support.  One of them even said that he did not realize Testo’s sexual orientation was a secret.)  He was living in the same glass closet occupied until recently by Zachary Quinto.  Like with Quinto, honesty and integrity prevailed.

The interview that Testo gave to the CBC was very moving, and his emotion, particularly his regret, was much apparent.  It reminded me of the equally emotional video from the gay Australian former field hockey player Angus “Gus” Johnston.  Johnston too was visibly distraught by his inability to come out while an active player.  Coming out, even after his playing days had ended, was still difficult; yet he did it and he did it in a very public way.  It’s admirable.

Athletics, particularly team sports, is the last bastion of the masculine ideal.  (Women’s sports are a unique subset with a different dynamic in regard to gender and gender roles.  That is a topic for another post.)   When a player does not live up to that ideal, whether or not sexuality is at issue, he feels compelled to disguise what his world considers his deficiencies.  This feeling of not living up to the ideal is the root cause for why team sports have yet to have an openly gay player at the upper echelons.  It is perpetuated by the fans who perhaps need their athletes to embody everything that the fans themselves wish to be but are not.  And at the highest levels there is a lot of money involved.  This masculine ideal is false though; Platonic perfection does not exist, yet that is exactly why the previous generation of gay athletes who came out publicly–Kopay, Bean, et al–tacitly or explicitly advocated the next generation to stay in the closet.  The message: subvert yourself to perpetuate the ideal.

But the cracks in the ideal have started to show.  Johnston publicly stated he regrets not being honest while a player.  Tesko regrets not being honest from earlier in his playing days.  Hysén, who is not yet 21, is already out and has a whole career ahead of him.  And of course there is Saint Gareth, who just last month retired from rugby, that most brutal and masculine of all sports, and who lived an honest life as an openly gay man for nearly the last two years of his time as a player.

Slowly, perhaps at a glacial pace comes the change.  But it is coming.

Footnotes: 

*  There were some stories in newspapers and blogs, but no major headlines.  There was a question about David Testo on this past week’s World Football Phone-In.  Sean Wheelock had some very nice things to say about Testo, and Tim Vickery said that no way could a footballer (unlike a volleyballer) come out in South America.