On May 26, 2013, Robbie Rogers made history when he came onto the field at the Home Depot Center in the 77th minute. For the first time ever, an openly gay man played on a United States professional sports team. Rogers’s new team, the Los Angeles Galaxy won 4-0 over the Seattle Sounders. Granted, the Galaxy were already up 4-0 when Rogers came in (which he had hoped would happen), but history was made. For years, many asked the question “Who will be the gay Jackie Robinson?” Now we know. It is Robbie Rogers.
Or so the narrative goes. The truth, of course, is much more complicated than that. Because the Jackie Robinson question is about a major professional sport, and in the United States (unlike most of the rest of the world), soccer is a cut below major. The big American sports–football, basketball, and baseball (and occasionally hockey)–are what attracts massive, heterogeneous crowds both in the stadium and on television. Soccer in the United States generally, and Major League Soccer in particular, is a game of and for the young, urban, professional, educated, largely white, middle class. This is, not coincidentally, the group most likely to support LGBT rights and have gay friends and out family members. This is not a criticism; I have long been ambivalent about the growth of soccer in the US, and I don’t necessarily believe that bigger is better. I appreciate having a soccer league in which every club is like St. Pauli in Germany only with corporate ownership and without the German club’s lovable and endearing eccentricities (if a gay player in the European game ever comes out, St. Pauli would be a good place to be at).
The test for Rogers is not really MLS, although no doubt his first game was a terrifying moment for him. His real first away game–without the protection of the currently supportive Galaxy fans–was no doubt another one. (He was received well at his first away match, but given that it was in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, against a team from the NASL, and in front of a crowd made up of three teenagers, two drunks, five people who got lost, and a puppy, it doesn’t really count. Hist first MLS away match was a disaster, but that was because it was a 5-0 loss, not because of homophobia.)
The real test for Rogers, if he can reach his potential, will be on the international stage, a far less enlightened arena. Like any top player–especially one who, like Rogers, has already been capped–playing at the World Cup is the ultimate goal. Right now the US is engaged in a very tough struggle for qualification for Brazil 2014. Whether Rogers can eventually contend for a spot on the national team is an open question. But even if he reaches the level where he can several questions remain. Would Jurgen Klinsmann consider him? Would Rogers’s notoriety work against him? Rogers’s coming out was international news, which means he would be among the most prominent targets for abuse. Can Rogers deal with hostile away crowds braying out maricón or whatever the Portuguese equivalent of faggot is (bicha)?
Any serious fan of American soccer knew who Robbie Rogers was prior to this past February. As of February 23, 2013 though, the entire world knew his name when he published a blog post that was both a very personal and intimate admission of his sexuality and also a resignation from soccer.
Coming out is a very intense process and it is extremely personal that every LGBT person must do in his or her own time. Some of us were never able to hide and were always subjected to ridicule and persecution. Usually this was because of some outward display that defied gender conformity–particularly effeminate mannerisms in boys. But there are others of us who are not like that, who could hide behind a veneer of masculinity, “straightness” if you will, and who come out only when their own internal demons force them to instead of external factors. Rogers falls into the latter camp. It is hard to imagine him being picked on in school and taunted as a queer. In fact, it is hard to imagine him being anything during his life except extremely popular. He is a professional athlete. He is also so beautiful that it hurts. If ever there was a golden boy, it is Robbie Rogers.
Yet at 25, Rogers quit the sport that was his life, and as he admitted, he quit because of his internal demons. And in the end, the coming out process of the golden boy, was just as shattering as that of any purple-haired, swishy outcast teenager. Rogers’s blog post was extremely personal and heartfelt. It was also something that drama queen would have died to write. In all honesty, it was so over-the-top, that I thought out this:
(Don’t worry, Robbie; I’ve never been to me either.)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making fun of Rogers. My own coming out involved much crying and near-vomiting. Given that I am not in any way famous, I cannot imagine how hard it was for him. But Rogers again was lucky, he underestimated the outpouring of love and support he received from family, friends, teammates, fans, and the gay community which is always eager to welcome an out athlete–even if said athlete is no longer competing. And then almost immediately after Rogers came out, Jason Collins did too, and received an even greater hero’s welcome (largely because he did not quit his sport, although as he does not yet have a team, it is still unknown whether or not he will play next season.) By being involved in one of the real big sports, Collins may have even taken some of the spotlight off Rogers.
Because Rogers were not American or if he played a sport other than soccer, perhaps he really would have had to retired. But American soccer fans and MLS wanted him back. Therefore, Rogers, a native southern California boy, began training with the actual Hollywood F.C., the L.A. Galaxy. His return was rather sudden. Rogers himself said that he decided to return to the sport after speaking to a group of LGBT teenagers and realizing that they were the ones who were making a difference because they, unlike him, were putting themselves out on the front line (an absolutely true statement). Rogers’s interviews have gone from confessional to almost cocky, which makes me wonder how much of a publicist’s influence is behind the more recent interviews. Meanwhile, the Galaxy traded one of their better players, their top scorer, to Chicago to get Rogers’s rights.
In a sense, the Galaxy is the perfect team for Rogers, and not just because of the SoCal connection. The Galaxy sees itself, as the glamor team of American soccer, which is why David Beckham, Robbie Keane, and Landon Donovan have all played there. The Galaxy aspires to succeed the New York Cosmos in being the lone American team to dazzle even the Europeans (Pele’s presence helped with that). The Galaxy is not there, but it believes it is. Moreover, the Galaxy wants everyone else to believe that it has succeeded the Cosmos. This undeservedly bloated ego, and MLS’s simultaneous enabling of Galactico delusions, is why I loathe the Galaxy. Yet by collecting sport’s first gay player,* the Galaxy trumped everyone. Robbie Rogers created a unique brand for himself, and the Galaxy loves branding.
For its part, the media has gone into overdrive with Rogers’s return, sometimes with puzzling condescension. My absolutely favorite moment was this headline from ESPN’s soccer website.
The highlighted text reads “Rogers, openly gay, makes debut for Galaxy.” I’ll leave it for you to figure out why that headline leaves me less than pleased.
Now that Rogers has started playing again, I wonder how he will cope with life off the pitch. By being an openly gay athlete, Rogers is in a unique position to use his voice for LGBT issues. So far as I know, the only gay athlete to really use that bully pulpit has been Martina Navratilova. I do hope that he gets involved; prior to his unretirement he claimed he was going to, but now he has a ready-made excuse not to–he has to concentrate on his play.
I also wonder about whether Rogers has ever had sex with a man, and this curiosity does not (just) stem from prurient interest. Rogers freely admitted in a New York Times article to having slept with women. But no one would bat an eye at an athlete sleeping with a beautiful woman (or many). Hell, the more women, the studlier the athlete. Living in Los Angeles, Rogers has access to a community famous for its attractive men, and he will no doubt attract those men.** What happens should he take advantage of that? When gay men are seen as anodyne, all is okay (see Will & Grace). But gay male sexuality is highly suspect and even threatening. Only heterosexuals have relationships; homosexuals just have sex–or so we are told over and over again. Would Rogers get that same admiration for sleeping around with men, especially as he must be relatively new to it? Or maybe he’s a one-man guy. Would his relationship be celebrated the way a straight athlete’s relationship is? I have no idea.
Robbie Rogers may not want to be “the gay athlete,” but the truth is that’s what he is. I hope he realizes how important he is for that. He’s already a hero without even having played a full 90 minute match. I’d wear his jersey with pride if it weren’t too damn expensive.
And I’ll even hold my nose and support the Galaxy, so long as he plays there.
* Actually, he is the first openly gay male player on a professional team sport in the United States. A little context is in order, particularly when the media gets into a frenzy and branding is involved. Martina Navratilova was, in this regard, the real pioneer, coming out as a lesbian by choice. And she did it at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, when LGBT people were especially loathed and gay men were dying in horrifyingly large numbers. Second, he is not the only active openly gay player. There are players like Megan Rapinoe in women’s soccer and Britney Griner in women’s basketball. Rogers is also not the first male player to come out while competing. Saint Gareth is probably the most famous example, but there have been some others in minor sports like hurling, cricket, and rugby league. There is also Orlando Cruz, the boxer. And then there is the case of Michael dos Santos, the Brazilian volleyball player about whom I have written before. Rogers is not even the only gay male soccer player to come out in recent years. Obviously there was the late and tragic case of Justin Fashanu, but even in recent years there was David Testo (whose career effectively ended before he came out to the public at large, although he was out to his team) and Anton Hysén (who plays in a lower division in Sweden and who won that country’s version of Dancing with the Stars).
** Athletes, especially a gay athlete, are a prime fantasy for erotic desire, for men and women, gay, straight, bisexual, or whatever. While I knew I was gay at a very young age, the earliest sexual yearnings that I can remember were triggered while watching the Swedish tennis champion Stefan Edberg play in the early 1990’s.