In many walks of life, coming out barely merits the bat of an eyelid, but in the world of professional football being gay is still a serious taboo. Today, however, the issue took a major step forward when a former Premier League footballer revealed he was gay.
Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton midfielder, made the announcement in a newspaper in his native Germany, making him the most high-profile footballer to come out.
Despite huge strides in the issue of gay rights in wider society – including the UK government passing a law last year granting same-sex marriage – it is still barely mentionable in the world of football.
In February last year, former Leeds United pro Robbie Rogers, an American, became only the second footballer playing in Britain to come out, after Justin Fashanu, who killed himself in 1998.
Mr Hitzlsperger’s comments were made on the same day that evidence of the prejudice faced by gay footballers emerged in a piece by the French newspaper Le Parisien. The paper reported on homophobic comments made by Brazilian footballer Alex as part of a television programme due to be aired tonight on Canal+. The Paris Saint-Germain defender told interviewers for the show, Jesus Football Club, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Yves”.
In an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, Mr Hitzlsperger said he went public because he wanted to “further the debate about homosexuality among sports professionals”.
“It's been a long and difficult process,” he said. “Only in the last few years have I realised that I preferred living together with a man.
“In England, Italy and Germany being a homosexual is no big thing, at least not in the dressing room. I was never ashamed of being who I am but it was not always easy to sit on a table with 20 young men and listen to jokes about gays. You let them get on with it as long as the jokes are somewhat funny and not too insulting.”
The 31-year-old, who was capped 52 times for his country, added: “Being gay is a topic that is ‘ignored’ in football and not ‘a serious topic in the changing room’. Fighting spirit, passion and winning mentality are intrinsically linked, that doesn't fit the cliché: ‘gays are soft’.”
Sam Dick, director of campaigns at gay rights charity Stonewall, said that by making the decision to come out Mr Hitzlsperger had paved the way for others.
“It’s fantastic that Thomas Hitzlsperger has been brave enough to openly discuss his sexual orientation,” Mr Dick said. “Every sports star who is willing to speak out makes it just that little bit easier for gay players and fans, while at the same time being powerful role models for gay young people.”
Questions for debate and discussion
- Why is it important for sports players such as Thomas Hitzlperger to be open about their sexuality?
- The world of football has been criticised in the past for being homophobic. Why might this be? What steps can we take to ensure that this improves in the future?
- In your opinion, are jokes about race, gender, sexuality ever acceptable? Explain your thoughts.
- “Now that same sex marriage is becoming legal, gay people have achieved total equality.” Discuss this statement in light of the contents of this article.
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