On December 7th, Robbie Rogers played in the starting lineup of the LA Galaxy squad that took home the MLS Cup -a warming news bulletin considering his new book reveals how achieving the same thing six years ago with Columbus Crew exposed just how unhappy he was; living in paralysing fear of the secret he’d been repressing since his early teens.
In February 2013, blighted by injury while on loan to Stevenage and living in East London, Robbie became the only out gay professional football player in a major league when he finally confronted his sexuality head-on via a blog post, tweeted to the world along with the words: “Just getting some shit off my chest”. Initially resigned to the assumption that his footballing career would disintegrate as quickly as the weight was lifted from his shoulders, the response he received was overwhelmingly positive, and he soon returned to football stateside and has embraced becoming a role model to aspiring young gay athletes. He might go all coy when the word ‘trailblazer’ is thrown into conversation, but his story has paved a much smoother path for any currently closeted footballers in his wake.
Coming Out To Play sees Robbie take control of his story, uncomfortable by other shorthand versions of his life that he’s seen. In it he talks about everything from the everyday indicators in his childhood that being gay was wrong, growing up in a strict Catholic background, to having to hide his sexuality in the locker rooms of what is surely still the most homophobic sport in the world today. We caught up with Robbie while he was in town to chat all about his new book and Men In Shorts, the comedy series inspired by his life due to air on ABC next year.
Massive congratulations on your MLS Cup win earlier this month Robbie, how did it feel different this time around – an out and proud athlete – compared with when you won in 2008?
“I mean, it was a totally different experience. Last time I was happy of course, but I wasn’t overly emotional, I went out for a few beers with my teammates and then I went home, and when I got home I just thought ‘why am I not out with my buddies making bad decisions.’ The next day I woke up and I just carried on with my life. My sister, talking about it all these years later, she’s still like “It was so weird, you didn’t seem excited or anything.” This time, my family came down and I just started crying, which I don’t ever do. I was extremely emotional. I was remembering all the things I’d been through, especially in the last few years, and this time around I was so happy to be sharing that moment with my family and my teammates. I went to my team party, and I was the only one dancing of course because I’m the only gay one! I was enjoying myself. I was so out of touch with my feelings when I was closeted. It was almost like I was half a person.”
Towards the end of Coming Out To Play you state how you feel like you came out at just the right time to be a part of this ‘movement’ around the world to end homophobia in professional sports. What have been the biggest signs of that movement coming to life recently?
“Well in the Unites States at least, Jason Collins is out, and Michael Sam… I hear from a number of young kids in high school and college that are out in their sport. I think that’s probably the biggest proof of how things are changing. Unfortunately at the highest level it’s taking its time, but I think in the next generation it might not be an issue.”
Have there been many setbacks?
“I wouldn’t say setbacks, I just think the progress is so slow. There are no other out footballers at the moment. In other sports, Jason’s retired, Michael is looking for a team. I’ve quickly forgotten what it was like being closeted so I’m just like ‘come on guys, it’s cool on this side!’ It’s just this culture that’s not very accepting to the LGBT community, or people don’t feel accepted in it.”
Rumours circulated in March this year that a player in the then-current England National team intended to come out in The Sun, did you hear about that? Nothing ever came of it.
“I didn’t hear that… I don’t know if I trust The Sun.”
You’re quite distrusting of the press in general, aren’t you?
“I think the press takes things out of context. They want to create drama because that’s what sells magazines and newspapers. I wanted to do everything on my terms so I was very careful. I didn’t want to be dealing with unnecessary drama.”
What’s the most uncomfortable thing you’ve read about yourself?
“It’s more just like, when people wrote about [me coming out] they’d be like ‘oh this is easy! He’s come out! He’s back! He’s a role model!’ I felt like it wasn’t easy, I wasn’t a role model, I’d just come out and I didn’t have the answers for everyone. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, because when you read the book you see how much of a struggle it was. Leaving those details out in a short little article in a newspaper is far from the truth.”
Did you hear about the West Virginia High goalie who came out at his prom last week? He says reading Coming Out To Play gave him the courage to do so.
“Yeah, I’ve been in contact with him a little bit actually. It’s such an amazing story, and that kind of story reaches so many other kids. It was never my intention for someone to read my book and it make them want to come out. Well, I mean, that is the point of it, but I didn’t think it was going to happen, so I’m happy that it’s happening so quickly.”
There’s another bit at the end of the book where you talk about experiencing verbal abuse when you were out one night – what’s the main difference hearing something homophobic now to overhearing something hurtful when you were closeted?
“It really shocks me when I hear stuff now. I was out with my ex-boyfriend and we were walking down the street, in West Hollywood of all places, and we heard these very homophobic things from people driving down the street. At first I was like ‘I want to say something’, but it was just me and my ex-boyfriend and they were a car-full of guys, they might have been looking for a fight or whatever. It was hurtful but also it felt kind of empowering, to want to do something about it, whereas it was so much different in the past. When I heard homophobic things I didn’t want to do anything, I just recoiled. It was weird. It just shows that, if you can come across stuff like that in West Hollywood – obviously West Hollywood is like Soho or West Village, it’s a very accepting place – it just shows there’s still a huge problem with homophobia in our world.”
You talk a lot about this intense tribalism among English football fans that isn’t so prominent in the States. You returned to LA Galaxy because you’d have the support of your family and friends to hand there – what if your family and friends were in England? Could you have carried on playing here?
“Oh yeah, definitely. I think even now I could come back and play football in the UK. I was just at a point in my life where, for 25 years I didn’t get to live with my family in a way that I was open with them, so I wanted to go back and for them to give me that support and to go to dinner with them, and have them come to my games. It was important for me to be in that environment. But I think football in the UK is ready for an out footballer now.”
Do you think that fan tribalism in English football puts off gay fans?
“Yeah, I think the whole culture probably does. Why would you put yourself in that environment? That’s how I felt when I’d just came out. I thought ‘why would I go back to football? I’d be crazy to put myself back in that situation.’ But it was really the reaction I had from my teammates that made me think it was possible. It’s tough for gay people to be in that environment but it’s really the only way you change things – by being active in it.”
The process of coming out seemed to speed up for you a lot when you moved to London.
“I know this is cheesy but London definitely helped me discover myself and really just let me be an individual. It’s such an accepting place and even now, when you go to a gay bar it’s such a mixed crowd, I loved that about East London especially.”
Earlier this year when you featured on our cover you told us your first tastes of gay life were in London gay clubs like East Bloc, have you been back there since?
“I haven’t no. I want to have time to go back to those places to see what it feels like for me. I’ve only been out twice this year, I’m like a hermit.”
How have your tastes changed since you came out? A lot of gay people come out and feel obliged to take on the big gay clubs when maybe they know it’s not for them.
“Totally! I definitely wanted to experience those, and when I first went back to West Hollywood I did that briefly. But I’ve realised that I’m just not that big a partier, I like having conversations with people, and I don’t want to be drinking and the next day be super hungover – it’s just not really my style. That didn’t just change for me after I came out, I realised I was always going to be this way.”
How did you take to things more unique to the gay scene that you wouldn’t have necessarily come across before, like drag queens?
“I didn’t know that so many of my friends love to dress in drag for Halloween and any other chance they get! For me, I love to watch and be a part of the banter, and it’s hilarious, but when I came out I wasn’t like ‘okay I’ve gotta work on my drag name!’ I just kind of go with it.”
Before you came out you didn’t know if you could be this gay sporting role model, but that quickly changed.
“Very quickly, it was a matter of three or four months. It was really just the reaction I had from people, and the courage of the younger generation who have been doing so much with their GSAs and LGBT communities. I was like ‘holy shit, I’m being such a pussy if I don’t go back!’ Excuse my language. I had this platform to actually do so much just by kicking a soccer ball around. I decided I had to at least try, and if it went bad I would stop.”
Have you had any bad experiences back in the locker room?
“Not in the locker room, no. I’ve heard a few homophobic things in different stadiums, but it’s very rare and they’re often very cowardly about it. I was playing in San Jose and this fan who came to one of my book signings was like ‘I don’t know if you heard this but these two guys were calling you a fag at the game and the whole stadium just turned on them’ and I didn’t hear that but it was awesome to hear then, especially because San Jose are one of our biggest rivals, every time we go there they expand their stadium and there are like 50-thousand people there.”
Something I noticed reading the book, as a gay man and a football fan, is that some football terms which a straight footballer might have glazed over were explained in a lot more detail. Did you come into any difficulty writing for such a diverse readership?
“Well I did that because I knew the reader would be some footballers, some gay men, some people who have never watched a football game in their life, some people who don’t have any gay friends… I wanted to be as elementary as possible, even though that could be extremely annoying at times, I’d be like ‘fuck we gotta tell them this’ and explain the leagues and all that stuff. It was important to me.”
How do you think straight football fans will relate to your story?
“I honestly think we all have to deal with some kind of coming out in life, whether it’s getting divorced and telling your family, like my mom – she’s super religious and she had a divorce and for her, telling her family was extremely difficult. There’s a whole host of different issues. Mental health too; there’s this awful stigma in sports that if there’s something wrong with you mentally that you’re not a strong athlete, which is so stupid. There are so many issues in our lives that people are afraid to be honest and upfront with people about, and on the whole I think after we do it we feel so much better. That’s what this book is about. It’s not just about an athlete or a gay man, it’s about someone who suffers from something by keeping a secret, and once they told someone it totally changed their life.”
There were so many indicators of gay being ‘unnatural’ when you were growing up – how important is it for parents to reinforce that it’s fine for their kids to be anything they want to be?
“So in the book I talk about dressing up with my sisters or playing with My Little Pony, but then also I was playing with army men with my brother and scoring like eight goals on the weekend. What is the stereotype that parents are so afraid of? It’s such a grey area. I have straight friends who played with dolls when they were younger too, I think parents need to understand that’s not gonna define who their kids are, and not making them feel weird about what they’re doing is gonna make them more of an accepting, open-minded kid growing up.”
You say you were mentally scarred by how repressed you were – do you think that’s permanent?
“I think for a long time I’ll deal with being totally open with people – not necessarily people who are homophobic, I’m past that – but being open about lots of other things. When you keep so much in for such a long time, those kinds of tendencies don’t just change overnight. I think it’ll take a long time to properly get over that stuff, or maybe I’ll never get over it. I’ll definitely work on it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be an open book.”
What can you tell us about Men In Shorts, the TV series inspired by your story?
“I was approached with this idea about doing a show about a gay athlete who comes out and we were talking about my experiences, funny stuff like jokes I had to make in the showers to break the ice, talking about dating for the first time, all these different ‘first times’ and how awkward they were, and we just laughed, so it progressed into this comedy about this guy who comes out as gay – a total fish out of water – and he’s expected to have all these answers for little Tommy in Thailand who’s thinking of coming out, and he has no idea what it’s like in a gay bar because he’s never been to one. It’s inspired by parts of my life but the family is different, a lot of things are very different and it’s exaggerated for comedy. We want to teach people through laughter and play with stereotypes.”
Who would you like to see playing you?
“It’s gotta be someone funny, someone who doesn’t care and someone very masculine; someone you wanna grab a beer with. In a perfect world – he obviously wouldn’t do this and I don’t think I’m anything like him – but someone like Chris Pratt. You know, someone hilarious, good looking but not super fit, you know what I mean? So it looks like he doesn’t go to the gym kind of thing…”
Chris Pratt goes to the gym!
“Haha! Yeah, now he does!”
Robbie’s book Coming Out To Play is out now.