Gay former soccer player talks about coming out

Feb. 27, 2014 @ 05:08 PM

Early on in Munich-native Thomas Hitzlsperger’s career, he knew he wanted make it to the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. He had a long-term girlfriend at the time, and his teammates’ locker room conversations sometimes strayed to how they would feel if they had to change in front of a gay player.

Hitzlsperger, a former soccer midfielder for West Ham United, Everton and Aston Villa, is the first German player and the first Premier League player to reveal that he’s gay. The news spread around the world in January.
In a Google+ Hangout conversation on Thursday, 31-year-old Hitzlsperger talked with Duke University students online about his beginnings as an athlete and his realization that he wanted to out himself.
The discussion was led by Duke cultural anthropology professor Orin Starn, who started teaching a free online course, “Sports and Society,” on Coursera, an online education platform, this January.
The class studies the role of sports around the world, and students spend a week looking at gender and sexuality as well as the influence of “out” players and homophobia in sports.
Hitzlsperger spent seven years playing for Germany and another seven in England. He suffered many injuries and moved to different teams late in his career, then announced his retirement last September.
In his final years as a professional athlete, Hitzlsperger said, he thought about if and when he’d want to reveal he’s gay.
“I looked up other sports people, athletes, who’ve done that in the past, and I thought it was quite brave for them to do so,” he said. “If I had some role models in football, then maybe I wouldn’t have had to do that because it would have become normality.”
Hitzlsperger began to prepare for the announcement. He hired a public relations agency and a lawyer. He consulted with family and friends about his impending decision.
Now, the media “all want to get a piece, they all want to get some kind of exclusive story and, like I said, there’s no more to be said from my side. ... It’s quite tough and I just want to be quiet now and I just want to be regarded as an ex-football player,” he said.
More people recognize him in the streets. He said he is challenging the “manly and strong,” one-dimensional perception of athletes by saying that players can still be at the top of their game as homosexuals.
In a few years, he said, he hopes gay players won’t be big news anymore.
“I’m sure that you, like any of us, doesn’t particularly want to share the details of your personal life with the whole world as you have, so in a way, this is probably all something you don’t especially want to do,” Starn said while leading the online discussion.
“But, on the other hand, if there aren’t courageous people like you speaking out, the same old patterns of discrimination and so forth are going to persist,” Starn added. “It seems in that way a kind of paradoxical situation.”
Students asked questions during the live web chat, and they were linked into the conversation from as far as the Philippines and Mexico and Brazil, this year’s World Cup location.
Husnah, a student from Singapore, asked Hitzlsperger if he thought other players would be encouraged to come out during the height of their careers.
“I thought about coming out but I wasn’t strong enough at the time,” Hitzlsperger said about his time as a professional soccer player. “I was talking with friends and family and I felt that I wasn’t really prepared for it. ... I have nothing to hide anymore. It feels good. But it’s not good for everyone.”
He said he heard of a player who had been forcefully “outted,” who may not have even been gay, and as a result had a hard time getting signed to a team. 
Another student asked Hitzlsperger if he thought he had the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of his career before retirement.
“I do not want to speculate because it would drive me crazy, if I thought, well, if I’d come out five years ago, if I would have known then, would I have become a better player?” he said.
“It doesn’t really matter to me. I look back and I think I had a good career. I’m really happy about it, the way it went. That’s all that matters to me and I’ve come out a couple of months ago and everything’s fine, so no worries about the past.”