Sport

Why Thomas Hitzlsperger coming out matters

By Antoinette Muller 8 January 2014

Thomas Hitzlsperger has become the most high-profile footballer to date to reveal that he is gay. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is; and it matters massively. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

On Wednesday, Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former Aston Villa, Everton and West Ham United player, revealed that he’s gay. It makes him the highest-profile footballer to date to come out. In an interview with German paper De Zeit, the former German international spoke about how being gay doesn’t really matter in certain countries anymore.

“In England, Italy and Germany being a homosexual is no big thing, at least not in the dressing room,” he said

“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.

“Being gay is 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'”.

On the surface, his announcement might seem like something simple and something quite ordinary, but it carries far more weight than that. Hours before Hitzlperger’s revelation, Michael Johnson, former Derby County captain, resigned from the Football Association’s inclusion advisory board following evidence which showed him describing homosexuality as “detestable”.

Johnson made these comments in 2012 when he decided to not join an anti-homophobia campaign backed by the FA. He has said that his views has since changed, but still decided to step down. Whether Johnson has in fact really changed his views nobody will ever know, but that such kind of thinking still exists in the modern age is exactly one of the reasons why it is so important to have prominent sports people speak out about their sexuality.

Hitzlsperger might feel as if though sexuality isn’t an issue in dressing rooms, but in greater context of society, it does remain something which many frown upon and soccer players, as well as other sports people, remain hesitant about the reaction revealing their sexuality might result in. Hitzlsperger has been largely welcomed by the footballing community with many players congratulating him on his courage, but the question should rather be: why does something like this still need to be “announced” and “revealed”?

There is still an issue around stereotypes and stigmas. In 2011, Anton Hysen became just the second active footballer to come out as gay and in an emotional interview with CNN, revealed that there is very much still a stigma surrounding being gay.

“There’s so much ignorance,” he said.

“There’s a lack of knowledge. Some people who are homophobic don’t even know a gay person. It’s all about preconceptions. I hear that football players are supposed to be masculine. I know plenty of straight guys who are more effeminate. There’s this illusion that every football player has to be macho and have a model girlfriend. It’s not acceptable to be a gay player. Why not? We can run, we can play, we can score. So what’s the problem?”

With football culture, especially in Europe, also comes mob culture. It means that football becomes a sideshow and testosterone-fuelled “banter” becomes the main focus. Instead of going to the game and watching sport, fans choose to aim appalling chants at certain players and single ones out who have endured tough times or, who are different to them.

During the recent North London derby where Arsenal played Tottenham in the FA Cup, a minority group of fans aimed vitriol at Emmanuel Adebayor with chants like: “when they are shooting, he uses the floor” and “It should have been you” referring to a terror attack on the Togo team bus, where Adebayor survived.

Justin Fashanu, a top flight, gay, black player, become the focus of despicable chants after he committed suicide in 1998 with fans often singing: “He’s gay, he’s dead, he’s hanging in a shed, Fashanu, Fashanu.”

The crudest chants remain in the minority, but still exist and the environment it creates makes it uncomfortable for professional footballers who might want to consider coming out. The abuse and bottling up something which really shouldn’t be an issue can have a detrimental impact on sportsmen’s mental health. That’s the kind of shackles which needs to be broken before things can really move on.

Getting the “issue” out in the open is pivotal in starting a conversation about what is still perceived to be immoral in some quarters. A homophobe might not change his mind by simply seeing a slogan campaigning for the rights of gay people or to raise awareness about homophobia, but the more it is talked about, the more it might become “normalised” for those who still struggle with the concept that being gay is not a choice.

It will help break the stigma that gay people have to behave a certain way and will help stop the word “gay” still being used by an insult by some. It will help other people who aren’t in the public spotlight deal with what they are feeling, especially if they have been told it’s not normal. One day, a footballer being gay will not need to be an announcement and it won’t be greeted with pats on the back for bravery, it will simply asked: so what of it?

For now, bravo, Thomas Hitzlsperger, the sporting world needs more people like you. DM

Photo: VfB Stuttgart’s Thomas Hitzlsperger celebrates a goal during their German soccer cup DFB-Pokal match against SG Sonnenhof Grossaspach in Heilbronn August 1, 2009. REUTERS/Thomas Bohlen

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