German footballer's coming-out shows challenges of being gay in soccer (+video)

English and German locker rooms may be more welcoming of gay players like Thomas Hitzlsperger than their counterparts in US sports, but there is still far to go, say experts.

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    Thomas Hitzlsperger celebrates a goal during a German Bundesliga soccer match in May 2009. In a new interview published Wednesday, Mr. Hitzlsperger became one of the few high-profile sportsmen and the first well-known German footballer to publicly reveal that he is gay.

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Former German national and English Premier League midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger has just become the highest-profile soccer player to announce that he is gay.

But his announcement, which comes after his retirement from the professional game, highlights the ongoing challenges that openly gay players face in German and English soccer, despite greater locker-room acceptance of homosexual teammates there than in the US.

The discussion about homosexuality in soccer has for too long been “simply ignored,” said recently retired Mr. Hitzlsperger in a Wednesday interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, pointing out that he felt discouraged from making the announcement while still in the playing field.

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“I was never ashamed of being who I am, but it was not always easy to sit at a table with 20 young men and listen to jokes about gays,” Hitzlsperger told the newspaper.

The Premier League player’s decision to reveal his sexuality after his retirement in September is a commendable step, but reinforces just how difficult it is to come out of the closet while an active football player, says Marc Naimark, a spokesman from the Federation of Gay Games.

“If he had come out while playing, I would be giving him a standing ovation, rather than just clapping,” says Mr. Naimark.

At the moment “it’s absolutely not normal” to come out as a gay footballer in Germany, says Klaus Heusslein, the co-president of the European Gay and Lesbian Sports Foundation. Many soccer players and “big parts of society” see an incompatibility between being an athlete and being openly gay, he says. Players remain anxious that their teammates will perceive them as “sissies” or that they will push away sponsors.

He is hopeful that Hitzlsperger’s move will advance a discussion about homosexuality among sports players – especially in far less gay-tolerant countries such as Russia – when he meets with the Olympic National Committee in Germany on Friday.

“We live in a country where no one should be afraid to confess his sexuality for fear of intolerance,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel after Hitzlsperger’s announcement. Marcus Urban was the last German pro football player to come out – also upon retirement – in 2007.

Hitzlsperger is the second player based in England to come out in the past few years. Robbie Rogers, an American who used to play for Leeds United, announced he was gay and retired in 2012 (though he returned to the game last year and now plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy).

Professional male football players in Britain who come out to their teammates are almost “unconditionally accepted,” says Eric Anderson, a sociology professor from Winchester University who researches sports and sexuality. Most wait until they know their teammates well enough to build trust and make the announcement.

Coming out as a football player in Britain or Germany would be much easier than in the US, argues Professor Anderson, due to the public's less strongly held religious views.

Once players do come out, they exhibit better athletic performance, as they are able to concentrate better with their increased peace of mind, says Tatjana Eggeling, a cultural anthropologist who advises gay professional athletes in Germany.

Ms. Eggeling has helped a few of the players she has worked with – including those in the Bundesliga, the country’s professional soccer league – reveal their sexuality to friends, family, and sometimes to trusted teammates, but not yet publicly, she says.

“It would be great if more football players came out during their career,” says Eggeling, “and said ‘So what? I’m still representative of my team and of my country.' ”

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