Last week, the German newspaper Bild published some excerpts of The game: the world of football, the new book by soccer player Phillip Lahm. The phrase that has given the most talk is aimed at gay players to whom the German advises not to make their sexuality public: “They would have to endure insults and defamations, who would accept it?”, Says the world champion in 2014.
Lahm preaches to the choir. Throughout the history of the major leagues – France, England, Italy, Germany and Spain – only one active player has revealed his homosexuality, and his name is a symbol of tragedy: Justin Fashanu.
Last Friday he would have turned 60 and, in his honor, every February 19 the International Day against LGTBIphobia in Sports. Fashanu was poor, gay, and black. And he had an inordinate talent. After making his mark at Norwich, his move to Nottingham Forest made him the first black player to be signed for a million dollars. There he met the mythical Brian Clough – one of those trainers from the Luis Aragonés school of sensitivity, who in 2006 caused outrage by rejecting a bouquet of flowers with the phrase: “Are you going to give me a bouquet of flowers that does not fit on my ass or the mustache of a shrimp?” When the footballer’s private life became an open secret, Clough berated him in the locker room: “If you want a loaf of bread, where do you go? To the baker, I guess. If you want a leg of lamb, go to the butcher. So why do you keep going to those damn fag clubs? “
The lack of support within the club and the insults of the fans unbalanced the player, who ended up being separated from the team. In 1990, after being blackmailed by the tabloid The Sun, ended up confessing his homosexuality on a cover that read: “£ 1m Soccer Star: ‘I am gay”(The million pound soccer star:“ I’m gay ”, in Spanish). His career was over, his family disowned him, and the media got fat on him. In 1998, he committed suicide.
Unsurprisingly, Fashanu’s example didn’t help other footballers show their heads. That’s why Lahm’s advice is unnecessary: three decades after the Briton’s death, no other active major league player has acknowledged being gay, and only one has done so after retiring. Thomas Hitzlsperger, Lahm’s teammate on the German national team, did so four months after the end of his successful career and “to promote a public debate on homosexuality among professional athletes.” A gesture that many described as brave and others as hypocritical, because Hitzlsperger revealed his sexuality after being away from the grass, which did not send a very optimistic message to some children who will continue to grow without references or, worse, with references that teach them that it is wiser to hide a natural part of their lives.
In all fields
That silence is not exclusive to football. A few days ago, and on the occasion of acts against LGTBIphobia in sport, the NFL player Ryan russell talked about her decision to come out bisexual a year ago. In the 101-year history of the NFL, the American Football League, there had been no openly gay athlete and he wanted to change it. “It is overwhelming, but I have to keep moving forward. I want to be the first, but not the last ”, stated to BBC Sport. If he did not do it before, it was because he put his financial security and that of his family before his own personal life. While his teammates talked about their occasional flirts or their partners, he had to hide that facet of his life so as not to lose sponsors, receive insults or give up a job that was his life. “Now I realize that none of these reasons are worth my own health and well-being,” he has sentenced.
Also the first, and for now the last, was Jason Collins, an NBA player who acknowledged his homosexuality in 2013. “I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete to compete in a great American team sport, but since I am, I’m glad to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t that kid in the class who raises his hand and says, ‘I’m different. If it were up to me, I would prefer that others had taken this step sooner. Nobody has done it, and that’s why I raise my hand “, declared the player in Sports Illustrated. The following year he retired and, eight years later, no one else has followed his path.
But there are also happy exceptions, or as happy as the story of a healthy, rich and successful man can be who came to consider suicide simply because he was unable to face that he was in love with another man: Gareth Tomas, one of the great legends of the British rugby and captain of the selection of Wales. In 2009, he revealed to Daily Mail that he was homosexual and that if he had not revealed it before it is because he feared not being accepted: “It almost led me to suicide.” His brave gesture was inspiring, but since it seems that no good deed goes unpunished, a couple of years ago suffered a homophobic assault by a teenager.
Spain also has an inspiring figure, Víctor Gutiérrez, one of the stars of the national water polo. Gutiérrez, who revealed his homosexuality in 2018 in the magazine Shanghai, told EL PAÍS the reasons that led him to do so: “When I was 13 years old, if I had seen footballers with her boy, my process would have been easier.” An argument that does not seem to soften the hearts of the great figures of the mainstream sports who, for now, do not consider the visibility debate.
It is clear that men’s team sports are not a good environment for homosexuals. Does the situation improve in singles? Not seem. You just have to look at tennis players, swimmers or golfers. The silence is deafening. The few who have revealed it belong to minority sports or have done so after finishing their career, such as swimmer Ian Thorpe. After writing an autobiography in which he flatly denied being homosexual, and after a treatment for depression, El Torpedo recognized him in an interview on the Australian channel Channel Ten.
The best example of this lack of openly homosexual athletes has been the last Olympic Games in Rio. Of the more than 11,000 who participated, fewer than 50 openly recognized themselves as homosexuals. How can it be that at a time when one influencer 17-year-old as Jojo Siwa, with an eminently childish audience, talks naturally about his girlfriend, the teenage star of the eSports SonicFox take advantage of any forum to remember that he is gay and even Disney premieres its first series starring a character queer, adults at the peak of their careers, backed by their talent and with millions in their bank accounts, are they still unable to set themselves up as the benchmarks that they themselves would have liked to have?
The case of women
There are several possible causes. On the one hand, there is the heteronormative, macho and conservative profile of sport. Any attempt to deviate from the norm has been severely punished. Twenty years ago, the “Fagot Guti” that Real Madrid’s rivals chanted was a litany as inherent to the team as “this is how Madrid wins”, and the insult was motivated, basically, because Guti had long hair. The story has changed little: today, Arsenal full-back Héctor Bellerín has to listen to how he is called a “lesbian” from the stands because he has long hair.
Also influencing is the lack of interest of the institutions, which, in addition to allowing homophobic insults in stadiums, give the go-ahead to holding international competitions in countries with “gay-free zones” such as Poland; Russia – where the Sochi World Cup It was a slap to the LGTBIQ athletes – or Qatar, the venue for the next World Cup and where homosexuality is punished with 15 years in prison.
Others attribute it to fear of losing sponsorships, although that would clash with the receptivity with which figures such as Gus Kenworthy, the first openly gay athlete to compete in the Winter Olympics, have been received. Visa, Procter & Gamble, United Airlines and Deloitte are just some of the sponsors who boarded the boat of an athlete who ended up starring in the series American Horror Story 1984.
The kiss he gave his partner after one of the tests became the most powerful image of the Pyeongchang games. Kenworthy acts naturally because he knows what it is to grow up without references. “I didn’t realize that this moment was being filmed, but I’m very happy that it was. My childhood self would never have dreamed of seeing a gay kiss on TV at the Olympics, but for the first time a child can see it at home! Love is love ”, wrote on his Twitter account.
That something as everyday as the kiss of a couple became a cover photo makes clear the way forward. Those who wonder why an LGTBQ Pride Day is still necessary – and more strongly an International Day against LGTBIphobia in Sports – should ask themselves why they have seen more times than they can remember Tom Brady kissing Gisele Bündchen, Nadal hugging Xisca Perelló or Sergio Ramos declaring his love for Pilar Rubio, while thousands of athletes have to wait to get home and draw their curtains to be able to celebrate their successes with their partners so as not to be insulted, beaten or fired.
This lack of references is not experienced in the same way in women’s sports. Perhaps because the same absurd logic that considers that gays are weak to play sports, assumes that all athletes are lesbians. Or maybe because the same invisibility cloak that wraps women’s sports in general protects them from the most stark scrutiny. Whatever the reason, the truth is that both the number of lesbian women who have decided to step up and their relevance is much higher than that of men.
In 1981, Martina Navratilova came out of the closet at the New York Daily News. She did so after leaving her native Czechoslovakia where “gays were sent to asylums for the mentally ill and lesbians never came out of the closet.” The same year, the lesbianism of the other great tennis icon, Billie Jean King, was revealed. At the peak of their careers, they became that essential reference that facilitated the path of the Mauresmó, Novotna, Mandlíková or Gigi Fernández, girls who grew up watching their idols play and also reading about their happy, sad, anodyne or tumultuous relationships like those of heterosexuals. Many wonder why there are so many lesbians in tennis. The answer is simple: there is nothing more than in the rest of the sports, but they have had references that have taught them that there is no reason to hide.
Lesbians in basketball or soccer are not uncommon either. Two of the biggest stars in these sports, two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and footballer Megan Rapinoe, are lesbians. The same happens in Spain with Mapi León, who in 2018 revealed it on her Instagram account. Like Fashanu, she was also a pioneer: she was the first woman in Spanish football to be paid for a transfer. But their stories couldn’t be more different. Not its categories. While women’s football is in the 21st century, men’s football prefers to stay in the past and follow the advice of Philipp Lahm, someone who has never had to wait to get home and draw the curtains to celebrate a victory with the person he loves .