Will Thomas Hitzlsperger Coming out as Gay Begin to Break Down Prejudice?

Ryan Bailey@ryanjaybaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Thomas Hitzlsperger of West Ham United celebrates the opening goal during the FA Cup sponsored by E.ON 5th Round match between West Ham United and Burnley at the Boleyn Ground on February 21, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

On Wednesday, former Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger announced to German newspaper Die Zeit (h/t BBC Sport) that he is gay. He is the first former Premier League player and the most prominent German star to do so. 

The former German international—who won 52 caps for Die Mannschaft and appeared at a World Cup and European Championships—retired in September 2013 after a 12-year career that saw him lift the Bundesliga shield with Stuttgart.

He revealed his homosexuality in a lengthy interview, which was partially translated by BBC Sport.

"I'm coming out about my homosexuality because I want to move the discussion about homosexuality among professional sportspeople forwards," he said.

The 31-year old continued by inferring that coming out while being an active player would have been difficult:

Just picture 20 men sat around a table together drinking - you've just got to let the majority be, just as long as the jokes are halfway funny and the talk about homosexuality doesn't get too insulting.

The player known as "Der Hammer" due to his thunderous left footeight of his 10 Premier League goals were barnstormers from outside the boxadmits that he only realised that he preferred "to live together with another man" in the past few years.

In 2007, he called off his wedding to childhood sweetheart Inga just one month before the ceremony was supposed to take place. "I've never been ashamed of the way I am," he added.

Hitzlsperger is now just the fourth footballer to go public with his homosexuality.

American winger Robbie Rogers came out and simultaneously retired in February 2013, only to return to the game in May with LA Galaxy, becoming the first openly gay athlete on an American professional sports team.

Swedish third-division player Anton Hysen cane out in a magazine interview in 2011, while Justin Fashanu famously became the first and only British player to come out in 1990. He took his own life eight years later.  

Thus far, Hitzlsperger has received plenty of support from those within the game. The likes of Lukas PodolskiJoey Barton and Gary Lineker have all tweeted their approval of his decision to go public. 

The aforementioned Hysen has also congratulated the German star, tweeting that he is "very proud" of him and retweeting an interesting assertion:

This tweet raises an interesting point: Could 2014 be the year when we witness a sea change in attitudes towards homosexuality in football?

As Justin Fashanu's sister noted in a Guardian column in 2012, the star is the only player to have come out in British football, despite the fact that there are around 5,000 professionals. Statistically speaking, the amount of gay footballers should be in the hundreds.

Yet two of the four players who have come out felt the need to do so only after retiringeven if Rogers reneged on thispresumably because they feared it would affect their careers. 

In his interview, Hitzlsperger does not explicitly label the industry as homophobic, instead claiming that the issue is simply "ignored." 

The shunning of homosexuality in the game, even by those directly affected, is evident in the fact that no gay footballers contacted Robbie Rogers when he set up his Beyond "it" campaign. 

It is not good that the issue is ignored, but it shows that the game has come a long way since the days of Justin Fashanu—when it was utterly condemned.

The former Norwich and Nottingham Forest striker was lambasted by those in the game, subjected to continuous abuse from fans and disowned by his brother, Wimbledon forward John. To this day, John Fashanu appears to deny that his older sibling was gay. 

Justin Fashanu
Justin FashanuGetty Images/Getty Images

Despite the archaic chants and taunts of some Luddite fans, homosexuality in sport is becoming more acceptable. Just recently, for example, diver Tom Daley came out.

In the macho world of American sports, B/R's US reporters recently uncovered the fact that the NFL was preparing to reveal its first openly gay active player, but backed out at the last moment. In a country where much of the population holds staunch "traditional" values and players are vehemently opposed to playing with gay colleagues, this is an impressive step. 

Within football, West Ham's Matt Jarvis appeared on the front cover of gay magazine Attitude in January 2013. It is hard to imagine a Premier League player making the same decision 10 years earlier. 

However, the suggestion that 2014 will see some kind of flurry of homosexual footballers coming out in reaction to Hitzlsperger's admission may be a bridge too far. 

While many in the game are enlightened, there remain obstacles to gay players coming forward. On the same day that Hitzlsperger's interview was published, Paris Saint-Germain defender Alex was criticised for controversial comments on a French TV show.

According to Metro, in Canal+ documentary Jesus Football Club—which looks at the relationship between religion and the game—the Brazilian expresses anti-gay sentiments, saying, "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Yves."

Furthermore, as the Daily Mail reports, Michael Johnson of the Football Association’s inclusion advisory board was forced to step down in the past week after footage of him describing homosexuality as "detestable" on the BBC was unearthed. Yes, you read that correctly, he was on the inclusion advisory board. 

Clearly, attitudes are changing towards gay footballers. Hitzlsperger is the most prominent player yet to come out and he will fulfil his aim of "moving the discussion forward."

However, the fact that he waited until retirement to do so suggests we have some way to go.

The German will undoubtedly have helped to break down prejudice, but when a prominent active player decides to come out, perhaps then may we see a true change in the perception of homosexuality in the game.  


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