David Testo: How the MLS Star Coming out Could Impact World Football

Lindsay EanetCorrespondent INovember 14, 2011

CHICAGO - JULY 16: David Testo #23 of the Columbus Crew holds off Justin Mapp #21 of the Chicago Fire on July 16, 2005 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Fire and the Crew tied 1-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/ Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

MLS star David Testo, who was released from the North American Soccer League's Montreal Impact at the end of the season and previously played with the Vancouver Whitecaps and Columbus Crew, came out late last week to the public as a gay man in a radio interview. He said his family, friends and teammates all knew and were supportive of him. 

As he told Radio Canada

“I really do regret not having come out earlier. It’s something that I’ve struggled with my whole life and career. It’s hard. Living the life of a professional athlete and being gay is incredibly hard. It’s like carrying around a secret. Carrying around luggage and never actually be allowed to just be yourself. It’s incredibly energy-draining on top of having to perform, on top of having to play."

Does it matter if Testo's gay? Of course not, in the grand scheme of things—what matters is whether or not he can play football. So why are we bothering talking about it?

This wouldn't be particularly newsworthy if it weren't for the fact that Testo was only the third openly gay male professional footballer ever, and only the second in a top-flight division, after Justin Fashanu.

His predecessor's is a story most football fans know: Fashanu, the wünderkind who wowed on his debut at Norwich City and became the first black player to be transferred for £1 million. During his time at Nottingham Forest, manager Brian Clough confronted him publicly about his homosexuality, in a now-notorious exchange documented in Clough's autobiography:

"'Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?' I asked him. 'A baker's, I suppose.' 'Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?' 'A butcher's.' 'So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs' club?"'

After a failed career at Forest and a string of stints across the globe, Fashanu came out to the press in 1990. Eight years later, in the midst of a damaging sex scandal, Fashanu committed suicide by hanging himself in a lockup garage in Shoreditch, London.

For a while, some Ipswich Town fans would taunt their rivals, Fashanu's former club Norwich City, with the chant "He's gay, he's dead, he's hanging in the shed, Fashanu, Fashanu." 

A lot has changed in the footballing world since the height of Justin Fashanu's career, and a lot hasn't. As such, it would be more than a decade after his suicide that another player would feel compelled to come out.

Earlier this year, Anton Hysén, the son of Liverpool and Fiorentina star Glenn Hysén, who plays for Swedish lower division club Utsiktens BK, came out publicly in an interview with Swedish sports magazine Offside, saying it was 'f***ed up' that no other footballers had come out publicly and if "I perform as a footballer, then I do not think it matters if I like girls or boys."

His famous father, Glenn, who had been accused of homophobia from an incident years before, has stood by his son

And that brings us to today, with David Testo. What impact could Testo's coming out have? There are five points I think could be especially useful to consider: 

Visibility: This is probably the most important, and has been a cornerstone of gay activism since the beginning. It's a lot easier to carry prejudices towards a group of people without having contact with them.

If the fans who engage in homophobic conduct at the stadium have no gay faces to associate with the game, they will continue to do and operate under the assumption that there are no gay footballers or fans.

Having high-profile footballers come out, especially those who are already established in their careers, helps dismantle stereotypes and give fans exposure to the people they may have previously mocked in the stands. 

Of course, there's always the fear that if an athlete comes out, some fans will be more inclined to dole out homophobic abuse, and there's plenty of validity to that, and there's still work to be done on a number of fronts in terms of combating enduring prejudices and abuse in world football.

Based on the receptions of Hysén and Testo so far, which have been far cries from the reaction when Fashanu came out in 1990, the footballing world will on the whole is far more receptive and supportive than it was 20 years ago. 

Encouragement for Others: The more players who are able to come out and continue their careers, the more the teams and players will become accepting (and Testo has said his teammates with the Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact were positive and supportive).

This could make it easier for future generations of gay and lesbian athletes to take part in the beautiful game and be themselves. 

Awareness of the Larger Issues: Homophobia is just one of a number of horrendous scourges that continue to plague the game we all know and love. Part of the appeal of football is how global it is, how it can bring people from all over the world together, and it's a shame that a few so-called fans have to go and ruin it by making people or certain groups of people feel unwanted for their "otherness." 

It's not just homophobia that needs to be put to an end in world football: racism, sexism, sectarianism, anti-Semitism and even classism (some particularly biting anti-Scouse chants and the like; Paris Saint-Germain's infamous anti-Lens banner which refers to the "Ch'ti" people as inbreds and pedophiles) particularly still plague the support of the beautiful game.

Several years ago, former Barcelona and Inter Milan star Samuel Eto'o stopped bringing his children to matches because he didn't want his kids to hear the horrible things the away fans would call their dad. 

It's incredibly difficult to change a culture, but seriously, none of this is acceptable. It's 2011. Not that that's a great excuse, as posthumously bullying gay players and making African players feel too afraid to bring their families to matches were never okay at any point in time.

And the few "fans" who behave like this ruin it for everyone. The vast majority of real fans don't conduct themselves in that matter or act on whatever prejudices they may have at the ground, but the few who do, whether wittingly or not, are doing a massive disservice to the game, the players and the fans. 

If fans are made aware of the differences of others, and therefore aware of their own privileges and prejudices with respect to one group, it will become easier for them to recognize those behaviors in how they treat other marginalized groups.

All these issues are connected, which is why you'll see so many different groups (e.g. Kick It Out and The Justin Campaign) working to fight racism, homophobia, sexism and other evils together. 

Peace of Mind for Supporters: Players being subject to homophobia is one thing, but fans often forget that entire support sections can be on the receiving end of homophobic abuse as well.

As with the Ipswich "he's gay, he's dead" chant, Brighton & Hove Albion supporters often get mocked for their city's large gay and lesbian population at away matches. In response, the supporters have become particularly strong advocates for combating homophobia in English football.

They have been among the most outspoken supporters in favor of an FA crackdown on homophobic behavior. Charlton Athletic and Wycombe Wanderers are among the English sides who have joined them, recently offering official support to an FA government charter to take concrete action to fight homophobia in English football.

Reflection of a Changing Climate in World Football: It will likely be a while longer before a high-profile top-flight footballer—someone at the level of a Frank Lampard or a Cristiano Ronaldo—comes out.

And it makes sense. There's a lot of pressure in sports, in general, to stay in the closet, even now. A lot of it linked to larger projections of machismo and what the gender roles of male athletes are supposed to be.

Even players who are not gay themselves but exhibit effeminate or metrosexual tendencies are still subject to homophobic abuse from players and fans, as was the case with Graeme Le Saux while he was at Chelsea

But the fact that two professional footballers, one in a top-flight division, have come out in the past year is remarkable, and the fact both were embraced by teammates and family even more so.

If people like Anton Hysén and David Testo continue to contribute visibility and positive messages to football, little by little those archaic prejudices can be broken down and a new culture of openness and acceptance will take their place. 


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