Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The @footballergay hoax, and what's next in helping athletes come out

On July 5, a Twitter account came into life. It was called "the Gay Footballer". On that day, its first tweet said that the owner of the account was a player in the EFL Championship, England's second tier soccer league who had come out to his family, was under 23 and was getting ready to tell the world his story. For 19 days, the account picked up nearly 50,000 followers while tweeting play-by-play of the process of meeting high ranking club officials to carefully plan the next steps. All seemed positive. On July 21, the account tweeted the date July 24, 2019 with a rainbow flag emoji, signifying that would be the day when the player would reveal who he was. But on July 23, after cryptically deleting more than 60 tweets and unfollowing the nearly 1,500 accounts it had followed, the account was deleted after sending tweets saying the player "wasn't strong enough" and couldn't come out while furiously denying that this whole episode was a hoax.

It's clear that this account was a well constructed, incredibly insidious and evil hoax. I wanted to believe it was real even though my first thoughts when seeing the account pop up were, "that's odd." Most high level celebrities and athletes when they come out have not narrated their climbing of that mountain through anonymous social media accounts. All of the hard work happens behind the scenes, with little indication that an announcement is coming publicly until it happens. When Collin Martin, Robbie Rogers and Jason Collins came out publicly, the announcements in many ways came out of nowhere. Knowing that made the circumstances regarding this account questionable, but as time passed, I began to believe that it was real, not because of anything it was saying, but because creating a hoax like this would be a gigantic risk to whoever constructed it. The English tabloids, though they didn't cover this story as intensely as you think they would when it first emerged, would be all over trying to figure out who was behind the account and exposing them if it wasn't real. For the person who constructed the lie, they'd be putting themselves in hot water knowing they'd have to put even more work into the cover up than the account itself.

Since the account is now gone and no one publicly came out, the skepticism turned out to be correct. Instead of focusing on who concocted the lies and why they did it, it's time to focus on why in 2019, there are so few high level male athletes that are out worldwide and how we can help change that.

Part of the amazing story of the US Women's National Team winning the World Cup the way they did was how openly queer they were. Megan Rapinoe especially made no bones about her sexuality and embracing it, which along with the five other out players on that team, made a statement that has not been made in sports like that before.

But while their unabashed queerness is trendsetting and groundbreaking, it's not entirely analogous to the situation with the now deleted twitter account. There's an insidious expectation that high level female athletes are automatically gay because high level athletics is "manly", and queer women are expected to try to act like men. That isn't why there are scores more openly queer female athletes than male, far from it. But watching Kelly O'Hara, who wasn't previously out publicly, walk up to her girlfriend in the stands in Lyon after winning the World Cup and kiss her, you understand just how different the playing field is for out female athletes and out male athletes, and just how different the expectations and stereotypes are.

Sports are supposed to be "manly", "tough", and a host of other synonyms for those two words, and gay men are decidedly not that, according to popular, deep-rooted and factually incorrect stereotypes. Being "feminine", as gay man are assumed to be is not possible in sports because you need to be a "man" to deal with the raw physicality, toughness and other stereotypes that dominate the perception of sports to this day. None of that is anywhere near close to true obviously, but those regressive ideas are still stuck in too many corners of the male sports world, which is why you get stories about how overwhelming majorities of teenage queer athletes are not out and feel afraid to be, and a not insignificant number feel unsafe in locker rooms. That culture translates to the language used, which includes a number of demeaning slurs including calling people girls for not being "tough" and of course, the British slang term for a cigarette I won't use here.

The irony is that most athletes who use this language aren't homophobic, far from it. Mostly, they're saying it because they think it's either funny, or that it's "normal", because no one has ever told them said language is neither of those things. Most would be perfectly fine with a gay teammate, but don't realize the impact their language has on closeted individuals.

"The use of this language also appears to be motivated by a desire for social acceptance", researchers at Monsah University in Australia said in their study on the issue, "rather than overt homophobia or sexism and players had misconceptions around how others on their team view this language, and also around how this language use would create an unwelcoming environment for LGB people and women."

Those words make people not only feel like they don't belong, but they are lesser than, and that is not an environment conducive for success. These closeted athletes then more than likely leave before ever reaching a high level, and those that end up breaking through are still deeply closeted when they do succeed. And once those kids, who have been raised in a conforming, non-questioning culture end up staying in it as coaches to teach a new generation, the cycle repeats itself. Only now has the cycle started to break with a higher interest in addressing this problem, but this is still a major problem all across male sports, particularly male team sports.

That culture still exists in many ways even at the highest levels of all sports, certainly still in English soccer. And while the leagues are starting to realize what they have to do in order to foster culture that allows queer athletes to feel open to be themeselves, let alone feel safe in these spaces, there is a long way to go. When Collin Martin, Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins among others came out, they rose above the fray because they were uniquely situation to overcome the challenges that an openly gay male athlete still faces, but they still vividly documented the difficulties they had in accepting themselves in that space to get to that point. They are certainly not alone.

It's extremely unlikely that there are zero other high level gay professional soccer players playing right now across the globe; it is statistically impossible. It's also highly unlikely that in the four major leagues in this country, there are zero gay athletes in those locker rooms too. There are perhaps hundreds of untold stories past and present waiting to be told, but these people never received the direct or indirect support to tell them. They never felt anywhere near safe enough to do so.

Put all of this into a blender, and you can see why so many were hopeful that @footballergay was real, and not what it turned out to be. Sports seems to be the final frontier for the queer community, particularly queer men, and that finish line is getting ever closer, but still so far away. As societal attitudes change, someone soon is going to come out. They will not be anonymously tweeting the play-by-play of their behind the scenes process; they will come out much like how Rogers, Martin, Collins and others did. How can we help them do so, so that they feel comfortable being themselves by default?

If you hear homophobic language and slurs, tell those people not just to stop saying them, but why they hurt and what you can say otherwise. While you'll inevitably get some resistance, the large majority of people don't know what damage those words can do, and don't want to hurt anyone. Newly out Australian soccer player Andy Brennan recently told a story about how he did that during a game and how the reaction was of shock and regret from that player about his words, not resistance and anger.

Progress here is not linear. We are thankfully light years ahead of when Graeme Le Saux was rumored to be gay because he read the Guardian and wasn't interested in the typical lifestyle of a high level English soccer player, and where hockey coaches would call places on the ice where you shouldn't pass the puck "queer street", but not far enough ahead for episodes like this one to be a fear, not a reality. Someone, somewhere, is preparing to come out, and they need support not just from their own circle, but beyond to feel safe in doing so.

The fevered interest in @footballergay and it's story, and the largely positive support it got when people believed it was real shows that at the very least, something here has changed for the better.

"It is a not a personal desire to be perceived as a pioneer of any kind," the account wrote early on. "My hope is simply to be able to pursue the career and dream I've had since childhood, while simultaneously being permitted to be myself". Obviously, the person behind that account had no desire to do any of that, but people who have come out did that and those who will follow will want to do that too. They need the chance to do so, and it's incumbent on all of us, even those who already came out to make that possible.

We can all be angry at this particularly false dawn, but know that there is hope in that disappointment. Hopefully it isn't just people like me who have a vested interest in these stories who are angry and hurt. But that anger can be channeled into doing actual good for people who desperately need it so when they feel it's time to tell the world their truth, they can do so confidently, safely and freely.

For the heartbroken and closeted young soccer player who desperately wanted this to be real, there needs to be hope that one day a story like this will be. We all, queer or not, have a responsibility to help make that a reality. Hopefully after this sad episode, the lessons learned will make it easier for someone to feel free and safe to tell their truth, and be celebrated for doing so.

It's more than past due.