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German Soccer Star to Gay Players: I’m Not Homophobic, But Stay in the Closet

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday May 19, 2011
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Phillipp Lahm, a star soccer player with German team Bayern Munich, says that he has no problem with gays himself, but he still thinks that gay soccer pros should stay in the closet, The Star reported on May 18.

"For [a gay player] who does [come out], it would be very difficult," said Lahm, 27. "An openly gay footballer would be exposed to abusive comments."

Lahm was speaking with Bunte, a German magazine, when he made the remark, the article noted. A teammate Bayern Munich teammate expressed just the opposite view last year, telling the same magazine that gay athletes should come out and play proudly.

Mario Gomez, 25, said that coming out of the closet would make for better athletes on the field. "They would play as if they had been liberated," Gomez opined. "Being gay should no longer be a taboo topic."

British newspaper The Guardian noted in an Oct. 11, 2010, article that the young star’s exhortation defied the received wisdom; the German Football Federation has said that gay players who own up could see their professional lives come to an abrupt end.

That was the fate of Marcus Urban, a German player who came out to his teammates in 1997 and promptly lost his status as a professional athlete. Urban did not publicly disclose the reason for his career’s end until ten years later.

But times have changed, and Gomez argued that being gay is no longer a big deal, pointing to openly gay leading political figures Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s vice chancellor, and Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin. "[P]rofessional footballers should own up to their preference," Gomez said.

So far, none has, even though other sports have seen prominent players burst out of the closet. British rugby star Gareth Thomas came out in late 2009; star cricket player Steven Davies disclosed his sexuality earlier this year; Australian diving champ Matthew Mitcham competed for, and won, the gold in Beijing in the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Even though political life may have become more accepting, athletes still say that gay players who come out would regret it--not because of their teammates’ reactions, necessarily, but due to what German player Tim Wiese referred to, in an interview last year, as "merciless fans" who would "destroy" any gay player who dared to disclose his true sexuality.

Meantime, the Deutscher Fußball-Bund ("German Football League," or DFB) declared its support for any player who might come out--while advising against it. Said the head of the DFB, Theo Zwanziger, "The first homosexual who outs himself in professional football will not have an easy time of it. I had thought it would not be the case, because in politics, art and culture it is no longer a problem. Even amateur football deals with it better, but professional football appears to be more set in its ways."

Meantime, noted GLBT athletic news site OutSports.com on Nov. 10, 2010, "[A] gender studies professor said on German radio this week that she knew of fake heterosexual marriages arranged for gay players and that there was even an agency to handle such things."

In recent years there has been a slow, but perceptible, shift in attitudes toward gays in the sporting world. In 2009, Danish soccer team FC Midtjylland dismissed goalie Arkadiusz "Arek" Onyszko, a Polish player, in the wake of anti-gay comments published in Onyszko’s autobiography.

The autobiography, titled "Fucking Polack," was released Nov. 2, 2009. In the course of the book, Onyszko espoused anti-gay sentiments, writing, "I hate gays, I really do. I think it’s fucking disgusting to hear them talk to each other as if they are girls. I can’t be in the same room as someone who’s gay. Look at them kissing each other--it’s sickening." Onyszko cited his religious faith for his anti-gay stance, telling an interviewer that because he is Catholic, he cannot be accepting toward "those kind of people".

When Italy’s team manager, Marcello Lippi, claimed two years ago never to have met a single gay player in his 40-year career, the press took him to task. An Aug. 29, 2009, Associated Press article suggested that Lippi might find a trip to Milan, where a gay amateur league team, Nuova Kaos Milano, battles both athletic competitors and anti-gay prejudices.

More recently, the president of the Croatian Football Federation issued an apology for having told a newspaper that he would "certainly" not permit a gay player on the Croatian national team. Vlatko Markovic made his remark in the course of an interview published Nov. 7 in Croatian newspaper Vecernji List. A few days later, on Nov. 10, Markovic tendered his apologies, in the wake of an outcry that included the threat of legal action from two GLBT equality groups, a Nov. 10 Associated Press article said.

In addition to telling the newspaper that he would not allow a gay player onto the national team, Markovic went on to suggest that homosexuality is a pathological condition. When asked whether he knew of any gay professional soccer players, Markovic replied, "No. Fortunately, only healthy people play football."

A similar firestorm greeted an off-the-cuff remark by Sepp Blatter, who earlier this year joked that any gay soccer fans attending the 2022 World Cup in Qatar should plan to remain celibate during their trip, since Qatar legal system is defined by Islamic Sharia law, and punishes gays.

But the recent video statement by hockey star Sean Avery, a straight player who spoke out for marriage equality, as well as high profile efforts by two straight male athletes to combat homophobia in sports and the emergence from the closet of Phoenix Suns executive Rick Welts, has engaged the public imagination around the question of gay athletes anew, reported NPR commentator Frank Deford in a May 19 article.

"When will the first gay male American athlete in a prominent professional team sport step forward and declare his sexuality?" Deford asked.

Some stars have done so, such as basketball’s John Amaeche and NFL player Esera Tuaolo. But they have waited until after retirement to break the news--which is as good as declaring that being openly gay while still active, is bad for an athlete’s career.

Deford noted that in American society, acceptance of GLBTs and their families is steadily growing, and he predicted that the time would come when an active, high-profile male athlete would break the silence. At that point, he wondered, would fans become abusive? Or would they cheer in support?

"I have no problems with homosexuals whatsoever," Lahm told the German press. The question may boil down to whether the sporting culture at large agrees.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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