In February 2013, when soccer player Robbie Rogers came out, he became the first openly gay man to have competed in a major North American professional sports league. Rogers, who grew up in Orange County, played briefly in England and is now a member of the LA Galaxy.
“Coming Out to Play,” written with Eric Marcus, is Rogers’ memoir about the journey he took and the courage he found to finally share his genuine identity. While he has been in a relationship for over a year, he says sharing the details of his personal life continues to be difficult: “I never thought it would be so challenging to be normal, but it’s getting easier as I get more practice.”
What prompted you to write a book about your experience as a closeted gay man and your choice to come out?
About two months after coming out to my family, a friend told me that I should be writing therapeutically and that it would really help me. So I wrote something that I eventually posted on social media. I had already come out to my friends and family, but a lot of people were still asking me, “What are you going to do next? Where will you play?”
I was just sitting in my apartment in London and felt like it was something I wanted to do — I wanted to come out. When I did eventually post the letter I had written, it was a spontaneous decision.
Everything that I thought was going to happen didn’t happen. I was afraid to come out to my family, and they were very supportive. I was afraid then to come out to the public, and the reaction I received from all over the world, from straight people, from gay people, from the young and the old, was so supportive.
It was the encouragement, the response and the ability to connect with my letter that made me think one day it would be nice to go into detail and explain why I was so scared to come out, how I did it and, moving forward, what I’m going to do.
What was the writing experience like for you, having to revisit the many challenging years that you struggled with your homosexuality in silence?
I think that was the hardest part: going over experiences from when I was younger and having to relive those. I remember days when I would sit by myself after Eric [Marcus] and I spoke and wrote for six hours, and I would think, “Oh, maybe this why I’m this way. I still need to deal with this.”
It was a combination of having just come out and writing a book that had me go through all those emotions, relationships and the story of my life up until that point. It was difficult, but also really great for me to work through it all. It was like a free therapy session.
Looking back, do you think there was one particular aspect of your life holding you back from coming out?
It was a combination, but the biggest combination was being raised as a Catholic by a very conservative family and being around a very homophobic sports culture. I played in Europe, where it’s even worse.
It was all the things I heard in the locker room that stayed inside me, chipped away at me and really scarred me — and that built an enormous amount of fear.
Why do you think the sports culture is so homophobic?
I think traditionally, there is a stereotype for an athlete. We think of this guy who is big, strong, has a lot of testosterone, is a bit of a party-er and is supposed to be a bit of a lady’s man. Because of this stereotype, when people think of athletes, they don’t think of them as being gay.
I think that athletes aren’t necessarily homophobic, but there is this pack mentality in the locker room and they say things that they want their teammates to hear. We all make jokes and I try not to be too sensitive to things, but I was very sensitive before I came out and that kind of talk really hurt me.
It’s changing. Our locker room now is obviously not homophobic at all. I joke with them about being straight and they joke with me about being gay, so we can banter back and forth. But I’m sure there are other locker rooms in the United States and around the world that haven’t experienced that kind of change yet.
What types of changes would you like to see management make in order to help shift the homophobic culture that continues to exist?
There should be a panel of experienced players within each sport to discuss not only homophobia but also problems with racism, sexism, child abuse or mental health. Mental health is a huge issue in the NFL right now, and I think homophobia, having to come out and dealing with being a gay man is a mental health issue.
If there was a panel out there to discuss these kinds of things and see what kind of changes could be made, like having a sports psychologist on each team, that would be a start. In the end, I think that the only thing that will make a big impact is more athletes coming out, playing their sports, competing and just being one of the guys.
What have you found to be the most challenging thing since coming out?
The most challenging thing for me is that I am a 27-year-old man who hasn’t been able to live a lot of the experiences that I would have experienced had I come out at the age of 15 or 16. Going on first dates, bringing their first boyfriend back to their house — all the things that people get to go through the awkwardness of in their teenage years.
And what were you most surprised to discover?
I wasn’t expecting support like this. I wasn’t expecting my family to say, “Robbie, we love you so much. This isn’t an issue. Let’s figure out how we’re going to work through this, communicate and be happy.”
That and the response from people. I never thought in a million years that I would come out and then go back to play soccer. I was honestly so set on just stopping soccer because I thought it would be impossible. I thought I didn’t have the courage to do it.
If you could go back and speak to your 15-year-old self, what would you tell him?
I would tell him to speak with someone, someone away from my family, away from my friends and away from my team. So I could just express how I was feeling.
Even if I wasn’t ready to come out at that age, it would have been so helpful to be able to share those emotions, bounce some ideas and hear back from someone I could trust.