Earlier this month, LA Galaxy defender Robbie Rogers announced his official retirement from the game, concluding 11 years of professional football. “I leave the game full of pride of what I have accomplished as a person and a player,” he wrote in a statement alongside LA Galaxy. “ I am looking forward to the next chapter of my life.”
I’ve had a long, though one-sided, relationship with Robbie Rogers.
I remember being 18, and struggling to come to terms with my own sexuality, when I first stumbled across his website. It contained a blog post titled “The Next Chapter…” published in February 2013.
“For the past 25 years I have been afraid, afraid to show whom I really was because of fear,” he wrote. “Fear that judgment and rejection would hold me back from my dreams and aspirations. Fear that my loved ones would be farthest from me if they knew my secret. Fear that my secret would get in the way of my dreams.”
He had had enough; he was coming out. “My secret is gone, I am a free man,” he ultimately concluded, “I can move on and live my life as my creator intended.”
Rogers, I learnt at the time, was an American professional football player, having played for several European and American clubs. He’d been picked up as a promising young junior, was named MLS Player of the Week in 2008, won his first MLS cup, with Columbus Crew, and represented the USA in the Olympics that same year.
Early 2013 saw him simultaneously reveal his sexuality and retire from football for the first time, instead choosing to focus on a fashion career.
I was instantly hooked; for subsequent months, I followed him avidly. From my computer screen, I read interviews, saved articles and watched video clips. “When the time is right,” he wrote in a letter to his younger self, “the day might come when you’re ready to face the world as the beautiful person you truly are.” His words stuck with me.
I watched as Rogers came out of retirement in May 2013, returning to professional football in the States for LA Galaxy, becoming the first openly gay male to play in North America’s major league football.
Rogers would begin to advocate for a more inclusive environment in the sporting community, tackling homophobia and bullying, and changing the mindsets of those within a historically hyper-masculine arena. His efforts in discussing locker room culture, in particular, sparked conversation in regards to the casual homophobia that often lies synonymous with sport.
He created "Beyond ‘It’", an anti-discrimination campaign aimed at looking to move past 'it' – the labels that seek to confine and repress us. He then joined the advisory board of Athlete Ally and co-hosted the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s Respect Awards alongside Kerry Washington in 2013.
I watched as he took part in the #ProudToPlay movement - advocating for equality among all athletes - for which he was ultimately acknowledged by former President Barack Obama, who commended Rogers for blazing a trail as one of professional sport’s first openly gay players.
And then on 25 November 2014, Rogers released his memoir Coming Out to Play with LGBT writer Eric Marcus. Coming Out to Play beautifully uncovers the intersectional relationship between masculine pride, sport, religion, and homosexuality, culminating in Rogers’ desire to be a role model for gay youth. “I could be an example of someone whose difference not only didn’t get in the way,” he writes, “but also made his life better.”
I read the memoir once. I read it again. I cried the whole way through; it was as if Rogers’ words were the final stepping-stones I needed to reach acceptance within myself.
In fact, it was Rogers’ candid words that made me feel a sense of fearlessness and acceptance within myself. A week after finishing the autobiography, I came out to my family.
On the three-year anniversary of his memoir Coming Out to Play, Rogers has taught many that we often fear what we don’t understand.
Rogers is a pioneer, having paved the way for a more accepting environment for queer youth, especially concerning young, queer sports players, in feeling comfortable to express their true selves.
Although no longer on the pitch, Rogers’ legacy will undoubtedly remain, not only having inspired a younger generation of gay sports players, but also having enabled sport to work towards becoming a more inclusive and tolerant community. After all, in the words of Nelson Mandela, sport “has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”
Rogers now resides in Los Angeles, with his partner Greg Berlanti and their son Caleb, proving that everyone deserves to have their loved ones cheering for them on the sidelines.
His message to closeted sports women and men now? Come out: you won’t regret it. “You deserve to take that same walk, down the players’ tunnel and have your own partner or loved ones waiting for you.”
And more than four years on from the beginning of our (one-sided) relationship, Rogers’ words continue to validate my own journey as an openly gay man. In moments of doubt, I often flick through the pages of his memoir, reminding myself why I deserve to face the world as the beautiful person I truly am.
Every queer or questioning child deserves to have an idol. Rogers is mine.