German Soccer Star: Gay Players Should Stay in the Closet

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday September 1, 2011

The captain of a German soccer team warns in his new memoir that gay players should stay in the closet lest they become targets for abuse from homophobic fans.

The book's author, Philipp Lahm, has been active in working for GLBT inclusion in sports, noted in an Aug. 30 article. Lahm, 27, captains Bayern Munich.

The Advocate article referred to an Aug. 29 Reuters story on the remarks in Lahm's book, titled "The Subtle Difference," which was published the same day.

"I would not advise any gay professional footballer to come out," wrote Lahm. "I would fear that he could end up like Justin Fashanu who after he outed himself was driven into such a corner that he ended up committing suicide."

Fashanu came out publicly in 1998, while still an active player. But his courageous disclosure was met with such opposition and disparagement that he died by his own hand a few years later.

Lahm's comments in "Subtle Difference" echo remarks he made to a magazine earlier this year.

"For [a gay player] who does [come out], it would be very difficult," said Lahm told German magazine Bunte last May. "An openly gay footballer would be exposed to abusive comments."

A 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."

But Gomez may be ahead of his time in his optimistic assessment. 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.

On the other hand, times have changed and gays continue to gain rapidly expanding social acceptance and legal equality in many nations globally. 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.

Straight athletes have also become increasingly more accepting of gays. Hockey pro Sean Avery came out as a marriage equality supporter last spring in a series of ads produced by the Human Rights Campaign. Rugby champion Ben Cohen, upon retiring from the sport, launched a gay-supportive foundation to counter bullying and work toward acceptance of gay athletes.

Even though political and athletic 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."

"A study of football professionals, coaches and referees conducted in Britain last year showed there was still a culture of secrecy surrounding gay players with more than one in four people polled saying they knew homosexual soccer players," the Reuters article said.

Lahm's book said that rumors that he is gay are untrue, but added that the rumors do not trouble him since he is not homophobic.

"This speculation doesn't matter to me," Lahm wrote in "Subtle Difference." "I have nothing against homosexuals and I find that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality."

Reuters reported that Lahm's memoir is controversial for another reason entirely: in the memoir, the soccer star has critical words for a number of players and coaches. Those critiques have sparked anger among Germany's soccer officials.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.