Trailblazing gay athlete to address Athenian School
By Lou Fancher
Working most of his life to be No. 1 on the soccer field, 27-year-old Robbie Rogers fought tooth-and-nail to avoid being first.
First openly gay child in a large Catholic family in Huntington Beach. First "out" boy on the American Youth Soccer Organization's "Purple Octopuses" team. First gay man in the locker rooms of the professional soccer teams for whom the midfielder-turned-defender played: Columbus Crew, the UK's Leeds United and Los Angeles Galaxy. First U.S. Olympic National Team member and MLS cup winner (2008) to reveal his sexual orientation.
These were not titles he craved and so, for 25 years, Rogers kept his secret bottled and bubbling, confounding his self-identity. Until it erupted -- in a confession to a stranger in a London pub and his coming out publicly in a 408-word blog post shared with his 80,000 followers on Twitter in 2013.
Rogers chronicles his struggles leading up to his decision to become the first openly gay man to play in a prominent North American professional league in a memoir, "Coming Out to Play," (Penguin, $17) co-authored with Eric Marcus. Rogers is scheduled to talk about the book and his experiences to students Wednesday at Athenian School in Danville. The talk is open to the public.
Stepping away from professional soccer at the time of his coming out to attend school and develop Halsey, his menswear fashion label, Rogers recently signed a multiyear contract extension with the LA Galaxy.
"I missed playing," he said, "and I also received tons of letters telling me I should play."
The landslide of fan mail and "kids motivated to speak the truth" he encountered at a speaking engagement for Nike inspired him, he said, to return to the field.
"I knew I could be a symbol," he says. "Last year, I was angry and wished there were other out athletes. Now, I'm more at peace. I'm a role model for gay athletes, but it doesn't weigh on me as much."
After finally coming out to his family and the public, Rogers said he found unexpected support and comfort. Years of dread were shed almost instantly and although he wishes he'd come out sooner, he doesn't regret his decision to remain closeted.
"I learn from it," he says, "although it means I'm experiencing dating for the first time as a 27-year-old man."
His coming out received extensive media coverage: he says he wrote the memoir because most of the reports were "really glossy" and told a happy "he's out, he's back to soccer, everything is great" story. "All those years of being afraid -- the build up? I very much struggled," he says.
The Athenian Men's Soccer Team and Interweave, an on-campus Gay-Straight Alliance, are co-sponsors of Rogers' visit to Danville. Brendan Suh, 17, a left back on the school's soccer team, is hoping Rogers will talk about life as a professional athlete. He says the Athenian community is accepting of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and talking about sensitive issues happens easily.
Interweave Club co-leader Hunter Barr, 15, has directed his athletic energies into dance. He's curious about Rogers' choice to hide the hurt he felt inside.
"He kept his secret in and did not tell anybody," Barr said. "His story taught me that keeping everything bottled up is not healthy because it can eat you alive, causing you to live a life of fear."
Interweave co-leader Faven Brook, 15, says Athenian "isn't a place of judgment" and believes Rogers will give students a "spark of hope."
"I may not be part of the LGBT community myself, but I have plenty of friends that are, and I don't ever want them to feel like they cannot be themselves," Brook said.
From his mother's long ago casual comment about liking Elton John's music but thinking "it was too bad he's gay" to the rampant homophobia he experienced in professional sports, Rogers endured intolerance. Revealing in his memoir more shame for his lack of courage to speak out than of his sexual identity, Rogers says there should be open dialogue. A professional sports player's panel to talk about homophobia, mental health and racism would go a long way to changing professional sports' climate.
"People need to know it's OK to be an athlete and not fit a stereotype," he says.