There is no denying that Robbie Rogers, along with Jason Collins and Michael Sam, has changed the world of major league sports in the United States. In May of 2013, Rogers became the first openly gay athlete to play for a team in one of the five major US pro sports leagues (the Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Hockey League (NHL) and the Major League Soccer (MLS)) when he took the field for the MLS’s LA Galaxy on May 26, 2013. Though pro sports have not become instantly LGBTQ friendly, the importance of landmarks like the moment Rogers set foot on that field cannot be overstated.
However, Coming Out to Play, Rogers’ memoir of his life up to and shortly after that historic moment, is not the story of a hero, and that may be the real beauty of the book. It is the story of a young man who loves soccer and happens to be very good at it. It is the story of a young man who struggles to be himself. It is the story of a young man who eventually finds the courage to be honest. It is the story of a young man, and the way it reads, it could be your story, or it could be mine.
I mean that in the best way possible. Rogers presents himself as human, mistakes, fears, and all. His writing style is relatable, though not particularly gripping. He demonstrates his own bravery, but states clearly that he isn’t any braver than the rest of us who have struggled to come out, raise awareness and improve conditions for ourselves and the rest of the queer community.
The best, most important passage in the book is near the end, when he talks about why he decided to come out of retirement after announcing he is gay. I think part of the passage is good enough and important enough to quote almost in its entirety.
“These brave students made me realize what a coward I was by comparison. I was never a part of any of these clubs when I was in high school. I never spoke out when people were treated badly, whatever the reason. But here they were, already out at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old, fighting against discrimination and for equal rights and respect for everyone, when all I’d done was come out and share my story. And it wasn’t like I came out because I was trying to help anyone. I was just trying to save myself by getting out from under all the lies…
That’s when I decided to go back to playing professional soccer. I had the chance to use that platform to help people, and if any of these kids had been in my position that’s what they would have done. Even without much of a platform they were willing to organize, speak to school administrators, and go into regular classes to talk about their experiences and educate people. As an out professional soccer player, I could do my part by setting an example and being a role model for that young Robbie Rogers who was just starting out in his sport and wondering whether he could be himself and still do what he loved. And even for kids who weren’t interested in sports, if they saw me doing what I wanted to do as an out and proud gay man, then maybe they would feel that they could be themselves and do the things they dreamed of doing. I could be an example of someone whose difference not only didn’t get in the way, but also made his life better.
Those amazing kids at the Nike forum—in combination with the hundreds of young people who wrote to tell me that I’d inspired them to come out to their parents or given them the inspiration to stay alive—inspired me to test myself, to see if I had the courage to go back in the locker room and onto the field as an openly gay man.” (199-200)
In those three paragraphs, Rogers captures all of what I see as the most important points in the book: (1) that there are serious costs to hiding parts of ourselves, particularly major ones like sexuality, (2) that it is possible to be yourself, be out, and still do the things you love, and (3) that we are all inspirational.
Now that I’ve shared those three paragraphs, you may not need to read the entire book. However, if you are a soccer fan, you should probably read it; if you are thinking about staying in the closet in order to pursue your goals, you should probably read it; and if you want a better understanding of some of the challenges that continue to stand in the way of young people coming out, you should probably read it.
Queerview Mirror is a semi-regular feature where Queereka contributors review a variety of media. Look for Queerview Mirror posts on Friday afternoons.