Robbie Rogers never set out to make history. But on May 26, he did just that.
Rogers had taken to the soccer field hundreds of times. Growing up one of five siblings in Orange County, Calif., he began kicking the ball around when he was 4 years old. But as the 26-year-old professional soccer player took to the field this past May for the Los Angeles Galaxy, he became the first out gay man to ever play for a major league team in the United States.
(Photo courtesy LA Galaxy)
A former Olympian, Rogers had come out just three months earlier in a heartfelt blog post on his personal website in which he announced he was gay and retiring from soccer at the age of 25.
"For the past 25 years I have been afraid, afraid to show whom I really was because of fear. 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," Rogers wrote on Feb. 23 from London, where he had been playing for Leeds United. "Secrets can cause so much internal damage. People love to preach about honesty, how honesty is so plain and simple. Try explaining to your loved ones after 25 years you are gay. Try convincing yourself that your creator has the most wonderful purpose for you even though you were taught differently."
The revelation that Rogers was gay came at the same time speculation was swirling about when the first male athlete playing for one of the major American sports leagues would become the first to come out as gay. But Rogers was playing in in the United Kingdom, and now he would step away from soccer, he wrote, in order to find himself.
Fast-forward two months, and Rogers had reconsidered his decision to retire. One day after basketball player Jason Collins announced he was gay, becoming the first out male athlete in any of the four major American sports leagues, though he's not since played professionally, Rogers was training with Major League Soccer's L.A. Galaxy and would soon sign a contract with the team after being inspired by a visit with LGBT teens.
"Until I came out publicly," he says, "I didn't realize how important it was for me to talk about it and speak with kids and go visit kids and to share my life a little bit more just so it would help them out because I didn't have that growing up."
Rogers has embraced his new role as a spokesman and role model, and, six months after he announced to the world he is gay, the athlete appears as confident as ever, on and off the field.
METRO WEEKLY: I read you recently suffered an injury on the field. What happened and how are you doing?
ROBBIE ROGERS: Yeah, I've had two injuries, both hamstrings. Just going back now and starting to ride the bike again this week. It's frustrating because you have an injury and you come back and train for a few weeks and you have another one. It's part of being an athlete, but it never gets easier.
MW: It's been a little over six months since you came out in a statement posted on your website. Has the reaction been anything like you anticipated?
ROGERS: I didn't anticipate anything. I didn't know what the reaction was going to be. That's why when I announced I just turned off my phone and shut my laptop, because I didn't know what to expect. From that point on it's been very positive. Everyone's been very supportive.
I told my family back in October/November and they've been with me all along the way. They've been amazing. I feared so much. I feared, obviously, coming out and telling people and talking to people about that part of me. But people have made it really easy for me, really easy for me to come back to soccer and just made it easy for me to get on with my life. So, I'm pretty blessed in that way.
I wasn't going to make a statement or do anything. I was just going to kind of step away from soccer in the middle of January. But I wrote the thing I posted on social media in December and had it on my desktop for a few months and in February I just felt like I kind of wanted to. I don't really know what was urging me to do it, but something inside me told me to do it. And I just spoke with a few friends and they were like, "Yeah, why not? What do you have to lose?" So, that's when I posted that.
MW: How did you come out to your family?
ROGERS: I was in London, so over Skype.
MW: Did they see it coming at all?
ROGERS: No, they didn't.
MW: And what led you to come out over social media?
ROGERS: I didn't have it all the way off my back. I told my family and friends, and people said I looked like I felt 20 pounds lighter. And I did feel that way, but I still felt like it was something I just needed to get off my chest. I didn't know what the reaction was going to be, and I didn't care very much. I just wanted to get this out of me. So that's why I did that. And now in the age of social media it's so easy to get your thoughts and opinions out there.
(Photo courtesy LA Galaxy)
MW: Do you wish you had done it sooner?
ROGERS: No, I think everyone is different. For me, it was just coming to terms with myself and just kind of doing it on my own time. I think some people are maybe late bloomers and do it in their 30s. Some kids are really confident and know who they are at a young age. For me it took me some time, but I wouldn't have changed it. It was just kind of part of my journey.
MW: You grew up in California and I know that you spent a little bit of time at the University of Maryland. Those two places have reputations as being very accepting, so I'm wondering what drove you into the closet?
ROGERS: The culture of athletics. You're expected to be a straight, very manly like machine. That's the stereotype of athletes. So there was just hearing homophobic things and growing up in the locker room. California, in general, is a pretty liberal place, but the areas I grew up in were very conservative, very Christian-Catholic areas. You grow up hearing things that make you think that if you're gay and were to come out, you wouldn't be accepted.
Everyone has been very positive and accepting, but it starts at a young age that you hear so many things that are negative towards the gay community, which just scares you. And at Maryland, I didn't know anyone gay there. I only went there for a year. It was more so the sports world.
MW: How old were you when you had that realization that you were different?
ROGERS: I was 14 when I really put my finger on it, but I didn't really come to terms with myself until I was about 23. I struggled with it for a long time.
MW: You and Jason Collins are trailblazers in a lot of ways. Why do you think there are so few professional male athletes who have come out publicly, and when do you think that might change?
ROGERS: That last question is a difficult one. After I came out and after Jason came out I thought that there would be a bunch of different people back to back. I think the sports world is still very masculine and everyone is expected to be a certain way and there are those expectations to live up to. But I think there's a lot of fear that if an athlete came out they would not be treated the same by their teammates and by fans and by owners or agents. I don't think it's true, I think we've come to a point in society where we're very accepting and think at any time now is the time to do that.
I think everyone is on their own terms to have the courage and confidence to do that. I think it's tough to put a timeline on it and so it's tough for me to ask people to come out because I'd be a hypocrite. It took me 25 years and it was all about me finding the courage and confidence to do that. I think [other athletes] might look at Jason and I and say, "Okay, everything was good for them." But it's about them. It's about each individual athlete and of course hearing our stories is positive, but it's not going to change everything for them.
MW: You have a huge social media following. Was there any negative reaction to your coming out among them?
ROGERS: Of course. There's always some people out there who are negative and say things like, "Why can't you just keep it to yourself? Why do you have to talk about it?" I wish those people could see the letters that I get from young kids that are suicidal and say, "Hey, I read about your story and I don't want to kill myself anymore." As simple as that.
On social media people can say whatever they want, but I usually just ignore that stuff. I don't go out looking for negative comments. People are going to love you, people are going to hate you no matter. That's just part of being a public figure.
MW: How important is that message sent to kids?
ROGERS: Until I came out publicly I didn't realize how important it was. I didn't realize how important it was for me to talk about it and speak with kids and go visit kids and to share my life a little bit more just so it would help them out because I didn't have that growing up. I think, for me, it's something people with a platform need to do: Be a positive role model. I'm going to continue to do it until it's not an issue at all and then I'll stop talking about it.
MW: When you were growing up, was there anyone in particular who was a role model, maybe not necessarily an athlete?
ROGERS: My parents and family. My grandpa was a huge role model and just an amazing person, but not really. There wasn't anyone that I could really look up to or really relate to, which is probably why it took me so long to come out. I didn't have anyone to mold my life after that I thought was similar to me so that's something I struggled with. Hopefully kids can connect with me. I'm human, so I make mistakes, but I hope that I can live a life where I can be a positive role model for other kids.
MW: You've now played soccer in the U.S. and the U.K. How is it different?
ROGERS: Football in the U.K., it's the biggest sport. And here in the U.S. it's not, so the energy behind the teams, the fans, how much it's on TV, it's so different. If you can just imagine American football, but I think it's even more passionate over in the U.K. and other European countries. There's a lot of history and tradition over in Europe and the rivalries are insane.
MW: You mentioned some of the hyper-masculine environments.
ROGERS: It's very much in soccer in the U.K. and Europe.
MW: Do you think it's more so the case over there?
ROGERS: Definitely more than soccer here, but I've never been inside an NBA or an NFL locker room, so I can't speak for those. Over there it is very masculine and the banter and the jokes and all the conversation is very — I hate to say it like this — very straight, stereotype-athlete mentality talking about, you know, what girls you're hooking up with, what cars you're driving around, where you went out the weekend before, all that stuff. It's tough for a gay athlete to really connect with all that stuff.
MW: Did that ever get under your skin?
ROGERS: It bothered me and made me quiet, but I wouldn't say it got under my skin.
(Photo courtesy LA Galaxy)
MW: You recently wrote a piece for USA Today about your opposition to boycotting the Winter Olympics in Sochi over Russia's anti-LGBT law. What's your reasoning behind that position?
ROGERS: I was just trying to speak for my experience. After I came out and went back to sports, I realized that the conversations I was having about my life as a gay man were conversations a lot of guys wouldn't have in the locker room or at a team dinner, and I thought that me just being present and playing my sport was a more impactful message to people in the U.S. or soccer fans everywhere or just people around the world.
If someone wants to boycott, they can boycott it. I wasn't trying to say, "No, don't boycott." I was just saying from my experience and if I had a choice I would go and if I was able to encourage people to go I would just so that they could be themselves and be open and be positive and compete. I think that would be the real message. That would make more of a difference. That's just how I felt about it, but I think the decision is up to the athletes themselves.
My experience at the Olympics in Beijing was just amazing, so I wouldn't want to take that away from anyone.
MW: Russian officials have said that there is a risk of arrest if people speak out about this or do so much as wear a rainbow pin. Do you think it's worth that risk?
ROGERS: That's why I also wrote about how I think the Olympic Committee needs to protect people. We'll see what the Olympic Committee does, but it's very important that the Olympic Committee take care of the athletes and create a safe environment for any kind of athlete. It will be interesting to see what happens. But, honestly, I still would go. I'm not going to tell another athlete what to do, but I would still go.
MW: Have you been satisfied with the response from the International Olympic Committee?
ROGERS: No. ... I think until the Olympic Committee makes an official statement or something public where they address all of those issues, I'll wait and see what happens. But I think they simply need to protect everyone. They need to create an Olympics that is positive and safe. That's just common sense to me.
MW: Is there any reaction to your coming out that stands out in your mind more than anything else?
ROGERS: I don't think there was one thing specifically, but it was more in the messages from younger adults that were messages like, "I read your story and really connected with it and now I came out to my family yesterday. It wasn't easy, but thanks for sharing your story because that's what inspired me." Or people who talk about suicide and reading the story and being motivated to live. As simple as that. It's crazy.
I never thought in a million years that me coming out would inspire someone to be themselves and to want to continue to live and kind of change their life. Those kind of reactions were when I was like, "Okay, I'm happy I did this and I feel better about myself." But now I'm really helping people as well. It wasn't what I was expecting, but it feels great to know I'm helping people in that way.
MW: In a lot of ways it seems like you're a spokesman now.
ROGERS: Yeah, if you would've asked me this a year ago — I also came out to my family eight months ago, so it hasn't been that long — but a year ago I would've told you you were crazy.
MW: Is it a role you're comfortable with?
ROGERS: Now I am. I had to get comfortable with it very quickly. Obviously, I came out in public. In a way, I wasn't asking for it. But it's kind of like, you did that so now you have to do it. You know what I'm saying? So I feel very motivated to help people and, again, that wasn't my intention. When I came out I just wanted to be happy with myself and my life and just let people know where I stand.
MW: I'll never hear the end of it if I don't ask this next question. Are you single?
ROGERS: Yes, I am.
MW: And I know you have interests other than soccer. You're involved in a men's fashion line — "Halsey." Is that something we'll see more of in the future?
ROGERS: Yeah, I'm involved with that and working on different things with that. Every season we create a new line so that's obviously busy.
Working on a charity called "Beyond 'it,'" where I'm raising money for nonprofits. And I'm going to co-chair the GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) Respect Awards with Kerry Washington, and a working on a documentary with Steve Nash, and just a bunch of different little things that I think will really help people. It's been very enjoyable for me and I've been learning a lot. My focus right now is definitely soccer -- the other stuff when I have time I work on it.
MW: What's your message to either current athletes who are thinking of coming out, or to some of these young people we've talked about who want to go into professional sports but don't see someone like them on the field or the court?
ROGERS: That's a great question. There's a lot of things I'd like to sit down and say to them, but from my experience I've realized just being honest and open with people makes things really easy. They just know where you stand. They grow to trust you and respect you. I think if you can be an athlete and be totally open, your performance will change and you'll be happy with your life off the field or outside the arena — whatever sport you're in.
Honestly, for me, being open with people has changed my life. I don't know how to word that into a cheesy phrase, but that's about what I would say to them.
Team DC and the Federal Triangles Soccer Club present United Night Out vs. the L.A. Galaxy Saturday, Sept. 14. Game begins at 4 p.m., RFK Stadium. Tickets, $30, are available online at unitednightout.com.