I’m reading a new book published just this week by Robbie Rogers and Eric Marcus: Coming Out To Play. It is the autobiography of Rogers, the first professional soccer player to come out as gay.
What I find so fascinating about autobiographies like Rogers is the universal shame men describe feeling as they begin to understand their sexual orientation. It is the feeling that if anyone knew of their gayness, their life would be over: their family would abandon them; friends would flee; careers would lie in tatters. I understand this world view in men who grew up in the 1970s, 1980’s or even later, but in someone as young as Rogers, born in 1987, I thought he might feel differently.
Even today, with marriage equality growing across the USA, and the dramatic changes in how LGBT men and women are treated, seen and portrayed, there is still a universal shame that most young men feel as they discover their sexual orientation. The world is a different place than the one I grew up. But even today, as a young man identifies the reason he has felt different from all the other boys, there is still a multitude of messages from culture, religion, and family invalidating his true identity and making him feel ashamed.
My son, who is 18, has been nothing but supportive of me since I came out to him almost three years ago. But other than telling a very few close female friends that his father is gay, he has not said anything to his male friends. He did tell his roommate in college that his parents were divorced but stopped short of going any further. I understand that my son is still young and has just begun college. His masculinity and sexuality are still developing, and he is at an age where he wants to fit in and be accepted. But it would be nice if he felt free to share the full story of his family. When I visited my son at college last month with his mother and my in-laws, it felt a bit like going back in the closet. Suddenly my new life was invisible, and to the outside world, we were a family again.
Describing himself at ten years old, Rodgers begins a paragraph with these words: “My growing sense that something was wrong with me…” He goes on to describe hearing gay slurs, anti-gay rhetoric in church, and even anti-gay comments from his family around the dinner table. His experience is so typical of so many of us. I felt from a very early age that something was wrong with me. At age ten, I did not know I was gay but had the sense that I was different, not like other boys, and lived in a lonely world that was isolated from the rest of boy culture. Rodgers had more insight at ten than I did about his budding sexual orientation, but he feels the same need to hide away his true nature from the world.
Rodgers writes: “you don’t grow up hating yourself by accident. You don’t learn to lie about your true nature on a whim. You don’t pretend to be straight just for the fun of it. You have to learn and be taught these things.” He goes on later in the chapter to say: “when you teach a child who is gay (or lesbian, bisexual, or transgender) that his fundamental nature is somehow bad, you create a situation where that child grows up hating himself and feels compelled to hide his true feelings, no matter what the cost is to him and those around him.” These words are true and describe the choices so many men, including me, have made, feeling that we had to hide the ugliness inside ‘no matter what the cost.’
I am enjoying reading Rodgers’s new book. He adds one more influential voice to the many wonderful autobiographies of men who have come out. As a professional athlete, Rodgers also adds an important dimension to what it means to come out as gay in the elite world of professional sports. Lastly, Rodgers story shows the universal experience that so many of us have feeling shame as we discover our sexuality and the need to hide the shame away under the belief that our world would end if our terrible secret were known.