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: family would abandon them; friends would flee; careers would lie in tatters. I understand this world view in men who grew up in the 1970’s, 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 in our culture, there is still a universal shame that most young men feel as they discover their sexual orientation. Granted, the world is a different place than the one I grew up in. But as a young man today discovers around 12, 13 or 14 the reason he has felt different from all the other boys, there are still a multitude of messages from all parts of our culture and family life 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 then telling a very few close female friends that his father is gay, he has not told any of 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 own 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 10 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, but it probably began to form in my mind around the age of 10 as well, that something was terribly wrong with me. At age 10 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. It seems like Rodgers has more insight at 10 than I did about his budding sexual orientation, but 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 so 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 new book. He adds one more important 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 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.