Thanks to Thomas Hitzlsperger, young gay athletes know they're not alone

It will have taken courage to come out, but Hitzlsperger has helped the next generation of sportsmen take that difficult step

Former footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out as gay following his retirement.
Former footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out as gay following his retirement. Photograph: Rex Features

I've been a fan of Thomas Hitzlsperger since I was in my early teens. I remember watching him play for Aston Villa and will never forget seeing him score goals from midfield. He had a great left foot, which was something I was working on back then as a winger for the Palos Verdes in southern California. At that point in my life I already knew I was gay, but I really thought I was the only football player in the world who was. I could never have imagined that Thomas was gay too, but it would have made a world of difference to me if I had known, just as young gay athletes around the world will be inspired now by Thomas's courageous decision to come forward and share the truth about his life.

I don't know Thomas Hitzlsperger, or if his experience has been anything like mine. I found that if you grow up hiding the secret of your sexuality, even when you're an adult and your career is no longer on the line, it's not an easy thing to go public with something so personal – something you know would make it impossible to play the game you love. That's what kept me in the closet until I retired last February and came out.

I've been fortunate enough to return to the game, this time as an out and proud gay man, knowing full well that my actions could be of help to another young Robbie Rogers, whether his first love is soccer or science or fashion or all of the above. As I've been writing my memoirs this past year, I've thought a lot about the experience of growing up gay, keeping that secret, and the scars it leaves behind.

For me, and I imagine most gay and lesbian people, it's as if that frightened 12-year-old child is still there inside you. When we see men like Thomas make this announcement, it helps to heal the scared gay kid that still resides in each of us, remembering how alone we felt. But we were never really alone. And it helps me to know that someone I watched and admired as a boy was just like me when he was out there competing on the field. I would say that I can't imagine what a difficult decision it was for Thomas to come out publicly – but I can easily imagine. In fact it is the most terrifying thing I have ever done.

It always feels funny when people congratulate me for coming out, because they're congratulating me for simply telling the truth. But at a moment like this, my first thought is to congratulate Thomas. To thank him for taking the risk, for himself and for all the people who will be helped and inspired by his brave act. We can only hope that by joining the conversation, he can help move it forward.

Congratulations, Thomas. I hope this helps you find the same peace I was fortunate to find by sharing my truth.

January 9, 2014
The Guardian
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