Wednesday was an important day for MLS, and not just because there were seven games and in one of them the Galaxy hit five goals for the second time in five days.
Robbie Rogers collected one of those goals on a most opportune occasion, the Galaxy’s Pride Night, which the team stages every year in support of the LGBT community. Rogers joined the Galaxy in May 2013, three months after he terminated his contract with Leeds United and retired at age 25, citing his sexuality as too big a burden for an active player to bear.
“Tonight's obviously Pride Night, so it's special, and I think that's why I was more emotional,” Rogers said after the game. “Because I knew there were a lot of people who haven't been to this stadium before, my family, my boyfriend, his friends, and my other friends, and a lot of people from West Hollywood. It was special.”
Earlier on Wednesday a long essay appeared on Outsports.com written by Matt Hatzke, a 2008 Galaxy SuperDraft pick, publicly stating he is gay. The former All-American at Santa Clara was traded early in the 2008 season to San Jose, which released him the following year.
In his essay, Hatzke told of a Quakes postgame party following a game in Columbus, for which Rogers played at the time. San Jose had won, 2-0, one of only two road games they would win that season, and as his teammates celebrated Hatzke’s mood soured.
Hatzke writes: “This night stood out in particular: What should have been a great night celebrating one of our rare wins that season turned out to be a depressing nightmare. With teammates razzing me to talk to this woman and that woman, I turned to my drink and imbibed heavily to avoid confrontation. As the night wore on my teammates continued to enjoy themselves, as I felt worse and worse about my situation and myself.
“As I so often did, I snuck out of the bar and returned to my hotel room alone, hoping that no one would notice or remember that night as we boarded the flight home the next morning. Thankfully nobody said a word.”
Hatzke took inspiration five years later when Rogers came out and subsequently revived his career with the Galaxy. He writes, “Following his public coming out in 2013, I came out to my family and friends. My life hasn't been the same since as I have found happiness like I couldn't understand before. It was five years after that fateful game that I finally felt my life finding completion.”
Hatzke waited another two years before following Rogers' lead and going public, which is a step of very personal choice that many athletes delay until after they stop playing. Rogers broke the mold for male gay athletes by resuming his career after coming out, but many more female athletes have come out during their playing careers.
USA women’s international Megan Rapinoe, who came out in 2012, acknowledges there are different parameters for male and female gay athletes, just as there are for people in other walks of life.
“I think there is a responsibility for a team or an organization and just the whole governing bodies to really preemptively set up the environment to come out, and have the programs already in place before it becomes reactive in a way,” she says.
“I think it’s much different in women’s sports. A lot of the players are lesbians, so it’s always been kind of an interesting, open-and-closed environment. Not everybody talks about it, but within the environment it’s very open. For me, and maybe I’m naive and there were people who didn’t like it, but I never felt any kind of backlash or felt like I had to justify it or hide it. Everyone’s always been very supportive.”
Yet Rapinoe also believes the impetus for change must come from all directions, from the gay men and women themselves as well as the people who run the leagues and organizations that employ them.
“For me personally, I think we have a responsibility that it should be unacceptable to be homophobic,” she says. “Companies like the NFL or Apple or what-have-you, if they come out right off the bat and accept it, people will follow that. If they make it unacceptable -- if the NBA does that, if FIFA does that -- people will follow suit.”
In his postgame comments on Wednesday, Rogers reiterated his appreciation for the acceptance and support he’s received from the Galaxy organization and MLS and other outlets. He cited the examples of NBA player Jason Collins and NFL player Michael Sam, other pioneers among male athletes who came out during their playing careers and are doing more than just keeping a job and a paycheck.
“I just know when I'm playing, obviously I'm playing for the Galaxy and these guys [in this locker room], most importantly, for myself and my family,” he said. “But I also feel like I'm playing for the LGBT community. Sometimes it's been tough for me, and I feel the pressure, and moments like this, I never expected for me to find that pride, really, or to be proud of coming from a community that obviously doesn't have a huge footprint in sports.
“But to be part of it, the first guys with Jason and Michael, and some female athletes, it's a special moment.”