The hardships faced by gay teens inspired the coming-out of former University of North Carolina star David Testo after nearly a decade of pro soccer in MLS, the USL and NASL. We contacted longtime soccer coach and journalist Dan Woog, the author of five books on gay and lesbian issues, to comment on the importance of pro athletes coming out and to offer advice for coaches on how to combat the homophobia that can torment gay and questioning teens.
Interview by Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider)
SOCCER AMERICA: Last month, David Testo became the first North American professional soccer player to come out as gay. He cited among the reasons for coming out reports of suicides among gay teens. What was your reaction to Testo's coming out and his view that more professional athletes doing so could help "normalize this issue?"
DAN WOOG: David Testo's coming out was a very important step. We've seen athletes in individual sports (swimming, tennis, golf, etc.) come out; we've seen athletes in team sports in other countries come out (rugby, Anton Hysen in soccer, etc.). We've seen Rick Welts come out as an NBA executive, and the reaction when Brendan Burke, the gay son of NHL executive Brian Burke, died.
But David Testo is the first male athlete in a major American team sport to come out. We're still waiting for the first active player -- in one of the "bigger" sports like football, basketball or baseball -- to come out. But this is another big step on that road.
As for his view that professional athletes coming out "normalize" the issue: absolutely. Sports is the very last "closet" -- we've got openly gay politicians, entertainers, actors, teachers, clergy, you name it. The only segment of society where gay people are still not open is professional sports.
"Normalization" is crucial -- for everyone to see that gay people are everywhere. It's not good, it's not bad; it's just a fact of life. And that "normalization" is important not just for gay youth -- who need positive role models -- but for straight people (especially young people) as well.
They will grow up and live in a world with all kinds of people around them. To realize that some of their sports heroes are gay is an important message to straight kids too.
SA: The bullying of LGBT teens sparked the creation of the "It Gets Better Project." Among the professional sports teams – including baseball's Giants, Cubs, Dodgers, Phillies and Red Sox -- that created videos for the campaign, was D.C. United, and the Seattle Sounders took part in one. How important is it for pro sports to be involved in this campaign and for soccer teams to be a part of it?
DAN WOOG: Hugely important. For better or worse, youngsters take many of their cues from sports. If they hear fans chanting "Yankees Suck," or hear sports figures talking smack about opponents, they think it's OK to do that in high school (or below).
Conversely, if they hear (or hear about) teams taking a stand against anti-gay language -- or hear sports figures telling all kids who are bullied (for whatever reason) that "it gets better," that makes a bigger impact than most adults imagine. The key, of course, is getting those videos -- or those remarks -- in front of young people.
SA: Testo mentioned he "heard tons of gay slurs" when he attended a game at his old high school in North Carolina. What impact does it have on a gay teen, or on teens unsure of their sexual orientation, to hear those words?
DAN WOOG: There are two parts of the answer. The first is, it has an enormous impact on gay or questioning teens. Wow, they think -- I can never come out. My teammates would hate me. They won't trust me. I'll ruin the team chemistry. I won't be able to play any more. And they start thinking -- worrying -- about that, and as a result they can't concentrate on what they should be concentrating on, which is the training or game or school or whatever.
The second part is, those words have an even greater impact when they are accepted as "part of the culture," or when they are not addressed. First, the gay or questioning kid thinks (subconsciously, or even consciously), "Wow, the coach doesn't let anyone use the n-word, and he even got mad when someone called his girlfriend 'my bitch.' But he doesn't say anything about 'faggot' or 'homo' -- so I must really be a bad person.”
And the message that gets sent to straight players when no one addresses those words is: "It's OK to use them. You can't say 'nigger' or anything else bad, but you can say 'faggot.'" That's a very subtle lesson -- but it's a powerful one.
SA: What should a coach do when he hears gay slurs from his players?
DAN WOOG: He should not make a huge deal of it. He should just address it in his own style. Some coaches can use humor: "This training session is gay? Does it really like other training sessions?"
Some can use a teachable moment: "Hey -- I don't want to hear that anymore. You know we talk about respect all the time. You never know who you might be offending -- the bus driver, someone with a gay uncle -- it doesn't matter. Knock it off."
Some can use a personal example: "You know, my sister is a lesbian. I love her very much -- and she's a better soccer player than you'll ever be. Please don't use that word around me again."
Many coaches are afraid to address it, because they worry what players will think: "Is he gay?" Well, they don't worry that players will think he's black if he stands up against the n-word, or a woman if he doesn't allow anti-female slurs, or a dog if he stands up for animal rights!
SA: Is homophobia a problem in youth soccer?
DAN WOOG: I'd call it "homo-ignorance." By that I mean ignorance on the part of adults that many athletes are gay, and ignorance about the power of anti-gay language. They're ignorant because they don't see gay athletes at the pro level, and they don't realize kids on their teams are gay, questioning, or have gay friends or relatives.
Which brings us back to the point of David Testo's coming-out being so important.
SA: Is there more homophobia in sports than in other sectors of society?
DAN WOOG: I think there's more overt anti-gay language, and less recognition of gay people and gay issues. That's partly because sports has been very male-dominated in the past; any sign of weakness is looked down on, and homosexuality has in the past been associated with "male weakness."
It's also because sports is hierarchical -- you do what you're told by the coach, and when you become a coach you coach the way your coaches coached -- though that is changing rapidly.
SA: Do you think gay or lesbian teens should come out to their teammates?
DAN WOOG: Every situation is different. Many gay youth -- far more than most people realize -- are out to at least a few teammates, at the high school and college level. But many are not yet ready to come out -- the climate is unsafe, they worry about family reactions or the climate at school or what opponents will say if the word gets out -- and those are valid concerns.
I always tell players that they will know when they are ready to come out, and they should come out for the right reasons -- not because they feel pressure to. Interestingly, no player has ever come out to me while he's been on one of my teams -- and that's normal. After graduation, they do come out to me.
SA: Suppose a coach notices a player is depressed and suspects it’s because the player is struggling with the issue of sexual orientation, should the coach ever broach the subject with the player?
DAN WOOG: No. If something is going on with a kid, I might say, “You don’t really seem to be yourself. … You seem really distracted …” or “You’re not smiling the way you usually do. … Is there something I should know about?" That’s all.
When I think a player is depressed or distracted, I’m not going to say, “Are your parents getting divorced? … Does your father have cancer?” or anything like that. Even if I knew it, I would never say it.
I would never put a kid on the spot like that. It’s what we talk about a lot at the youth group I work with. I’m a facilitator at GLBT youth group, and kids say, “My mother asked me a year ago if I was gay and I freaked out. I wasn’t ready for it.”
Coming out, whether it’s to a parent, a friend, a coach or a teammate, really should be on the kid’s own terms.
SA: What is it that can make life so difficult for gay or questioning teens?
DAN WOOG: I think the term “in the closet” is very apt because nobody lives in a closet. You live in your bedroom, your living room, your kitchen. In the closet there’s no light, no ventilation, spiders in the corner. ...
Being gay is this thing you’re carrying around, you’re trying to figure out, “What’s my life going to be like? ... Am I ever going to meet anybody? …” You’re going through all that and you’re worried at the same time, in the athletic context, “Oh God, everybody’s talking about the team and we all have to rely on each other. What if somebody finds out about me? Will they turn their back on me? Will they tease me? Will I be the one who disrupts the whole team?"
And you have nobody to talk to about it really, because you can’t point to this gay coach, or these gay athletes, or this guy on the team last year who’s gay. You can’t point to anybody unless you find Outsports.com or read about the very few David Testos of the world. There’s no way of reconciling your gay identity, which is important to you because it’s who you are, with your sports identity, which is important to you because that too is who you are.
(Dan Woog is the head coach of the Staples High School boys soccer program in Westport, Conn. The Wreckers have won four league championships in the last six years, and their 12th state title overall in 2010. An openly gay man, Woog has written two books on gay athletes, the “Jocks” series, and currently writes a nationally syndicated column on gay sports, “The OutField.” His web site is danwoog.com.)