It is six years since Thomas Hitzlsperger revealed that he was gay, becoming the first openly gay footballer to have played in the Premier League.
The announcement was tinged with sadness and regret given that Hitzlsperger felt that he could only make this announcement after retiring from the professional game.
Meanwhile, former Leeds United player Robbie Rogers also confirmed that he was gay a year before, although the American never kicked a ball in the EPL.
It’s strange that no-one else has taken the decision to come out since, particularly given the rapidly changing attitudes and perceptions in the world of football. The sport has come a very long way in the last 30 years, since Justin Fashanu became the first openly gay professional footballer.
Former West Ham United player Thomas Hitzlsperger came out publicly in 2014
The recent Palgrave Handbook of Masculinity and Sport revealed that the game had undergone a comprehensive “renegotiation of the old masculine scripts” and that football was an industry “where this change is most profound”.
There’s no doubt that the English Premier League has become a behemoth of a global brand. It’s undoubtedly the most talked about and most watched league in professional football. The eyes of the sporting media are fixed firmly on the EPL week in, week out. There are unprecedented levels of scrutiny from the press.
Furthermore, the coverage of the EPL by leading sportsbooks is bigger than ever before. The likes of SkyBet, which sponsor the English Football League, provide an extensive range of in-play and pre-game markets for customers to wager on, with most games broadcast or televised on satellite networks today.
Changing attitudes are a huge positive for gay professional footballers
Former Premier League manager Graeme Souness spoke out at the end of last year, believing that the industry has led to an “uncomfortable environment” for players to be openly gay in.
In December, the EPL teamed up with Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces initiative to demonstrate love and support for all LGBT people involved in the game, be it fans, players or staff.
Souness himself admitted that the atmosphere in dressing rooms during his own playing days was “extremely homophobic”, but times have changed immeasurably. Souness took part in last year’s Brighton Pride parade and revealed his experience was “enlightening” to the point that it “changed [his] attitude”.
Souness intimated that homophobia was a generational issue. In fact, in 2012 a study of 3,500 football fans revealed a more “permissive and liberal” attitude towards homosexuality than was previously thought before the research.
Just 7% believed there was “no place” for openly gay players in the EPL. While that is 7% too many, it’s still a significant step change in the right direction.
The heart-warming story of Ryan Atkin
It’s not just elite-level footballers that can benefit from a more open and embracing environment, but match officials too. Top-level referee Ryan Atkin became the first openly gay football official.
Atkin made the announcement back in 2017 and he has come an extremely long way in the game since then.
In an interview last year, Atkin revealed he was the subject of touchline banter from an older spectator in his second game after coming out. Atkin opted not to ignore the comments from the terraces and instead turned to the fan and laughed at them.
Fortunately, since then Atkin has received nothing but love and support in the game. He is a fantastic role model for the sport, often venturing into schools to discuss the merits of diversity and equality in football and other walks of life.
Atkin feels empowered on the pitch now that he feels fully committed to his sexuality “rather than 98%” committed. He admitted in an interview last November that his sexuality has not been the reason behind his rise towards officiating in the Football League, adding that “you’re either good at refereeing or you’re not”.
It’s hoped that any gay or bisexual EPL stars will soon feel as comfortable as Atkin in being true to themselves in the limelight.