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‘Does Your Boyfriend Know You Are Here?': The Fight Against Casual Homophobia In English Soccer

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Eight years in the Upton Park stands, and Jim Dolan had never heard anything like this.

A fan behind them spent most of the match showering players, the referee, the linesmen — anyone and everyone on the pitch, really — with homophobic abuse. Not merely slurs. “Vicious, horrible abuse.”

Dolan had listened before to his gay friends who said they stayed away from soccer matches because of that sort of behavior. But he never heard anything that made him reconsider his place at the match himself.

“For the first time, I felt helpless,” he recounted. If he challenged the screamer, “would everyone around me support me? Or would they join in with this guy?”

He fired off a few tweets. Across England, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender fans of other clubs had organized supporters groups. Would any West Ham fans want to do the same?

I met Dolan at Upton Park on a chilly, windy Saturday afternoon at the end of February, a season after he sat through one fan’s abuse wishing he could do something.

By now, he has. The positive response to his initial tweets, with the help of an outside network that supports gay soccer fans, turned into a fledgling supporters’ group of gay and lesbian West Ham fans. On this day, before West Ham took the pitch to face Crystal Palace, the fans who call themselves Pride of Irons would become the latest LGBT group to earn the official support of the club they love. Pride of Irons swelled to more than 40 members by the time they met with club officials in December, and now West Ham welcomed the members onto the pitch, where club chairman David Gold joined them briefly to chat and take pictures.

The concept of organized fan groups is instrumental to English soccer — clubs like West Ham list dozens of supporters associations on their web sites. Gay and lesbian fans have surely been a part of them in the past. But after decades of watching the progress that has taken England to the world’s forefront of LGBT equality fail to expand its reach into the country’s most popular sport, LGBT fans have spent the last two years coming out.

Groups like Pride of Irons have sprouted at clubs across the country, taking a central role in the fight against anti-gay discrimination in soccer and blasting a simple message: We are fans too.

Members of Pride Of Irons meet with West Ham chairman David Gold (center) at the group's February launch event.

Members of Pride Of Irons meet with West Ham chairman David Gold (center) at the group’s February launch event.

CREDIT: TRAVIS WALDRON

“Does he take it up the arse?”

“Does your boyfriend know you’re here?”

“We can see you holding hands!”

Most of the chants that ring through the terraces of English stadiums and provide the cadence of a soccer match are innocent enough. They hail local heroesbecome club anthems, or aim banter at rivals. It isn’t uncommon to hear obscenities in them, but they usually don’t rise to level of targeted discriminatory abuse.

Every now and then, though, they turn homophobic.

Fans of all types are eager to point out that the caricature of the English soccer hooligan that showed up in movies of the past does not accurately portray a typical fan today, thanks to concerted efforts from the British government, law enforcement, and the Football Association, the sport’s governing body in England, that long ago rooted out most violence. And fans both gay and straight say too that instances of outright homophobia are also rare, or at least far less common than they once were. It is relatively easy now to attend a match without hearing blatant discriminatory abuse leveled at other fans, officials, players, or coaches.

But even when homophobia isn’t orchestrated and obvious, even at the places where clubs have taken strong stances and discrimination rarely occurs, there are fears that gay fans cannot be open about who they are.

“If you’re going to The Emirates with your boyfriend or girlfriend of the same sex, would you hold hands?” 

asked Dave Raval, a media coordinator for the Gay Gooners, a group of LGBT supporters of Arsenal F.C. “Many people wouldn’t. Homophobia exists on many different levels. That’s why we’re taking a stand.”

If you’re going to The Emirates with your boyfriend or girlfriend of the same sex, would you hold hands?

The most glaring example of reticence to come out is Robbie Rogers, the American who was playing in England when he announced he is gay and promptly retired in 2013. Rogers thought it “impossible” to come out while playing, citing the potential for abuse from both other players and fans in his decision to quit (months later, hereturned to Major League Soccer, the American league). Rogers’ concerns were not restricted to English soccer, but fans there say the sort of abuse he feared has kept more gay fans from coming to soccer matches.

The Football Association now has taken a special interest in combating discrimination of all forms — namely, racism, homophobia, sexism, and the abuse of disabled people — throughout the sport, from the professional level to the grassroots, where the use of homophobic language is an even bigger problem, according to officials. The FA has a five-year action plan aimed at increasing diversity within the sport and at encouraging more reporting of discrimination. And in recent years it has expanded its efforts beyond the fines and suspensions it has issued players, managers, and other club and FA employees who exhibit discriminatory behavior.

The FA now uses education programs to show its members what discrimination looks like and how they can prevent it. It is currently developing online anti-discrimination training for its 327,000 coaches and referees and conducts field training and education sessions too. At every level of the sport, any player, coach, referee, or club official found to violate its policies must go through one-on-one education sessions.

“Fining people and suspending people is one thing,” said Chris Gibbons, an FA Inclusion Education Adviser, who came to the organization after working for Stonewall, the UK’s largest LGBT charity. “But what we want to do is change attitudes and behavior, and get people thinking differently about what they do, what they say, and how they treat people.”

Though racism and sexism may remain the most visible forms of discrimination in English soccer, homophobia is one of the FA’s key targets, and Gibbons has “been really impressed at the response we get from participants, whether at the grassroots or the pro level.” The organization has worked alongside clubs in the Premier League and the leagues below it to help them improve their own efforts (one example: it held a two-day training session in December for pro and grassroots clubs to educate them on how to promote LGBT inclusion in the sport). The FA has also updated its transgender policy to handle players who transition on a case-by-case basis rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all model.

But the Football Association, as governing bodies go, isn’t all that powerful — at the professional level, the clubs are strongest — and there is one major area of the game it lacks the jurisdiction to reach: the fans.

Policing fan behavior is largely left to clubs and other fans, who can report abuse through an app developed by Kick It Out, an FA-partnered anti-discrimination organization. Many of the clubs have taken action, but groups like Pride of Irons are filling the gaps, adopting the organized nature of soccer supporters’ groups to confront abuse simply by making themselves more visible. The hope is that this will push soccer to a more inclusive place.

Members of the Gay Gooners march at the London pride festival.

Members of the Gay Gooners march at the London pride festival.

CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE GAY GOONERS

Before there was Pride of Irons or any of the other LGBT fan groups that have formed since, there were the Gay Gooners.

With more than 250 members, the Gay Gooners, whose name borrows a popular moniker for Arsenal fans, is the largest LGBT fan group in England. They earned Arsenal’s official sanction in the spring of 2013, when the club brought them onto the pitch before a match and unfurled a rainbow banner to hang from the stadium terrace. They have a direct working relationship with the club.

I was supposed to meet members of the Gay Gooners at The Rocket, a pub near Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, before a match in early March. By the time I walked in — after showing the bouncer a just-bought Arsenal hat and a match ticket to prove I wasn’t an opposing fan searching for trouble — the place was packed. We never found each other.

I went back after the match in the off-chance I’d find them then, but instead, a fan who noticed my American accent asked why I was there and invited me to watch the League Cup final — Chelsea and Tottenham were tied nil-nil early on — with his friends.

“He’s a journo,” my new-found friend announced as we approached the table, “doing a story about gay footballers.”

Most at the table smiled and demurred. Jack Gilhooly did not.

“If he’s a good football player, I wouldn’t care,” Gilhooly, a 25-year-old Liverpool supporter from Kent, said. “If he’s shit, I’d say he’s shit. What do I care.”

And fans?

“It doesn’t bother me if anyone’s gay,” he said. “If they’re good at football, or a fan, or they support a team — support your team. It doesn’t matter what they do. That’s their private business. You’re just a football fan.”

Another, an Arsenal fan who only called himself Sunny, chimed in.

“I don’t care if they’re gay. The only thing they could be ashamed of is if they played for Tottenham,” he yelled, referencing Arsenal’s hated North London rival.

The Gay Gooners banner hangs inside Arsenal's Emirates Stadium.

The Gay Gooners banner hangs inside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. CREDIT: TRAVIS WALDRON

 

An impromptu discussion broke out between four fans — Sunny the Arsenal supporter, Gilhooly the Liverpool fan, a Chelsea supporter and a now-off-duty security guard, a Tottenham fan. They agreed that only “small-minded people” would care if a footballer or fan was gay. “There’s loads of gay players” already, Gilhooly reasoned.

The issue of gay fan groups, though, caused more contention and mystery, and hung on a simple question: if no one but the small-minded care, why do gay fans need to segregate themselves from the rest?

“We don’t self-segregate,” Raval, the Gay Gooners’ media coordinator, responded when we met later that week. “We self-identify.”

“Everybody asks, ‘When is a player going to come out?’” he continued. “But there are far more fans. When are the fans going to come out?”

Ask members of these groups why they exist and a common thread emerges.

For years, organized supporters’ groups have given fans of the same club a social outlet around the sport: people to go to the match with, people to drink with before the match, people to gather with inside and outside the grounds. At The Rocket, an Arsenal supporters’ group from Germany sat in one corner; at the Emirates, the terraces are lined with banners from supporters’ groups (like Arsenal America) from around the world.

Our message is, you’re welcome here. Football is ours as much as it is anyone else’s.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender fans have surely long been a part of this culture too. But only recently have they organized together, to let other LGBT fans know that they are there, that football can be their game too.

“Our message is, any LGBT fan, you’re welcome here,” said Chris Paouros, a co-founder of Proud Lilywhites, the group for LGBT supporters of Tottenham Hotspur. “Football is ours as much as it is anyone else’s.”

“For me, it’s about awareness,” Dolan, of Pride of Irons, said. “It’s about, I’m a fan, you’re a fan, let’s be a family. It’s not your club, it’s not my club. It’s everybody’s. We want anyone who wants to come support football to know they’re not the only one.”

Providing that social outlet is the area, perhaps, where the fan groups have accomplished the most already.

Meet with six members of the Proud Lilywhites and they will, on first glance, appear to have little in common. The two dozen Pride of Irons members at their launch match were old and young, black and white, man and woman. But these groups provide their members a link that they’ve never had with other football fans.

“I came to the stadium one night for a match, and I just happened to look up and see the banner,” Jaime Wildman, a Gay Gooners member, told me. “I thought, ‘Way cool. I have to get in touch with them.’ Now I’m hooked.”

Chris Painter takes the train to London for Tottenham matches. Before he met members of Proud Lilywhites, he made the trip a couple times a season. This early-March match against Swansea City, he said after a quick calculation, brought him closer to a dozen this year.

“I’ve come much more often over the last two or three years because of this group,” he said. He doesn’t sit with other members in the stands — he has his own tickets — but they routinely meet for dinner or drinks before a match, as our group has at a diner down the street from White Hart Lane on this night. “I come more because I’ve got people I can socialize with. People like me.”

Members of the Gay Gooners and Proud Lilywhites together after a promotional match between the two groups.

Members of the Gay Gooners and Proud Lilywhites together after a promotional match between the two groups. CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE PROUD LILYWHITES

 

That sense of welcoming has shown early signs of progress for inclusion in the game. Between the launch of the Gay Gooners and Pride of Irons, similar groups sprouted across English soccer — at Everton, the Rainbow Toffees; at Manchester City, the Canal St. Blues; at Norwich City, the Proud Canaries, to name but a few — and today, LGBT fans are more visible in soccer than they have ever been before. Recent weeks brought the launch of new groups at Charlton Athletic and Leicester City, the club that completed a mad-dash escape from relegation to remain in the Premier League this season.

The groups themselves are a sign of growth from the earliest efforts to organize gay fans, as they have launched in large part with the help of the Gay Football Supporters Network, a social and advocacy organization that links more than 900 LGBT fans across the United Kingdom. GFSN, which formed in 1989 and long predates the rise of individual club fan groups, launched its Fangroup Coordination effort in 2014 to help form groups at different clubs. GFSN FC is often instrumental in helping connect burgeoning groups like Pride of Irons with the clubs those fans support.

Visibility alone isn’t the end goal of many of the fan groups. The biggest have also taken on an active and public role promoting equality inside and outside the sport. The two groups that support opposite clubs in London’s biggest soccer rivalry have worked together to do just that: in February, before Arsenal and Tottenham met on the field, the Gay Gooners and Proud Lilywhites played a five-a-side match and competed in a pub trivia contest as an effort to raise awareness of LGBT fans. The Gay Gooners have marched together in pride parades; Proud Lilywhites members are active in community education initiatives focused on LGBT inclusion.

Classic fan associations are not just social networks. They also provide the type of organization that gives supporters a voice within their club and the sport. At Cardiff City, for instance, fans have protested owner Vincent Tan’s efforts to change the club’s colors from blue to red. Liverpool supporters, in an increasingly common display across England, have challenged rising ticket prices outside their stadium. Newcastle United supporters, distraught with a second-half performance that nearly left the Magpies facing relegation, called on the team’s owner to sell the club and carried banners into the stands in its final matches, declaring, “We don’t demand a club that wins, we demand a club that tries!”

The LGBT groups have given gay and lesbian fans a similar voice, though many of them haven’t needed to be so adversarial. Many English clubs, working in concert with fan groups and outside organizations like Football v. Homophobia and the FA-supported Kick It Out, have undertaken efforts to promote LGBT equality and inclusion on the pitch and off.

Arsenal and Tottenham are again illustrative.

Arsenal has for years had an LGBT member on a fan committee that meets with the club multiple times a season, and in the past two years, its efforts to promote LGBT equality as part of its Arsenal For Everyone initiative have expanded and become even more prominent. Arsenal welcomed the Gay Gooners onto the pitch to unfurl a new banner this season during LGBT history month. Manager Arsene Wenger has spoken out in support of openly gay players, and last year, some of Arsenal’s most prominent players were featured in a pro-equality video that gained international attention.

At Tottenham, the club’s board meets with the Proud Lilywhites, which unlike the other groups is an official supporters’ association and thus an official part of the club, at least twice a year, and the club also held an event on the pitch to promote their launch (a Proud Lilywhites banner is also visible inside Tottenham’s White Hart Lane stadium). Both clubs have featured the groups’ messages in their match day programs. The Lilywhites just completed their first full season, and the expectation is that it will continue to grow and the partnership will only evolve.

“When we look back on our first full season and what we wanted to do, I think we’ll say we did a hell of a lot,” said Simon Gray, the organization’s communications director. Now, he added, the Lilywhites want to “increase membership, increase engagement, increase our presence. It’s where do we go next. You’re always pushing.”

Leviathen Hendricks, GFSN FC’s coordinator, pointed to Norwich City, Newcastle, and numerous teams at the non-league level, as examples of clubs that have also embraced inclusion proactively.

Clubs like Tottenham and Arsenal, where anti-discrimination activists say there is a “culture of inclusion,” might have taken up many of these efforts on their own. But there and elsewhere, the existence and visibility of the fan groups has no doubt amplified the message and made it easier to do more. And at times, the Gay Gooners and Proud Lilywhites have pushed the clubs and their fans farther and seen tangible results.

In 2013, when Arsenal traveled south to Brighton & Hove Albion for a cup match, its supporters collectively showered their opponents with homophobic abuse — a common occurrence at Brighton, the city known as Britain’s “gay capital.” Before Arsenal returned for another FA Cup match this year, the Gay Gooners coordinated with the club to put a stop to homophobic banter before it began. The week before the Brighton match, Arsenal published a message in its match program warning fans that it did not tolerate such abuse. Then it emailed every fan with an away ticket to reiterate the message. The Gay Gooners and the club worked with local police and Brighton stewards to urge them to take homophobia seriously.

“On the actual day, there were three or four incidents of one or two people chanting, but the stewards, with police behind them, immediately stomped it out,” Raval said. “So in two years, we went from 3,000 fans chanting to three or four. That’s massive.”

The Lilywhites have experienced a similar effect.

“If we stand back and don’t say anything” when abuse occurs at Spurs matches, said Gray, “more people now will come to our defense. That’s a powerful thing.”

Members of Pride Of Irons at a celebration event after they launched in March.

Members of Pride Of Irons at a celebration event after they launched in March. CREDIT: TRAVIS WALDRON

 

There is progress yet to make.

Younger fans like those I met at The Rocket may have no problem with gay fans or players, but Dolan, of Pride of Irons, observed that the chants that are common in Brighton have spread to other grounds too, perhaps in part because LGBT fans have made themselves more visible.

“This ultimately rides on the straight fan, to prove they’re larger than the vocal minority,” Dolan told me.

And there is, of course, still the question of when a player in top-flight English men’s soccer will come out publicly. Pinning all of the blame on fans is unfair, just as it was in the United States, where largely supportive crowds have greeted openly gay players in different sports (Arsenal Ladies and England international Casey Stoney came out as the first openly gay player in the English women’s league last year. In an email, she called it “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made” and said that the “overwhelming majority” of fans “have been very supportive”).

The Football Association seems committed to smoothing the path for an openly gay player. It is “working hard to create an environment where if they do decide to be open about their sexual orientation, they know they will have our full support, the support of their clubs, fans, and teammates,” Gibbons, the FA Inclusion Adviser, said of players who might consider coming out.

But given the instances of homophobic abuse that have come from fans in the past, the supporters’ groups remain a crucial part of the effort, which includes the FA’s work and the expansion of a network of gay soccer teams and players across the UK. If one of the goals is to make it easier for a gay player to come out, the overarching idea is to normalize the concept that LGBT people exist in all parts and at every level of soccer.

“We want to be there all the time, so there’s that continuous drip, drip, drip about gay football and gay football fans,” Raval said. “So people just get used to it, and it’s normal.”

‘Cursed by God’: Far-right activist claims Liverpool FC punished for backing gay rights

Are you a football supporter; are you gay; do you agree or disagree with Paul Rimmer’s statement?  Read the article and then let us know!

A far-right English Democrats activist has claimed Premier League football team Liverpool FC had performed less well last season because they openly ‘promoted’ homosexuality.

Former UKIP candidate Paul Rimmer came under fire on Tuesday for posting comments on social media about the football club’s alleged support of homosexuality.

Rimmer, who was previously an activist for the British National Party (BNP), posted quotes from the Bible accompanied by a damning report of Liverpool’s recent performances, saying they would not improve unless they “repented.

“From the Bible, Sodomy defiles a Nation. Those who promote it will be punished & vomited out of the Land. Lev.18.23. In 2012 Liverpool FC sponsored the City’s Gay Pride Parade. Unless they repent they will be under a continual curse,” the post read.

This was followed by a comment about the unacceptability of homosexuality.

“Everyone knows homosexuality is wrong, but now we have to pretend it’s nice & normal and anyone who points out it’s a perversion is evil. This is a deep moral & spiritual sickness in our nation,” he added.

His other social media posts include criticism of the BBC for being “totally unpatriotic, anti-Christian & anti-white,” worshipping “sodomy & blackness” and pushing “pro-Moslem propaganda.”

Paul Rimmer (Image from liveraf.wordpress.com)

Paul Rimmer (Image from liveraf.wordpress.com)

He has further labeled feminists who criticized his remarks as “feminazis.”

UKIP described Rimmer’s comments as “idiotic” while Liverpool FC Supporters’ Committee LGBT representative Paul Amman called Rimmer “inaccurate.”

Amman said he was proud of the work the club had achieved to reduce homophobic discrimination.

The club has got a proud record of tackling discrimination and fighting inequality and has done some fantastic work,” he said.

“LFC has never sponsored Liverpool Pride but has marched at the event for three years in succession. Members of the women’s team, staff, club officials, supporters, ambassadors and directors have taken part, showing their support and recognizing the wider LFC family.”

He clarified that having an active LGBT Supporters group does not hinder the sporting prowess of a top Premiership club.

“Also, Manchester City has a lively LGBT Supporters group called Canal Street Blues, which hasn’t stopped them from topping the table,” he added.

Rimmer, who gained a degree in politics from Cambridge University, defended his statements, telling the Liverpool Echo they were not his opinions, but the word of God.

“Basically it says in the Bible that certain forms of behavior go against the laws of God and therefore God will react to them and he will curse those who willfully disobey him.”

“I am only repeating what is said in the Bible – it’s not my opinion, it’s what the Bible says.”

“It’s just to make people aware God has a law and if you infringe this law there will be consequences,” he said.

“If people get upset by this it’s up to them. Christ calls on us to repent and believe.” he added.

Rimmer was arrested in 2012 while challenging a rainbow flag hung at Toxteth police station in Liverpool.

 

Republished from RT – Question More

Gay W. Virginia high school soccer player comes out by dancing with homecoming king

Michael Martin, left, with Jem at Jem’s homecoming dance. – Andrew Martin photo

Michael Martin, an all-state goalie, slow danced with the guy who gave him the courage to be himself. Inspired by Robbie Rogers, Martin now hopes to inspire others.

It was something I thought I’d never do — dance a slow dance with the homecoming king at his high school.

I am an 18-year-old senior all-state high school soccer goalie for Musselman High School in West Virginia. I also have been on the school’s football, tennis and swim teams. And I am openly gay. Growing up in rural West Virginia, it’s not the easiest place to be a gay teenager and it took me a long time to come out to myself and others.

Yet there we were, Jem and I, on an October night this fall, slow dancing with each other. We attend schools in different counties and met through friends and I was thrilled that he asked me to his dance so we could be together. He was wearing his gray vest and pink bow tie while I had on my black shirt with a gold tie. We danced to “Love Story” by Taylor Swift, which was a perfect song for my first dance with a guy.

We both started the dance with our female friends who were our “dates.” The final song came on and Jem and I danced for a brief time. It was my first school event where I was with another guy, even though we came to the dance separately. I held his hand when we went to get refreshments and when we took breaks from dancing. It was a weird feeling for me, since I had just barely started coming out. I was nervous yet excited. After the dance we went to his house. That is where I asked him to be my boyfriend. I posed the question by writing it on the dry erase board on his wall. He quickly said yes.

My homecoming dance at Musselman — two weeks after the dance at Jem’s school — was the big moment I revealed being gay to my school. Jem was the date of girl at Musselman and her outside guest for the dance, while I went “alone.” The girl knew Jem and I were together. I was on the homecoming court, which was a big honor and something I never thought would happen. Only some people knew about me before the homecoming, so it was a shocker for some seeing me dance with another guy.

Jem and I danced all night to the most popular pop songs. But it was the slow dance that I most remember that night at the school cafeteria — “Remember When” by Alan Jackson. It was the best night ever. Jem and I got asked a lot if we were together and we said yes. “That is so cute!” some girls said. It made us felt accepted.

Word quickly spread and the following week I sensed that some guys were looking at me differently. My friends even told me people were talking about me in a negative way in different classes. “He is a faggot now,” I was told some people said. My friends courageously stood up for me and I am so proud to call them my friends.

MikeMartin2Michael Martin won All-State honors this year. (Photo by Andrew Martin).

Dancing with another guy in front of my fellow students would have seemed like the last thing I would ever do when I started high school. When I was a freshman I knew I was not like other guys on the Musselman High varsity soccer team. They were always talking about their girlfriends and I always felt that I could never say anything about my sexuality. I was just a freshman, and I was scared of being mocked by my teammates when I was just trying to fit in. The team threw around the words “gay” and “faggot” a lot. I felt I would never be safe if I did come out.

Musselman High School is located in Inwood, W. Va. The school is named for the Musselman applesauce company and we are called the Applemen. Inwood is only about two hours from Washington, DC, and Baltimore but culturally is far from city life. Inwood is a pretty conservative town. The students, however, are very diverse in their culture and beliefs; the range runs from rednecks to foreign exchange students. I live in isolated mountain area, so I didn’t have any kids to hang around with when I was younger. I was alone but even at a young age I knew I didn’t like girls and found boys attractive instead. I could never tell anyone since my family is really conservative and religious.

MikePortrait(Photo by Jeremiah Carver)

I was silent about my sexuality until my junior year when I told my best friend, Ben, who was a senior at the time and on the soccer team. I waited until after the soccer season so I wouldn’t have to worry about him telling any of my teammates.

The cold winter air and the campfire at Ben’s house that night made it the perfect environment in which to tell him my news. I was scared to death, but summoned up the courage and was direct: “I hope this doesn’t change our friendship but I am gay.” His response was simple but it meant the world to me: “There is nothing that can change our friendship.” Thankfully, Ben accepted me (he said he had suspected) and promised to not tell anyone until I was ready.

My junior year was a strange time for me. I played football and soccer in the fall (in West Virginia they are in the same season). I punted for the football team, but never felt comfortable. I was always scared about my sexuality on the team, surrounded by a bunch of country boys and jocks who would definitely make fun of me if they knew I was gay. I felt useless, which is why I dropped the sport in the senior year and focused solely on soccer.

Things were better in my favorite sport. My coach for my traveling soccer team laid down the law that there was not going to be any racism or discrimination based on sexuality, which made me feel safe. I still did not have the guts to tell anyone I was gay. My travel coach never knew that I was gay nor did I tell him but he was determined to create a safe environment on the team. We were a very diverse team that played well together and were a state finalist three years in a row.

The experience of coming out was very rough for me to do but it really took off this fall. When I started to talk with Jem I was comfortable with myself and wasn’t ashamed like I was in years past. For me to be happy, though, I needed to come out. I didn’t want to hide how I really was any more. I didn’t want to live every day with a secret hanging over my head. I told my team before my own parents. My family was not accepting at first but is starting to come around and support me. I just had to keep telling them that I can’t change who I am and that I am the same teenager that I was before.

I came out to my soccer team one step at a time. Since I was dating Jem, I decided to become truthful with everyone. I never held a team meeting. Instead, I told some players and then they told others and these people asked me for confirmation. They couldn’t believe that I was gay, because they said “I always acted so straight.”

Teammates were curious and I got a lot of questions. I also got teased by my teammates closest to me making jokes or saying sexual things, but I know they were just kidding. Actually, their joking told me they were OK with things. I also knew that even if someone did say something negative that a lot of my teammates would have my back. Recently I was named captain for the Musselman swim team. They all know about my sexuality and gratefully are accepting.

Despite my fears, I feel very safe at my school when comes to LGBT issues; we even have a Gay Straight Alliance Club. I have made a lot new friends and my previous friends who are girls love me more and we have become better friends. I still get told that girls have crushes on me, before someone then breaks the news to them that I am gay.

As I am graduating next spring, I have been talking to several college coaches about playing soccer at their schools. That will be a whole new level, a whole new school, group of friends, and new teammates. But I won’t be afraid of being myself since I am proud to play as an athlete who happens to be gay.

Mike MartinsaveMichael Martin was inspired to come out by Robbie Rogers (Photo by Andrew Martin).

I try to prove myself in sports not just for myself but for other gay athletes. I want to show everyone that I am just as good as anyone else in my sport. Being a two-time goalkeeper of the year for my conference, making the All-State team and being two-time M.V.P for Musselman and defender of the year makes me proud.

I remember a playoff game with the varsity when I was only a freshman. We were playing our rivals and lost 1-0 on a goal with 10 minutes left. The goal was on a perfect shot in the upper corner, but it was so depressing for me. I felt like I let the team down but I kept my head up. It motivated me to become a better player the next three years.

One athletic highlight for me and one that showed I could play on a high level came when I had a tryout for the West Virginia’s Olympic development soccer team. I was very nervous during the tryout and I felt like did well. My training paid off and I made the team. It was a great exposure to quality soccer for me and it feels good to say that I was a part of that team.

My soccer hero and the man who inspired me to come out is Robbie Rogers of the Los Angeles Galaxy. I loved how he announced he was gay and did not quit playing soccer. He gave me hope and confidence to be true to myself. Once he came out I started to contemplate doing the same myself and being proud of who I am. He recently published a book, “Coming Out to Play,” which my friend Ben got me for my birthday. I can tell you that after reading the book, Robbie should be every soccer player’s idol, gay or straight. I am so proud that he recently won a MLS Cup with the Galaxy.

I have learned that being gay does not mean you are a lesser of a human being. If I can come out in a small town in West Virginia and be accepted, and dance with the homecoming king, it shows things are changing. I hope my performances and story help inspire other gay teens to show their true colors and not be afraid to play the sport they love.

Michael Martin, 18, is a senior at Musselman High School in Inwood, West Virginia, and is goalie for his school’s soccer team; he was named All-State this season. His hobbies include photography and the outdoors. His career dreams include owning historic hotels or producing sustainable foods. He can be reached via email at soccer4h96@gmail.com or on Twitter @martinofcompany. You can also check out his photography on Instagram (@wvnatureboy).

Story editor: Jim Buzinski