I am a footballer. And gay

A famous name in Sweden is blazing a trail for many players across the globe.  Here's Keph Senett.

As a professional footballer with a pedigree, twenty year-old Anton Hysén could probably count on some column inches throughout his career. But with a single disarmingly blunt proclamation, the defender for Utsiktens BK overshadowed his team, his game, and his famous football father.

“I am a footballer. And gay,” Hysén told the soccer magazine Offside. Then, “If I perform as a footballer, then I do not think it matters if I like girls or boys.” And with that, Hysén proved again that confidence is attractive.

To fully comprehend the revolution in that simple sentence, it’s necessary to understand a little bit of history.

Pro football has only ever had a single out gay player. Justin Fashanu was a phenomenon. A graceful and deadly forward, Fashanu hit a career apex in 1980 when he scored a spectacular goal against Liverpool FC, a strike that would win him the BBC Goal of the Season. The following year, he became the first black player ever to earn £1m. In 1990, Justin Fashanu came out to the press, and eight years later, he hung himself in a garage in Shoreditch, London.

Professional football’s been waiting ever since. In the last eleven years, the game has changed. Women have increasingly made their way onto world class pitches. Anti-racism education campaigns have muted the notorious hooliganism associated with the sport. Yet, homophobia has lingered, an ugly scar on the beautiful game.

Due in large part to the efforts of grassroots organizations like The Justin Campaign – which is named after Fashanu and which has organized two years of their banner action, the Football v Homophobia Initiative – things have begun to shift. In 2011 both the FA and UEFA announced their official support for the Initiative. There’s a page about homophobia on the Kick it Out web site. Still, it’s not an out, proud, alive pro player, is it?

In recent years gay professional athletes in other sports have begun to come out. In February 2007, pro basketballer John Amaechi came out, but in 2010 he was widely quoted warning gay footballers to remain closeted. In December 2009, professional rugby player Gareth Thomas came out, and like Fashanu, was subjected to taunts by spectators. Less than two weeks ago, cricketer Steve Davies told the world that he was gay, saying “it’s something I’ve lived with for a long time.”

Then straight professional wrestler Hudson Taylor brought the issue even more into the mainstream by founding Athlete Ally, “a sports resource encouraging all individuals involved in sports to respect every member of their communities, regardless of perceived or actual sexual-orientation or gender identity or expression, and to lead others in doing the same.” His willingness to lead an anti-homophobia campaign as a heterosexual – and to wrestle with a Human Rights Campaign sticker on his headgear – took some of the onus off LGBT athletes to advocate for themselves. Hudson’s action drove the point home: hate in athletics hurts everyone.

Still, professional footballers were curiously silent, absent from the swelling team of diversity proponents.

And then, finally, Anton Hysén with his youthful boldness, his utterly disarming swagger.

“It’s so weird when you think about it. It’s so fucked up, the whole thing. Where the hell is everyone else?” Hysén asks in the Offside interview. “It’s barely any other footballers who are openly gay, right?”

The question’s laughable. While thousands of advocates have been toiling in the human rights trenches, where has he been?

But it’s this matter-of-factness that will save him and the sport. After all the agitating and emotion and endless debate about whether someone should come out, Hysén just did it. Sure, it’s cocky, but isn’t that how we like our young professional athletes? Controversial, bold and unapologetic?

In a BBC podcast posted last week, presenter Alan Green asks Hysén about fallout. “You’re still young,” he says. “Do you think it’ll damage your career in any way?”

“I really don’t care. If you respect me for the person that I am and how good I am in my sport, you shouldn’t care.”

“Most fans will accept this but some won’t,” Green persists. “[They] are likely to make homophobic comments during the game. Do you think you’ll be able to cope with that?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Hysén says, his voice weary. “Well, you know, if they say anything… they can call me whatever they want. I am who I am, I really don’t care. Maybe I should just go dance with them.”

“Your brother, Tobias, is a Swedish international, and I know he backed your decision to come out and he hopes more players will follow your example. Do you think that’s going to happen?”

“Um, I have no good answer to that,” Hysén says, ”but I really hope so, because there’s enough things to be afraid of. I mean, let’s just all go for it. If there is anybody else, I strongly recommend now would be a good time… I’m sure there is somebody, but it’s going to be like a first step to the future, to a better place where gay people can play football.”

With that comment, Hysén dragged his sport, willing or not, into the 21st century. Football might refuse to evolve, but you can’t stop the willfulness of youth – and why would you want to? It’s a characteristic that just might help him win matches. Still, Hysén understands he’s the beneficiary of a strong and necessary support network.

“I hear [Fashanu's] brother didn’t want to talk to him…,” Hysén comments. “When that happens, when the teammates refuse to talk to you and turn their backs? … You have to have your family and friends as well. That’s just a tragedy.”

And what of Hysén’s famous footballing dad? “Jag är ruskigt stolt över grabben,” Glenn Hysén tweeted after the story broke. “Stöttar honom till 100 %.” I am very proud of the kid. I support him 100 %.

Keph Senett is a Canadian writer whose passions for travel and soccer have led her to play the beautiful game on four continents.  You can read more from Keph at her blog and follow her on Twitter @kephsenett