Anton Hysen, the world’s only openly gay professional footballer, says his life has changed dramatically for the better, following his decision to come out eighteen months ago.
Ahead of a crucial match for the 21-year-old, the Swedish Utsiktens BK player has taken time out to do a Q&A session with journalist Patrick O’Kane.
Anton, you made the choice to come out publicly in March 2011. Why did you decide to do this and were you prepared for the worldwide impact that followed?
It all started when I was at a friend’s house with family. A magazine had contacted me to ask me to share my story. I had already told friends and I thought that it would be great to help anyone else with being gay and coming out so I agreed to ‘go public’.
My family thought it would be good for them and my dad (ex-Liverpool footballer Glenn Hysen) said it will be good for other players in the long term. He said that by helping other people it would bring the issue of homosexuality in football to the fore.
How soon after telling the Swedish magazine your story did you realise how big the revelation was to be?
The whole world knew about it within two days and I have to admit it took me by surprise. It has been a radical change for my life and has resulted in a lot of jobs as well as sitting down and talking to a lot of people to help promote gay attitudes.
There has been a lot of travelling around the world as people want help to raise awareness. There has definitely been more positive reaction than negative.
How did your teammates, friends and people in close footballing circles react?
My family had known for a while and I told my team before I went public. In the crowds there can be consequences but if you are good at dealing with banter it will be good. There is always going to be something. I hear stuff all the time but you can’t focus on it at the end of the day.
Do you think this banter is what prevents other gay footballers from coming out publicly?
It might have some affect on it but I think there are other reasons. Because no one at a really high level has come out yet, it is hard to say, but I think that in itself prevents some players from coming out. No one wants to lose sponsorship and they are afraid of the commercial elements as well as losing the trust of players and managers. Some players want to be private though and don’t want to be professionally out and that is their choice.
Have many other gay footballers contacted you for advice on coming out and if so, what do you say to them?
There was one player who contacted me and he was in a relationship and there have been other young players in Sweden who wanted advice – they weren’t at the highest level, but they could make it to a top league in the future. I tell them that if they are a good footballer then why care what other people think.
People just need to be themselves and be confident with who they are. You have to be prepared for the media reaction though. The first time I went out with a male friend to an event after coming out there was all the ‘who is he pictures?’ and other bullshit, but generally it has been good.
In Germany a footballer recently gave an anonymous interview to a journalist in which he came out, but he wasn’t ready to be named. Is that a step forward for gay footballers, or is it a sign of the fears still present in the game?
He seems to be testing the people to see how that is welcomed and what people tell him is important. There are gay people who play soccer. I wouldn’t have done what he did but I want to see someone in a top league come out while playing professional football. Unfortunately it [homophobia] is still a big deal in football but things are definitely getting better. In other cultures and religions it is difficult but if someone is a good player who works well for the team it shouldn’t be a problem.
Attitudes in society have developed during the last 20 years towards homosexuals. Gay sportsmen have been able to come out in other sports. What do you think needs to happen in football for gay men to feel comfortable coming out publicly?
At times it does appear there is a lack of knowledge and maturity. If I was in a bigger or higher league I would still have come out. I am a professional player but I think you need someone a lot higher profile to do it. They must have a good network of people behind them though as there will be a fanfare.
I don’t really know much about what the English FA have done before but in a similar way to racism there is a lack of education and too much stupidity. It is so stupid that people still think of gay men as animals. What would happen if Lionel Messi was gay? It really doesn’t matter. Would people stop supporting him? We have to do our talking on the pitch but everyone has a different point of view.
You are an ambassador for Football v Homophobia and a role model for young sportspeople trying to figure out who they are. What does your role involve and what advice do you give to young people?
I don’t see myself as a role model in any way. I am playing football though and if that is helping others I am happy. I do my best to show my football. Through the campaign we are just trying to get the message out to everyone and get the right education across. We spread the word on Facebook/Twitter and through football clubs. There is still a need to tackle homophobia.
I haven’t received coming out stories from fans but there was one guy that said my coming out to the world showed him what was possible and he was able to tell his closest friend. Another guy told me he was about to commit suicide until he read my story and it gave him the courage to go on.
With the work being done by the campaign then, do you think we are far away from other footballers coming out to the media?
I think there will be gay footballers who come out, possibly in the next five to ten years. If you are sure about yourself it won’t be a problem. You have to believe nothing can stop you. Gareth Thomas is very masculine and played rugby and him coming out has shown people it is not a big deal. It could even happen sooner in Germany. It is brilliant that things are starting to move in the right direction.