He tiptoes around the dark laminate floor barefoot. His boyfriend Romain and his best friend Steven are up front. The four others in his yoga class don’t know about the past he pushes out of his body with every “Hoooommmmm.” They don’t know what he was. His giant calves, poking out of his bloused sweat pants, give him away, but only if they knew to look for them. He isn’t built like a soccer player, after all. He looks more like a male gymnast, an upside down triangle stacked atop barrel quads. His heavy, bassy voice gently guides them through their contortions. When he cracks open a window, the sound of cars ripping through puddles washes over the room.
Downstairs is a health food store – the sort that burns incense and displays carefully-placed crystals. Across the grimy street at La Pataterie you can get a hamburger for $1.89 or a hotdog for 89 cents. A few blocks up the road, squatting in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium sits newly-renovated Saputo Stadium, his would-be place of work. Where the Montreal Impact of Major League Soccer plays on without him.
In the corner of the tiny studio a shrine to a Hindu guru marks the spot against the brick wall where he unwrapped his secret for all the world to see last November. Where he drew a final constricted breath and expelled all the negativity by telling the CBC-Radio Canada camera that he was gay. That he hadn’t chosen to be. But that this was just who he was.
David Testo doesn’t remember anything from before the day his dad died of colon cancer, when he was 10. But from that day onward, he knew a few other things to be true. One, his father was gone. Two, he was gay. And three, he would pay a terrible penitence for it.
He wasn’t quite sure what it meant to be gay. In his confusion, he sometimes dressed up in his mom’s high heels. He could only imagine being with other boys, recognizing himself in what his surroundings railed against. The Bible, the only truth in his pious Baptist community down in North Carolina, was pretty clear on the evil of homosexuality: "Thou shalt not lie with the male as one lieth with a woman: for it is abomination," Leviticus, 18:22. Even though the Testos, now consisting of just David, his mother Judy and his older sister Angela, had stopped going to church when his dad died, he remained a devout believer. He had a wooden chest in his bedroom that contained cherished possessions – bible verse and drawings he’d made on his own that read "I love Jesus." But what he loved, he was told, hated him.
David digested his father’s death by pretending he’d never had a father. He was a talented baseball player. Chris Narveson was a teammate and close friend of his. They were more or less equals. Narveson won 23 games for the Milwaukee Brewers over 2010 and 2011. But David’s father had always taken him to practices and games. So he withdrew, feeling the pull from his other love, soccer.
He felt more comfortable on a soccer team. It was more of a team sport; suited him better somehow. The game wasn't so macho and the camaraderie not so testosterone driven. And the words "gay" and "fag" weren’t used nearly as much. He was good. His mother started driving him from Asheville to Charlotte or Winston-Salem – 2½ hours each way – in search of better competition.
I kind of hated myself. When you’re told gay people are sinners and are going to burn in eternal hell and you’re a child, what are you supposed to feel?
When he hit puberty he became attracted to his best friend. They’d always played together, wrestling all day long. He started to enjoy it in a different way. It got awkward.
His family was close with the family of a teammate. David and he had a great bond. They shared a bed on sleepovers. One night, a line was crossed. Nobody found out, but it never was the same. Distraught over the fallout, the end of their closeness, David swore he’d never give in to his inner urges with a teammate or friend again.
"I was hyper-aware of my sexuality because I was different," he says on a bright afternoon, sipping from a tall cup of tea on a terrace along Rue Sainte-Catherine, the main artery of Montreal’s gay village. His handsome face, topped with carefully-calibrated blond hair, makes him look like a buffer version of the actor Neil Patrick Harris. He turns a lot of heads.
"I kind of hated myself. When you’re told gay people are sinners and are going to burn in eternal hell and you’re a child, what are you supposed to feel? It just couldn’t be the truth. I didn’t know who I was." There was no Internet then, no way of circumventing Bible Belt propaganda and discovering other truths. "If you’re straight, you learn from examples everywhere around you," says David. "But if you’re gay you’re just left hanging there – you learn about your sexuality anonymously, through dark spaces."
He hated his voice because he thought he sounded gay. He couldn’t stand to watch recordings of himself. "It takes a long time to accept it because you really do try to change or deny it. It’s the one thing I can’t change. I can change pretty much everything else about me but I can’t change who I’m sexually attracted to."
He tried anyway. He decided to do what closeted gay men have done for centuries: construct a beautiful facade behind which to huddle. So he wouldn’t go to hell after all, he decided. Yes, that was the best option available; the only option, unless he wanted to become a pariah and the target of constant proselytizing over his "disease." He would be unimpeachable – get good grades, join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, be elected captain of the soccer team, date a cheerleader, have straight sex. He bullied kids suspected of being gay, called them "faggots."
He became the golden boy, hiding in the spotlight.
The anger and frustration and confusion all came pouring out of his drunken body at once, traveling through every punch his fist landed
The anger and frustration and confusion all came pouring out of his drunken body at once, traveling through every punch his fist landed. His opponent, on the ground, tried to rise one last time. David kicked him in the face and watched the back of his head ricochet off the pavement and blood burst from his mouth. He was out cold. David panicked and fled.
He was a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After breaking all kinds of school records, he'd been named his state's boys high school player of the year in 1998-99. He’d then played for the University of South Carolina for two years, continuing to date girls and making the under-20 U.S. national team — the veneer unchipped. But he’d hated it at conservative USC and transferred to UNC his junior year. He was sure he’d find more tolerance and more of a gay scene in Chapel Hill, a more cosmopolitan, liberal campus. He could explore there and inflate bubbles – one for soccer and another for his sexuality – and never would they crash into one another and pop. On the field, he was selected for the under-23 national team trying to qualify for the 2004 Olympics and played regularly as a forward on a strong squad that included Landon Donovan.
But his cover had been blown – the bubbles hovering perilously close. He’d met Shane Landrum in a straight bar. David didn’t yet know how to go about being or meeting a gay man. He scarcely knew of such a thing as a gay bar. So when he spotted the very openly gay Landrum, who’d gained considerable fame on MTV’s Real World/Road Rules Challenge reality show, he introduced himself. David couldn't stand to fake it any longer and stopped dating women. He fell in love for the first time and entered into a secret but tumultuous relationship with Shane – "They don’t pick the nice, quiet people to go on these reality TV shows, they pick dramatic people," says David. Shane lived an open, flamboyant life traveling the world to shoot new episodes while David was left wondering.
Dating Shane on the sly was complicated. He was one of the most famous gay men in America at the time. David wanted to project the face of a straight man, petrified by what might happen if he did not. And now he had a career that looked like it would take him to the pros to worry about, too. If they were seen together conclusions would be drawn. So he snuck Shane in and out of the house he shared with several teammates. When somebody knocked on his door he’d make him hide in the bathroom.
They went to a Halloween party because everybody would be in costume. David dressed as Enrique Iglesias; Shane as Beetlejuice. They were getting away with it, too, until some girls from the lacrosse team recognized Shane, who was never very good at lying low. They knew he’d come with David. The secret couple got drunk and went back to David’s house. On his way in, Shane dropped his wig. The next morning, the lacrosse girls next door, who David was closer with than his own team, tried to peek through his window, behind which Shane and David shared a bed. They somehow made their way inside – it’s all a bit of a blur now, like most of the seminal moments in David’s life – and Shane hid in the closet as David had a panic attack. Realizing they'd been caught, Shane, with considerable flair for metaphor, came out of the closet. David’s bubbles threatened to collide.
As word started to seep out, his anxiety soared, made all the worse by the continual jealousy and fear of abandonment Shane made him feel. He hadn’t scored a goal all year for UNC. He was competing for a spot on a national team and readying himself for the MLS draft. His mind roiled.
Four months before the draft, after a testy 1-0 upset loss to Davidson College on Sept. 7, 2002, the teams ran into each other at a local bar. David didn’t get involved in any of the drunken scuffles. But as he and some teammates walked back to their house, a Davidson player sucker punched him from behind. He’d never even seen him coming. When the guy hit him again, a rage swelled within David. He didn’t stop until he’d kicked the player unconscious.
He turned himself in and was told how lucky he was not to be charged with murder
The Davidson player was in bad shape. David’s mother called her son the next morning. There was a warrant out for his arrest. The player had pressed charges. The only fight he’d ever gotten into threatened to put him in prison for a long time. He turned himself in and was told how lucky he was not to be charged with murder. He was charged with a misdemeanor assault to inflict serious injury instead, and accused of exceeding his self-defense. In court, David had to explain to his accuser what had happened because the player had been too drunk (in spite of being underage) to remember. David apologized. The charge was dropped. David wonders if his attacker knew about his sexuality. After serving a two-game suspension, David headed in the game-winning goal against the University of Virginia three minutes after coming on as a substitute — his first goal of the year.
He was in camp with the under-23 national team when the 2003 MLS draft was held. He was projected as a first round pick. "Normally, he would go very high," says David’s old coach at UNC, Elmar Bolowich. "First of all, he’s a left-footed player and secondly, he’s a versatile player. He had the talent, there’s no question about it. In my opinion, he was among the best players in college." The entire team sat in a room and watched it all unfold on a screen. Of the nine players who had declared for the draft, seven watched themselves get snapped up with the first 24 picks. All around him, people celebrated. Except for David, who still hadn't been picked. Round after excruciating round, he just sat there, waiting. Six rounds passed, and never was his name called. Only one other player on the team, an unproven defender, went undrafted.
He was projected as a first round pick. … Round after excruciating round, he just sat there, waiting. Six rounds passed, and never was his name called.
Did his baggage make him a liability? "I don’t know if that raised red flags," says Bolowich. "We were on national TV a lot so they must have known about him, but I didn’t get any calls from the pros asking about him. For the pros to forego a talent of the level of Testo, it’s a question why."
In spite of his promise to himself, David fell for another teammate. After a standout, rookie of the year-season with the Richmond Kickers in the minor leagues, which only served to confirm that he should have been in Major League Soccer in the first place, Testo was pursued by several MLS teams. He signed with the Columbus Crew for the 2004 season. He was a rookie and treaded lightly, trying to keep his bubbles apart. But he had lived with Shane at the start of the season until a brutal break-up, so his secret hadn’t been altogether safe. Several UNC teammates, who had heard the whispers on campus, were in MLS too. Better be extra careful then, he thought.
But that teammate – David couldn’t shake the thought of him. He was single again, and his relationship with Shane had taught him a lot. Signals were returned. One night, they kissed. David insists nothing else happened, but the teammate freaked out and cut him out of his life. It wasn’t the only time he ever kissed a teammate. Some of the straight ones didn’t seem to mind when they were all drunk. But that was just booze-fueled fun. This was something altogether different. David’s teammate froze up and it ruined things in the locker room between them.
Single, reeling from the breakup — yet still feeling somewhat liberated by a new scene, David began partying, self-medicating with alcohol. A teammate, veteran U.S. national team member Frankie Hejduk, the consummate Californian dude, took care of him and introduced David to the Crew's party scene. Frankie, who was straight, seemed to know that David was gay but didn’t care. Frankie knew how to balance partying with playing — David did not. It affected his game. He was taken out of the lineup once for showing up to practice visibly hung over. He proved to be injury-prone and partied even more while rehabbing, slowing his recovery. He saw limited action. After two seasons, the Crew gave up on him. "One of my main regrets is partying too much and drinking too much and not taking it as seriously," says Testo. "It affected my career big-time. I know that was one of the main reasons I got released in Columbus." The Crew, however, says it made a decision based purely on soccer reasons and didn’t know about any personal issues.
David signed with the Vancouver Whitecaps, a minor league United Soccer Leagues (USL) team at the time. A fresh start in a new league on the other coast. Nobody knew there. He breathed a sigh of relief.
He got a chance to explore at his own pace, nudging his own boundaries outwards. Vancouver was an open, accepting city. In 2006, David led his team with seven assists. His seven goals were second on the team. With several key assists in the playoffs, he helped lead the ‘Caps to the USL First Division championship.
A sanctuary for others, the locker room had been a deeply uncomfortable place for David. He'd spent as little time there as possible, missing out on much of the bonding he so cherished. There was a lot of talk of sex. David dodged the questions. He'd looked at the ground and avoided the inherent sexual undertone in locker rooms. He’d bang on the windows of the team bus along with the others when an attractive girl walked by.
David had been a permanent resident of the gray area. Who knew; who didn’t know? Who was OK with it; who was judging him behind his back? He had no clue. It drove him crazy. Never once, in all of his years playing soccer, did a teammate ask straight up if he was gay. And he never formally came out to anybody either.
But in Vancouver a funny thing happened in the locker room. As David got comfortable with himself his teammates became comfortable with him. The less he hid – without ever being openly gay – the more the bubble grew and the easier life got. They stopped asking and he stopped having to pretend.
Midway through 2007, he was traded to the Montreal Impact – still a USL club at the time – in a lop-sided deal for an old favorite of the Whitecaps' coach. Suddenly finding himself living in a city with the largest gay neighborhood on the continent, he partied like never before and played well when he wasn’t injured. After a few years, his sexuality was an open secret. Everybody on the club knew. Nobody seemed to mind. For the first time, he became close to his teammates. He could talk to them about his boyfriend and find a sympathetic ear. The locker room, to his surprise, became an easier place to be. Rather than pop, the bubbles joined to form a bigger one.
Opponents knew, too, and at first called him every gay slur imaginable. David was furious, but eventually started deflecting their comments, comfortable as he finally was with himself. He'd realized he could fight homophobia on the field by showing himself to be just as much of a man and soccer player as anyone else. He would help his antagonists off the ground after he tackled them. "I saw certain players change their whole perspective," he says.
He’d realized he could fight homophobia on the field by showing himself to be just as much of a man and soccer player as everyone else.
As he stopped acting overtly masculine off the field, his game seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. He softened up on himself and hardened as a player. Originally a forward, he'd gradually drifted into the midfield. Now he was gravitating to an enforcer role, tackling and man-marking — the bruising stuff. Nobody questions the toughest player on the field.
He stopped needing to self-medicate, too. He quit drinking for two seasons and hit his prime. In 2009, he was named the Impact's most valuable player, became an assistant captain and led it to another championship. "He was a very influential part of our nucleus of players, he was a big part of the team," says Impact sporting director Nick De Santis. "He had a lot of value. Apart from the quality he had, he had a lot of personality and a big presence."
It was time. Call it a karmic reckoning. David didn’t actually know he’d be the first active male pro athlete in a major team sport in North America to publicly announce that he was gay last November, but he knew that what he had to say would matter. When he learned that yet another bullied gay teen took his own life — 15-year-old Jamie Hubley from Ottawa — his mind was made up. David hoped he might help make a difference for all the boys just as lost as he once was. That he could make amends for the bullying he did himself. Regret can be productive sometimes.
He was 30. Even though his was an open secret, he still had to keep it. David hated that he couldn’t bring his boyfriend to the Impact’s end-of-year banquets, that he couldn’t thank him when he received the MVP award. That even though the entire club seemed to know, he still couldn’t let on publicly.
The club was changing. In 2012 the Impact would join the MLS. Throughout the 2011 season new players were being brought in to prepare the club for its debut – replacing the ones David had grown close to and comfortable enough around to almost be himself – and he overheard a pair of them chuckle when one of them was told he’d be rooming with him.
"I wanted to reach people who needed that inspiration, who needed to hear it gets better and it’s okay."
His growing circle of gay friends in Montreal, who knew who and what he really was and what he’d had to go through just to be accepted in his industry, wondered aloud why he played soccer at all. They saw what it did to him – the anxiety, the sadness, the life lived on eggshells. But that was the thing, David was never happier than when he was on the field competing and doing battle with trusted peers. Then again being in the sport was poisoning him. Soccer was both the disease and the cure.
He decided he wasn’t going to fence any part of himself off anymore. For the first time, he was going to be who he really was in all areas of his life. "When I did come out," says David, "I didn’t know if I was going to play more, but I knew I couldn’t keep playing the way that I was. I knew if I was going to continue it had to be out in the open and people had to know about it."
He had a responsibility. "I’ve gotten to a place in my head and my heart and life that I’m capable of dealing with the questions," he says. "Most gay people don’t get to this part of their life ever, to accepting themselves and acting on it and enjoying their life. I feel that people that have gotten to that place in their life, it’s almost their duty to help those who aren’t there. I wanted to reach people who needed that inspiration, who needed to hear it gets better and it’s okay."
Not many active soccer players had ever come out. Justin Fashanu, the first black player for whom a million pound transfer fee was paid in the English leagues, became the first in 1990 in a splashy tabloid cover story. Self-destructive, he took his own life in 1998 after being accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old in Maryland. His younger brother maintains to this day that he wasn’t actually gay but just after attention. In 1991, Marcus Urban, a promising player in Germany quickly quit after opening up about his sexuality. In 2000, 21-year-old Norwegian prospect Thomas Berling retired right after coming out. In March 2011, Anton Hysen, a semi-pro in Sweden, came out and continues to play. And then there was David.
He reached out to a friendly reporter who had inquired about a coming-out interview before – the word had spread to members of the press – and set up a shoot. He talked slowly and softly, looked down when he got emotional and talked of his suffering. In his little yoga studio, in front of that brick wall, he stepped out of his bubble.
Then he sort of forgot about it. It couldn’t be a big deal, could it? He was a pretty much a career minor leaguer. He went out with friends that night. The next day, Nov. 10, 2011, his mother complained that reporters were calling her house. A teammate told him it was in the newspapers down in Argentina. And then he told David he could never play there.
When the average American conjures up images of a stereotypically homophobic jock, it’s often a big, rugged football player that comes to mind. Yet it’s European soccer that’s proven itself to be the most deeply homophobic corner of the sports world. Anti-gay chants by fans and hateful comments by players and coaches regularly mar the sport’s reputation. Despite efforts by some to change the tenor of the sport, Neo-Nazi flags still fly over some stadiums in Germany.
Yet professional soccer in North America is showing signs of strong support to end homophobia. Several Major League Soccer teams have held joint events with gay sports groups in the last two years. Teams have created videos supporting gay people in sports, including the popular It Gets Better video project. The League has partnered with You Can Play to show their support. And over 100 North American pro soccer players have publicly stated they are an ally to the gay community.
While the fervor surrounding MLS isn’t nearly what it is in Europe or the rest of the world, North American soccer is showing its counterparts across the pond a thing or two about sports in 2012.
The stigma around sports – deservedly or not – is still that of a homophobic place where gay people can’t coexist with straights.
So it’s no surprise that David Testo was warmly received when he came out of the closet publicly last November. Reaction from the media, fans, athletes and former teammates was overwhelmingly positive, as it has been for every single athlete who has chosen to come out publicly in the last 15 years.
It didn’t hurt that Testo was a good athlete. But maybe more important: He’s also a likable guy. When I first met him last New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles, he arrived with a smile that lit up the room carrying a bottle of champagne and making fast friends; He was, after all, celebrating a new chapter in his life. While some say the first out active pro athlete will have to be a "superstar," it’s far more likely that he just needs to be well-liked, whether he’s a starting pitcher or a back-up offensive lineman.
Yet it’s also not at all surprising that, despite all of this, Testo was afraid to come out while still an active pro athlete. The stigma around sports – deservedly or not – is still that of a homophobic place where gay people can’t coexist with straights. For heaven’s sake, they SHOWER together! And when your career is likely to be over before you hit 30, potentially rocking the boat by coming out publicly isn’t in the cards.
Testo represented possibly the best chance we’ve had so far of an out active pro athlete in one of the five major sports leagues in North America. Whether it’s because he came out, because he hadn’t played so well the previous year, or a combination of those things and other elements, we’ll never know why he didn’t get the chance to play after coming out to the world.
Still, his coming out was significant. Despite the vast number of soccer players around the world, precious few have come out. The highest-profile footballer to do so – Justin Fashanu – killed himself years after his public revelation. Even though he says he’ll never play professionally again, Testo’s announcement still sent a shockwave through the sporting world: There is now unequivocal evidence that, yes, gay men do play soccer…and they play it very well.
While the rest of us are still left waiting for that first out active pro athlete, I’m left with the words of out former NFL player David Kopay said to me this summer. Kopay’s been waiting longer than anyone else for that big announcement. But with all the youth coming out in high school and college, he’s become more patient.
"I thought there would certainly be a professional out athlete by now, but it hasn’t happened after all the years since I spoke out in 1975. But you know what? We don’t have to focus on that so much because it’s happening all over at every other level. And it will happen eventually."
David wouldn’t play anywhere, as it turned out. His career was already over.
After his MVP season in 2009, several teams had wanted to bring David back to MLS. Before he’d even had a chance to talk to them, the Impact offered him a vastly improved contract and pointed out that they’d be playing in MLS pretty soon themselves. His new two-year deal took him from around $60,000 per year to almost $100,000, making him one of the top earners in the minors and paying him at least as much as he could hope to make in MLS. The implication was clear: stick around and we’ll take care of you. That suited him just fine. He’d always envisioned returning to MLS but he didn’t want to leave and reenter the gray area. So if he could do it with Montreal, so much the better.
David didn’t have the best season in 2011. In his zeal to have a great year, earn a new contract and put his spot on next year’s team beyond doubt, he rushed back from ankle surgery and achieved the opposite. He remained injury-prone, exacerbated by his enforcer role and the years of partying, and started in just 13 of 28 league games as the Impact stumbled to their worst season in years. Still, the club had thought of David as a player who could graduate to MLS with them. "Without a doubt, for us to give him that contract in a minor league we wanted him around," says De Santis. "Our mind going forward was if he keeps up in this manner he could be a viable player going into MLS." What’s more, David was a team co-captain and close to Carmie Saputo, the owner’s wife.
Once the season was over, new head coach Jesse Marsch, a long-time MLS player, announced he would be building his squad around established MLS players. He offered the old Impact’s better players a chance to try out in a six-day post-season camp in early October. Although hobbled, David thought he had played well, that he’d at least earned a call into the next camp in January. "I feel like I was just hitting my stride towards the end of season, considering I had major ankle surgery earlier on in the year," David says. "And during our first post-season camp with Marsch, I was doing my part."
"It was like my life was crumbling on the inside," David says. "But I kept a brave face and attitude on the outside."
Marsch brought Testo in for a meeting on Oct. 12 and told him he wouldn’t be offered an MLS contract or even invited into the next camp. "Imagine my shock when I heard those words," says David. And then Marsch asked David, whose influence on the club was well known, for advice on surviving under Joey Saputo’s demanding, quick-trigger ownership. "It was like my life was crumbling on the inside," David says. "But I kept a brave face and attitude on the outside." David told him to build his own team. Marsch retained just six of the minor league Impact players, only two of whom had been there more than a year. (Marsch declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding David’s departure for this story, claiming he didn’t know him well enough.) De Santis said David’s performance had fallen off since 2009 and that his showing in the October camp "didn’t play in favor of him."
Prior to coming out, David had been talking to several other Major League Soccer teams. Vancouver, which had risen to MLS the year before the Impact, might take a chance on him. Chivas USA was interested, too. But things with Chivas went nowhere, and the Vancouver talks fizzled when it became apparent David would have to try out first. He hadn’t the energy to be put on trial anymore.
That David, after a poor, injury-riddled season in a minor league didn’t jump back to MLS as a 30-year-old isn’t noteworthy. That he received no offers from any other minor league team is. He was proven at that level. But, says David, "It got very quiet. I just heard nothing. I just kind of expected it to happen and it didn’t." Several factors contributed. As his own agent, David didn’t put much effort into pursuing a new contract elsewhere, loath as he was to leave his bubble in Montreal. But clubs didn’t seem forthcoming either, which they might be expected to, given his resume. "I don’t think organizations are ready to take on that kind of baggage," David says. "My career is done."
How much the sudden end of his career had to do with his coming out is hard to say with any certainty. "I didn’t think it would hurt my chances of playing," David says. "But I think it did. I think it definitely played a hand in ending my career."
David may not have become the first male professional athlete in North America to compete in a major team sport after coming out publicly, but, along with Hysen, he did help spark a long-overdue debate. By coming out, they made the dearth of open homosexuals in soccer an issue. An awareness is being raised.
The Professional Footballers’ Association has sent anti-homophobia posters to all 92 pro clubs in England to hang in their locker rooms. Several pros have faced strong backlash and in some cases fines for using gay slurs on Twitter. When Houston Dynamo midfielder Colin Clark called a ball boy a gay slur – audible to the television audience through a sideline microphone – the league suspended him three games on top of his fine. This past summer Major League Soccer was criticized for its partnership with the Boy Scouts of America, which bans homosexuality within its ranks. The league soon announced that it wouldn’t be renewing its agreement with the Boy Scouts following the 2012 season for a "variety of business reasons."
Italian national team head coach Cesare Prandelli contributed a foreword to an Italian book published in April about homosexuality in sport. "Homophobia is racism and it is indispensable that we take further steps to look after all aspects of individuals living their own lives, including sporting figures," he wrote. "We must all work for a sporting culture that respects the individual in every manifestation of his truth and freedom.Hopefully soon some players will come out."
[S]occer, like most professional sports, remains a bastion of ignorance and chauvinism
Yet for all this progress, soccer, like most professional sports, remains a bastion of ignorance and chauvinism, wherein many have no interest in opening up the club to those different from the perceived norm. Take Prandelli’s predecessor, Marcello Lippi. "I honestly believe that among the players there are no gays," he said in 2009."In 40 years I have never known one." During this past summer’s European Championships, one of Prandelli’s own players, forward Antonio Cassano was asked the same question. "Fags in the national team?" he said. "That’s their problem, but I hope not." He was fined $18,250 by the European federation.
When asked to explain the lack of openly gay players in soccer, prominent Dutch coach and former player Frank de Boer told Dutch television, "I think the gay is unathletic, and the [lack of] motor skills are noticeable, that’s probably the reason." The president of the Croatian soccer federation once announced no homosexuals would ever play for its national team because it was only open to "healthy people."
Sepp Blatter, the archaic president of FIFA, the sport’s worldwide governing body, said gays should simply "refrain from any sexual activities" during the 2022 World Cup, which his executive committee had just awarded to Qatar, where homosexuality is a crime.
"I think the gay is unathletic, and the [lack of] motor skills are noticeable, that’s probably the reason."
Still, a gay community is emerging within the soccer world. Last January Chris Billig founded Gay4Soccer.com, a website for gay soccer fans. It includes a long list of players and other members of the North American soccer community who have pledged to help rid the game of homophobia. "When I started this I was thinking, ‘What about the next David Testo?’" says Billig. "Wouldn’t it be great if before someone came out he knew how much support there was? Why not have people find out now who else on their team is supportive?" Britain's Gay Football Supporters Network campaigns for an end to homophobia in stadiums and puts on the world's only national soccer league for the gay and transgender community
Estimates peg the number of active professional soccer players worldwide at 500,000. Yet only one – Hysen – is openly gay. Even if the sport discriminates against homosexuals – consciously or not – the numbers don’t add up.
A study published in the British Journal of Sociology last year found that 93 percent of soccer fans oppose homophobia and have no issues with gay players. But David Preece, a veteran professional goalkeeper of such clubs British clubs as Sunderland and Aberdeen, argues perception and harassment from the outside world, rather than a fear of being shunned, is what’s standing in the way. "I think people have this perception that the dressing room is an unforgiving, horrible place to be," he says. "But I think in regards to gay footballers, in the dressing rooms I’ve been in it wouldn’t be such a shocking thing to happen. It would be very supportive. It’s almost like we want it to happen. It’s just not the same atmosphere as when I started playing professional football almost 20 years ago, which was quite homophobic – it was hard-man football. These days in football, the dressing room is multicultural and so diverse. Being gay would just be a part of it now. There wouldn’t be any great shock about, no great fuss. People would get on with it. I think people accept there has to be gay footballers. It’s got more to do with the press and the fans. The opposing fans would become almost unbearable. And there’s such a hunger for it from the press that when it does happen, there’s so much focus from the whole world on the shoulders of one lad. It would take a lot of courage, someone very special and very strong to say that they’re gay."
"That’s why I can’t wait for someone really big to do it. I want someone to do it that just shocks and opens the floodgates."
Yet Preece has never knowingly played with a gay teammate. Neither has David, for that matter. He isn’t even sure the teammate in Columbus was really gay, or just questioning. "In nine years of playing professionally, four years in college and however many other teams, I never met another gay soccer player," says David. "And I played in two leagues and traveled all over the world on national teams. Not one other gay soccer player." Since he’s come out though, three active professionals have confided in him that they’re gay.
"These guys exist and are out there and it’s frustrating to me that they won’t come out," David says. "That’s why I can’t wait for someone really big to do it. I want someone to do it that just shocks and opens the floodgates."
His eyes get big, and his smile wide as he says it.
It’s been a difficult breakup. Soccer was heavy for David, and life without it is lighter. He has supportive friends and a busy social calendar. Yet soccer was nevertheless life. "I’m relieved and I’m sad and I’m also lost," says David. "If I was myself when I was playing soccer I wouldn’t have all these issues, because I’m only now learning to be myself. But if I’d been myself, I don’t know that I would have had a career."
David doesn’t watch soccer anymore. When it's on TV, he changes the channel. During the recent Olympics, while Canada and the U.S. were enthralled by their women's teams' clash in the semifinals, he paid no attention. He hasn’t played any soccer since the Impact let him go. He only touches a ball for the photo shoots that come with the occasional interview he does.
It eats at him that he isn’t playing. "It was a hard journey and there are moments that I regret, and it’s hard to see those guys who I knew I was as talented as still doing so well," David says. "It wasn’t my destiny to come out and still be active. That’s somebody else’s. There’s a part of me that wanted that, but I trust life. It would have worked out if it was supposed to happen."
Old under-23 teammates of his are still going strong in MLS. Some even made it to the biggest European leagues. It leaves him wrangling with questions, the dreaded what-ifs of a career not fully unfolded. Had the anxiety and the cloaked self-discovery and the subsequent partying and injuries, all the upshot of his sexuality, not gotten in the way, could that have been him? He wonders. "What if I didn’t have to deal with this and I always felt comfortable in my skin from Day 1? What could my career have been like and what would I have been able to accomplish? But it was basically like walking around with sandbags on all the time. I feel like I let myself down but in the end I can’t compare myself to them, it’s impossible. They didn’t have to go through what I went through. I had to deal with a lot more shit. It’s hard to be good at something and be dedicated when it’s not allowing you to be who you are. Maybe if I was straight my whole reality would be different. Maybe I’d still be in MLS."
But he isn’t. He’s just tired. "I’m only 31 years old," he says, "but I’ve lived a double life for so long that I feel like I’m 62. I have a body I have put through so much and need to nurse back to health. What do I have for it? It’s not like I have a million dollars sitting in the bank. I have to go out there and find a job and a career for myself."
Still, David hopes something more valuable will flow forth from his career. "What I went through wasn’t the easiest of things but I went through it and I survived. I want the people who are contemplating doing the same to know coming out publicly is actually a positive thing and not something to be scared of. I wish I had somebody tell me that early in career. I wish I’d had someone like me."
"No matter how long and dark his tunnel, a man emerged at the other end who is happy and comfortable with himself."
His own family isn’t fully at peace with it yet. His 7-year-old nephew Logan doesn’t know his uncle is gay. David and Romain sleep in separate bedrooms when they visit North Carolina. But David wants people to know that no matter how long and dark his tunnel, a man emerged at the other end who is happy and comfortable with himself. He advocates for gay rights and has built a website for those still struggling with their sexuality looking to get in touch. He gets emails from gay high school athletes who he has helped feel better about themselves. He was an honorary spokesman for Montreal’s gay pride festival this year. He threw out the first pitch at a Blue Jays-Yankees game on Sept. 27, a gesture following in the wake of the controversy over the gay slur Blue Jay Yunel Escobar had written on his eye black. After practicing it for a decade, he became a certified yoga-instructor. He has reconnected with his spirituality, trading in organized religion for a less formal, more inward-looking belief in karma and energies. "I’m satisfied with where I’m at in life," he says. "It couldn’t have been any other way. I couldn’t be where I’m at now in my personal life if it was any other way in soccer. I finally am getting to be myself all the time and with soccer I had to be someone different every day and look over my shoulder and question things in my mind on top of playing. How can you be happy when you’re doing that?" David smiles. He might try his hand at coaching. "But then again I’m not ready to deal with the issues of being a gay coach."
After his yoga class ends, we take a drive out to Saputo Stadium. It’s still raining, a fall day in mid-summer. When we get there, David won’t leave the car. "I don’t want to be seen here," he says. He peers at the dark stadium through the droplets on the windshield. "It doesn’t feel right."
He’s out. And he’s not going back in.
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