- Photography by Mr Kurt Iswarienko
- Words by Mr Dan Rookwood, US Editor, MR PORTER
The first time I met Mr Robbie Rogers I suppose I assumed he was gay. At the request of a mutual friend, he'd come in to intern on the fashion desk at Men's Health magazine in London where I was then the style director. A fresh-faced, well-dressed, good-looking kid with an all-American smile, he instantly attracted the excitable attention of some of the females in the office. "Sorry girls, somehow I don't think he'll be interested."
Later that morning an email popped up from my boss. "So is it true your new 'workie' plays for Leeds United?!"
I had no idea. I'd been told Mr Rogers, now 26, had his own fledgling fashion label called Halsey and that he wanted to get some experience of how magazines work before starting a course at the London College of Fashion. But I googled him straight away and yes, there he was: a Leeds United player and full US international with 18 caps, then on loan at League One team Stevenage Borough. "Well," I thought to myself, "I got that one wrong. Can't be gay if he's a professional footballer."
A few days later I received a mystifying text from an acquaintance at The New York Times. "Is Robbie Rogers still interning with you? And if so, can you ask him to call me?" Before I could reply, my phone rang. It was a reporter from a British tabloid asking for Mr Rogers' number and explaining they were prepared to pay him for an exclusive interview.
I did it in a selfish way, not to help anyone else or to create a movement in football, but just to get everything out of me and start my life on a fresh page
That was how I discovered that Mr Rogers had come out.
The previous evening, on 23 February 2013, Mr Rogers had sat with a close friend in his east London apartment staring at a statement on his laptop that he had written two months previously. "Life is simple when your secret is gone," he had written. "Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work, the pain from avoiding questions, and at last the pain from hiding such a deep secret."
All it needed was one click and the life-changing words that formed this heartfelt blog post on his website would be out in the open - and so, finally, would he.
"I was so scared. But I just did it - boom! And then I closed my laptop and turned off my phone because I didn't want to see the reaction. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe I just did that! Let's get out of the apartment.'"
I didn't realise how big of a deal it was going to be. I didn't have any idea that it would reach people around the world or the impact it would have
They went to nearby members' club Shoreditch House for a few drinks. "I wish I could remember that feeling and just hold it with me always," Mr Rogers recalls. "It was the first time in my life I felt totally free. I did it in a selfish way, not to help anyone else or to create a movement in football, but just to get everything out of me and start my life on a fresh page. And that's exactly what I did, and it was the most amazing feeling I've ever had."
His friend was checking Twitter. "It was going nuts." Mr Rogers gained 30,000 extra followers within a few days and received more emails than he could read.
Those initial fears about coming out were understandable. In 1990 Mr Justin Fashanu became the first openly gay footballer in Britain. He was disgracefully ostracised from the game as a result - even disavowed by his own brother, John, also a professional footballer. In 1998, after his life had spiralled into tragedy, Mr Fashanu hanged himself in a deserted lock-up in Shoreditch. In one sense it was just a short distance from where Mr Rogers came out; in another sense, miles away.
But though society today is generally more enlightened and progressive, the tribal world of football remains mired in the dark ages of shameful bigotry. "It's crazy and sad that no [gay footballers] had come out since Fashanu," says Mr Rogers. "That's the reason I thought I would have to quit [the game] - I thought it would be bad."
That statement on his website also announced his departure from professional football at just 25. He had designs on a new career in men's fashion. "Now is my time to step away," he wrote. "It's time to discover myself away from football." He was shy, and he was retiring. Or so he thought.
Fast forward a year, and we are sat together having a coffee in the warm Los Angeles sunshine reflecting on everything that has happened since he was my intern back in London.
As it transpired, the reaction to Mr Rogers' announcement was extremely positive. Far from facing the rejection he feared, he was embraced - by his family, friends, team-mates, the media, the public. This was, at least in part, because of the way he handled it.
"I didn't realise how big of a deal it was going to be," he says now. "I didn't have any idea that it would reach people around the world or the impact it would have, especially on younger people. I mean, I'm happy it happened that way but it wasn't my master PR plan."
Mr Rogers' LA Galaxy take on the Seattle Sounders FC in Carson, California, May 2013.
Photo: Jeff Gross/ Getty Images
He took neither professional instruction from a publicist, nor any money for his story. "An agent, the same guy who represents Gareth Thomas [the Welsh rugby player who came out in 2009] contacted me saying The Sun wanted to offer £30,000 for an interview. But I'd already agreed to an interview with The Guardian [which does not pay]. The agent messaged me back and said: 'I've never met anyone like you. Don't change.' I know I made the right decision."
Mr Rogers has now returned to the game, playing for Mr David Beckham's former club LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer. He is dating Mr Greg Berlanti, an LA TV producer, and lives in West Hollywood, an hour's drive away from his family. And having initially said he was uncomfortable as a role model, he is now an activist and co-founder of Beyond "it", an anti-discrimination initiative seeking to fight labels and stereotypes in society.
Why the change of heart? "After [receiving] thousands of emails, I'm thinking, OK, how can I help others? How can I make some positive change? How am I going to reach young Robbie and tell him to be himself?" he says. "I was selfish when I came out but I try not to be selfish any more."
Sometimes I'll be in stadiums and hear a [homophobic] comment from one person, who'll then hide. That's inevitable. It's going to happen in every country
It could be argued that Mr Rogers has been a catalyst for change in professional sport. Mr Jason Collins, who plays in the NBA for the Brooklyn Nets, called Mr Rogers for advice before he came out in April last year. Mr Tom Daley, the British Olympic diver, took to YouTube in December to reveal he is in a relationship with a man. In January, Mr Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former Aston Villa midfielder and Germany international, came out explaining he wanted "to further the debate about homosexuality among sports professionals". This was an issue that raged during the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi when Russia's anti-gay laws were widely condemned.
"It is a debate that is going on all the time now," says Mr Rogers. "Every week I read something new. And it's not as if I am searching gay media - it's on The Daily Beast or CNN or Yahoo! - so it is something that is important to people."
He may have been a reluctant front man at first but Mr Rogers is now one of the most recognisable faces and articulate speakers in the fight against homophobia. He has a book in the pipeline, Coming Out to Play, which he has written to address the wider issues as well as help others to face their fears. Yes, it's been quite a year. But there is plenty of work still to be done.
"Sometimes I'll be in stadiums and hear a [homophobic] comment from one person, who'll then hide. That's inevitable. It's going to happen in every country. But 95% of it is positive - so positive I sit there and wonder why no other footballers are coming out. It would be nice if they did.
"To look at the bigger picture, eventually we won't have to talk about it because it will be accepted. That has to be the ideal: that it's no longer an issue at all."
Styling by Mr Dan May, Style Director, MR PORTER