Steeped in a man's sport, lesbian footballers fit the mold
As Germany plays host this summer to the FIFA Women's World Cup, people may - or may not - be surprised to find that several members of the German women's national team are openly gay.
Last summer, the German national goalkeeper, Ursula Holl, made headlines when she publicly came out of the closet by entering a registered partnership with her girlfriend. The consensus in the German press was that it was no big deal.
Holl said in an interview with the daily tabloid Bild that everyone from her teammates to Theo Zwanziger, head of the German Football Association, congratulated her. No one in the world of soccer, she said, had ever made an issue of her sexuality.
This stands in stark contrast to men's soccer in Germany, where a culture rife with homophobia has kept any gay players deep in the closet. Holl herself said she would not advise any gay male soccer player to come out.
"The more of your personal life you reveal, the more vulnerable you are," she told Bild in January. "And the fan in the stadium can be very, very cruel. The public hostility would be very difficult to bear."
Tanja Walther-Ahrens played in the women's Bundesliga for several years before retiring from professional soccer in 1999. She said in every team she has played in since she was 16 or 17, she never made a secret of her sexuality.
"We never really made an issue of homosexuality in competitive sports," she told Deutsche Welle. "There were always a lot of lesbians, but we didn't talk about it. It was pretty much understood."
Walther-Ahrens currently plays recreationally and is actively involved in groups like the European Gay & Lesbian Sport Federation. She said that while lesbians may enjoy greater acceptance in women's soccer, the field was not homophobia-free.
"Homosexuality in our society is still seen as somewhat objectionable, or abnormal," she said. "And that's a reason why someone wouldn't want to out herself. There are also situations where it's not really clear how those around me are going to react. It's always that big insecurity that I think keeps some people from coming out."
Another form of discrimination
The German media's interest in homosexuality in soccer has dramatically increased in the past decade, according to Martin Schweer, a sports psychologist at the University of Vechta.
He said that while the increased attention has led to some positive initiatives - such as more scientific research into the issue and anti-homophobia campaigns by the German Football Association - attention has a dark side as well.
"There are still large parts of the media that keep asking the questions, 'When will someone finally come out? How many on the national soccer team could be gay?' he said. "And there you notice a kind of sensationalism that definitely does not help the situation."
Schweer said the enormous difference between attitudes toward homosexuality in men's and women's soccer is closely related to traditional ideas of masculinity. German society often sees lesbians as more masculine, making them a good fit for the sport, while the perception of gay men as feminine excludes them.
"This increased awareness of homosexuality in women's soccer doesn't necessary have to do with greater acceptance," he said. "Rather, it just means that a completely different perception is at play, and that actually illustrates another form of discrimination."
Fear of exposure
A primary reason gay and lesbian soccer players stay in the closet is fear of public exposure, which few people can speak better on than Marcus Urban. He was a star player on the East German national youth soccer team in the 1980s, and started playing in the minor leagues in 1990.
But just when his soccer career was taking off, he turned away from the sport - in part because he was gay and could not take the pressure of hiding his sexuality any longer.
Urban ended his soccer career largely because of his sexuality
"Around the clock, I had to control every gesture I made, every word that came out of my mouth," he said. "In every situation I had to constantly control myself. And that was inhuman."
After leaving professional soccer, Urban got a degree in city planning and has worked in photography and design. Since publicly coming out in 2006, he has made numerous appearances in the media to talk about his experience as a closeted gay soccer player.
Urban said the FIFA Women's World Cup this summer could be an opportunity to break the masculine stereotypes engrained in soccer culture.
"What’s easy to notice is that many men often have a certain undervaluation of women in soccer, just like the belief that gay men can't play soccer well," he said. "And with the increase in popularity of women's soccer, they get rid of that image."
Author: Andrew Bowen
Editor: Darren Mara
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