“Freeing yourself from the burden of hiding can lead to a higher level of performance as a player”
Marcus Urban works as a communications consultant and artist in Hamburg. In the 1980s however, he was an East German football champion with the youth team of FC Rot Weiss Erfurt, he played for the GDR youth national team and was about to start a career in the Bundesliga.
Marcus, you abandoned the prospect of a career as a footballer in the Bundesliga
because you didn’t want to, or couldn’t, hide your sexuality any longer. Why did you
decide to come out when you did in 2006?
In my circle of friends and acquaintances I had outed myself long before. I had my public coming out in a media interview, there was a request and a deep interest of the media on the matter and the time was ripe. My biography “Hide Player” was then published a little later and was only a logical consequence.
What kind of reactions did you receive? How did other players and coaches
Oh, there were an incredible number of responses and they came from all areas of society. Besides the media, many high school graduates and students got in contact with me and showed their interest in dealing with the issue. But I also received a lot of feedback from the church, by a former professional boxer, of other footballers and a stadium announcer.
They were all very supportive, many of them remarked that I took a heavy burden off their shoulder by publishing the book. For many, the publication brought a ray of hope to them in gaining personal liberation. It was also personally satisfying.
One must bear in mind that many gays and lesbians are taken ill by the daily game of hiding and the social pressure they have to endure. Many suffer from depression; others are seriously affected by medical addictions. There is a prevalent sense of utter helplessness. I hope my book gave people new hope and courage.
Some footballers have recently encouraged their fellow players to come out.
Manuel Neuer, goalkeeper for Schalke and the Germany side, was the last one to urge gay athletes to come out. What would you advise?
Speaking from my own personal experience, if someone wants to free themselves from the burden of hiding and wants to deliver a higher level of performance as a player, then definitely yes!
On the other hand, I know the fears connected to a public outing and perfectly understand them. Especially in football, the pressure from the media is enormous, different from that of an athlete in a sport with less media attention.
However progress is under way. We can see a chain reaction in which one person plucks up courage by the coming out of the other. Right now we can observe coming outs in sports other than football. Homosexuality becomes more visible everywhere now.
Researchers in the UK report that agents are dissuading players to come out because an outing might have a negative impact commercially eg. the loss of advertising contracts. Isn’t there, in fact, a place in the commercial market for gay athletes?
As we have seen lately, Steven Davies [English cricketer] has received great feedback. I find it exciting and interesting to see how the fans react, especially when someone is the first person to come out in his or her field. It takes a lot of courage.
People appreciate courage, commitment and openness. I can imagine that these are features that can be easily used by advertisers. Companies will realize this potential in the long run, but one must also remember in the sports world, there are still some very conservative people who cannot cope with diversity and otherness.
They feel confused and disoriented by people that don’t epitomize what is labeled as “normal” by mainstream society. Their confusion can change into to rejection and aggression. This makes it difficult.
In stadiums homophobic insults can still be frequently heard. What role do
supporters play? Are players afraid of abuse from their own fans?
The fear is obviously there, and probably not unjustified. We will have to work on this. This is like what we have seen with racist insults in the stadiums. A few years ago black players were frequently abused.
Verbal abuse will never disappear entirely, though we can convince the majority of supporters to pull together in favour of anti-discrimination in the stadium. Respect for others is what really matters.
You play football again on a recreational basis. How do amateur clubs deal with the matter?
I've never stopped playing football in my spare time. I've always played, even after I had finished my career. Now I play in Hamburg for FC Sternschanze. This is a very colourful and diverse club. We have people with different backgrounds, life histories and they come from very different parts of the world. We benefit from each other and make the odd joke about ourselves. I cannot judge other amateur clubs but with us it’s perfectly fine.
You are a co-founder of the expert network “Fussball gegen Homophobie”. What is in the network and what are your objectives?
Hiding your sexual identity takes so much energy. Someone who has to play-act every day cannot put in a good performance. As a consequence, discrimination costs money. Organisations waste money by ignoring discrimination. Understanding difference and having a clear anti-discriminatory perspective brings in money. This is the how we need to approach the issue.
We have also noted that for some time, gay and lesbian organisations have reached a point where they haven’t managed to make any progress in terms of LGBT equality in Germany.
We have achieved a lot in the entertainment industry, in fashion, art and even in politics. Now we must promote diversity in other areas like in manufacturing, sports, the church and the army, to name but a few. These are all classic areas of society, where masculinity and an antiquated gender image still prevail. If we want to reach all parts of society, we need to find new ways to address the matter in a more subtle manner.
We set up the network because we recognize the need to document that there are people who work on the issue. We try to raise the issue in youth teams in particular.
It is all about making homosexuality in football more visible. We also try to offer workshops and solutions for FA’s and clubs and work as consultants. There was a first network meeting at the second division club FSV Frankfurt. There we have organized training courses and seminars and there is also a gay fan club at FSV we cooperate with.
We hope to work with more clubs in the future and want to give them the support necessary to provide an all inclusive atmosphere.
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Marcus Urban or