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Thomas Hitzlsperger came out as gay in an interview with Die Zeit this week.
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Thomas Hitzlsperger comes out as homosexual: A Hammer Blow For Homophobia

Former Bayern Munich and Aston Villa professional footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger today made public his homosexuality in an interview with Die Zeit. Hitzlsperger's openness may prove to be a turning point in what has been a shamefully timid debate in football until now.

Until now, it has been the domain of fleetingly publicised awareness campaigns, smiling PR opportunities for politicians and sport officials alike. Until now, homosexuality has been talked about in the football world, but never in a voice louder than a whisper. Never in a register which has escaped euphemism. And never ever ever by anyone directly affected by it. Thomas Hitzlsperger's public announcement of his homosexuality in an interview with Die Zeit is a watershed moment.

Sure, we have the FA's anti-discrimination board - but that is a committee which achieved infamy for appointing Michael Johnson, a man who had previously stated that homosexuality "was an insult unto the Lord." In Germany, they have largely avoided mistakes of such monumental gravitude. We had the "Geh deinen Weg" campaign at the beginning of last season, presented so benevolently by Angela Merkel and Uli Hoeneß. Though meant to promote all types of diversity, the campaign became most readily associated with the taboos of homosexuality due to Merkel's public insistence that "no footballer should be afraid to come out."

It was a well judged comment, supported by many a prominent figure in the German game, from then President of the DFB Theo Zwanziger to national team striker Mario Gómez. Sadly, though, the buck stopped just about there, with the loudest voices warning of a more cautious approach. President of the DFL and Borussia Dortmund Reinhard Rauball claimed that he would advise players against coming out last summer, while the most brash voice has always been that of Germany captain Phillipp Lahm, who has repeatedly advised homosexual players not to come out, for fear of the repercussions from fans and colleagues.

Lahm's is no doubt a well meant sentiment, but one can't help but feel that it rather missed the point. That football has an imbalance of testosterone in comparison to other cultural spheres is unquestionable. But to simply continue to accept the intolerance that breeds is insanity. It neither furthers the debate, nor discourages the prejudice. By coming out, Hitzlsperger claims he wishes to do both: "I wish to bring the discussion forward" he told Die Zeit.

This is the key. His - and indeed any other individual's - decision to come out is ultimately a personal one, and not to be politicised against his own will. But the act of coming out as a prominent footballer has more potential to raise awareness than any comment, campaign or newspaper article. Only one professional - LA Galaxy's Robbie Rogers - is openly gay, and he is barely known outside of Leeds and Los Angeles. Both Rogers and Hitzlsperger have said that they know of no other gay players, open or otherwise.

The global player's union FIFPro, however, represents around 65,000 professionals. If we take the popular estimation that 10% of the world's males are exclusively gay, that means there are around six and a half thousand gay footballers who do not feel able to declare themselves as homosexual. If even one of them is living unhappily with that situation, then the policy of discouragement is wrong, and the policy of openness to be celebrated.

As it is, Hitzlsperger's announcement has been celebrated, with Lukas Podolski, Gary Lineker, Joey Barton and hundreds of others taking to Twitter to express their appreciation. Queen's Park Rangers midfielder Barton, who is involved in a number of projects to eradicate homophobia from football, solemnly reminded us that Hitzlsperger's decision to wait until the end of his career was an indication of "sad times". He, unlike Lahm, has correctly identified that it is the culture, not the players, who bear the responsibility.

Sad times we may live in, but these are also changing times. Today's world is infinitely different to that of the 90s, the decade which saw the tragic suicide of Justin Fashanu. Fashanu's decision to become the first British player to come out saw him disowned by his brother and fellow footballer John, and made him subject to persistent abuse from supporters. In 1998, he was charged with the sexual assault of a 17 year old male, but killed himself before trial, his suicide note professing his innocence and his belief that he would be denied a fair trial. While the huge shift in attitudes that such a tragedy should have inspired in football has not come to pass, homophobia is certainly on the way to being sidelined. That was most recently reflected by the overwhelmingly positive and supportive reaction to British diver Tom Daley's coming out last month.

In his interview with Die Zeit, Hitzlsperger talks of everything from the reaction of Joachim Löw to the discomfort he felt "sitting around a table with 20 lads making jokes about gays". His decision was a long and difficult one, he said, but he has never been ashamed of how he is. He should not be. On the contrary, he should be immensely proud. He is the most prominent footballer - retired or otherwise - ever to have publicly declared himself homosexual. He has knowingly offered his own, private life up to be politicised and used to improve football's backward cultural landscape. His interview alone will not reduce the number of genuinely homophobic ignoramuses, but it will make a huge dent in the complacent institutional avoidance of the topic. And it will, finally, throw a genuine voice of maturity and real experience into a debate which needs nothing more urgently.

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