Unless there is a specific incident in other sports, the main topic of conversation surrounding LGBT+ in sports in the UK is often when – and whether – a top male footballer will come out.
Sometimes that topic is dealt with sensitively, other times sensationally. But in America, more polarising in terms of the politics of being LGBT+, has had a gay player in Major League Soccer not once, but twice.
Robbie Rogers became the first when, weeks after being released from a short spell at Leeds United in early 2013, he announced his retirement and his homosexuality at the same time. His time away from the game would not last long though, and he returned to top flight football in America with LA Galaxy in May of that year.
While injuries forced Rogers to retire at the age of 30 in 2017, the next year Collin Martin also came out. He completed the 2018 MLS campaign at Minnesota United before dropping down a division with Hartford Athletic on loan last year, and is now turning out in San Diego Loyal colours in the USL Championship, where he is managed by American soccer legend Landon Donovan.
It is probably worth noting that Rogers, and now Martin, are based in a liberal part of the USA in southern California, the same state Bay Area broadcaster Charles Wollin lives in.
Wollin keeps busy commentating on third-tier side Oakland Roots and fourth-tier outfit San Francisco City, where he is also on the board. He also commentates on college soccer for the Pac-12 Networks, and is one of the hosts on the Black and Azul podcast focusing on the San Jose Earthquakes’ progress in the MLS, all on top of philanthropic work, playing for inclusive soccer team San Francisco Spikes, and of course there is the day job too.
Covering so many different levels of soccer in the States over the last 10 years, Wollin is well-placed to assess the impact of Rogers and Martin’s stories – but while not taking anything away from their accomplishments and bravery, he would like to see the conversation expand to become more nuanced.
“I think the Robbie Rogers story was impactful because it did show that here was someone that could play, be a part of a championship team, and live their life and be who they area,” Wollin said.
“He did it in a market that was very accepting and loving, close to me here, in Los Angeles. There haven’t been a ton of LGBTQ+ footballers come out after him, but I feel like in his tone and the way he presents himself he knows that his role of being out was able to have an impact.
“This is not a waterfall, it’s not like everyone is just going to start coming out all the time. There’s still a process to that, and coming out is not an easy thing to do. It’s when you’re ready, and some people are just not ready. 15 or 20 years ago, it would have been a lot harder, so there is slow, but meaningful, progress going on.
“I know that folks would love to see it sped up, but I think with Robbie and Collin, they’re going to continue to set the example for others.
“On the women’s side, I’ve had a chance to interact with Megan Rapinoe who is very much a role model for a lot of footballers in the LGBT+ community, for men too. A lot of women’s players have been out for years. I think there’s a differentiation between being a white, male footballer, and a women’s footballer, or a black footballer, or a Latino footballer. I think there’s a lot of different demographics that are specifically affected in different ways.
”I would say it’s not a surprise that Robbie and Colin are white guys, I think it’s maybe harder for athletes of colour or trans athletes to make their way on to a certain area, and that should be noted. I think that all communities need to be supported, and a lot of people think of gay as white guys going on Grindr all the time, you hear a lot of ‘I’ve got a gay friend’.
“Maybe I’m going too deep here, but a lot of people don’t know that within the gay community, there is a lot of racist undertones. There are a lot of people that will never understand what a trans person will go through, or what a non-binary person will go through. My sibling is non-binary, so it’s important to note these other communities when it comes to that.”
Those divisions within the LGBT+ community that Wollin mentions could be something holding back progress in society as well as specifically in sport.
Acceptance should always be at the forefront of the Pride movement’s message, and Wollin believes being welcoming of other experiences that you might have no way of relating to can help strengthen the united front that is so necessary to enact social change.
“One of the things that the Sports Media LGBT+ newsletter chatted about is just talking about inclusivity within LGBT+ sports media,” he added.
“The only gay footballer in the UK, Justin Fashanu, was a black guy. Obviously we know his story, and what happened. I think it’s important to note everything that’s going on, because I think a lot of white, male athletes do have a privilege over a gay woman, or a trans person, or potentially people of colour.
“I’m a white guy, so I don’t have the same experience or upbringing that a black person had, or a Latino person had in my community. I’m trying to be cognisant of the words I use here, but we’re a big community. We’ve got a lot of space and areas, so some areas do go neglected. That’s really off-putting and sad to me, and a lot of people’s view of “gay” is a bunch of white guys with their shirts off on Grindr, or going to gay bars. I think that’s how a lot of our straight allies look at it, but obviously that’s not what it is.
“The gay women in sport that have been pushing, that have been living their lives out and about for 10 or 15 years, they need to be getting credit. Justin Fashanu needs to be getting credit. The current people too, but I would just say that I think we have to look at it as a whole, LGBT+ together as a community.
“Just recently the women here were fighting for equal pay, and they’re all doing that together, which is amazing. Not only are they fighting LGBT+ stigma, but they’re also now fighting for pay equality and other issues.
“We need to work together on these types of things. We can be understanding of everyone’s experience, even though you’re not that person and you’re not exactly able to explain that specific experience to your peer or to a straight ally, you should still be able to be an ally and listen, and listen, and listen, and listen. You can still be an advocate back, because there’s a lot of struggle that we will never know about within the LGBTQ community. I urge people to continue to listen, and to know what’s going on in their surroundings all the time.”
Wollin’s surroundings in the Bay Area and San Francisco are renowned as an epicentre of the global Pride movement. The Compton’s Cafeteria riot in 1966 in the city was one of the formative moments that led to the LGBT+ equality movement kicking off in the 1960s and 1970s.
But often when it comes to social change, sport is a step or two behind wider society. The area is also a sporting hotbed, hosting this year’s Super Bowl runners-up the San Francisco 49ers, Major League Baseball sides San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, the Golden State Warriors in basketball, ice hockey club San Jose Sharks as well as soccer’s Earthquakes.
Thankfully, Wollin has seen every one of those clubs do their part for the LGBT+ community through campaigns and Pride nights – and while they have a responsibility to represent their community, that task is not one he shies away from personally either.
“We obviously have every single major American sport in the Bay Area, and I think it was the San Francisco Giants who were the first team to have a Pride night,” he said.
“There are lots of LGBT+ friendly sports bars out here too, giving them a space where they can go and enjoy sports safely, which is amazing. Most of the teams know their role, if they didn’t at this point, I would be a little bit surprised. They know they are a sports team representing the Bay Area.
“I think there’s always an urge to do more from the LGBT+ community with these teams, but you have to make sure it comes off the right way. Is the person speaking at the pre-game talks coming across the right way, that sort of thing. There are always people who are going to be critical, but over the last 10 years I have seen it really develop. Every single team has a LGBT+ night, every single team is starting to build LGBT+ resources out here.
“I’m who I am, and I’ll promote plenty of LGBT+ supporting accounts on my own Twitter page as much as I can. I will self-regulate, because I don’t want to be continuously putting stuff out all the time, I don’t want to be annoying in terms of how much I do.
“Things like social media are free tools that you can use to build your brand, so part of my brand is that I’m a gay guy living in the Bay Area, I’m a commentator in soccer out here, and I love my community and I love the game. I think we’re part of a larger community of world football, and a larger community of supporters for the game. It’s really about community at the end of the day, that’s how I see it.
“I put things out there for any other young commentator, another young person, a young guy, a young girl or a non-binary person that’s out there who also wants to be a commentator and hasn’t had the opportunity to do so. Maybe they’ve thought it’s too masculine, they wouldn’t fit in, but I think it’s important to set the example for others to pave the road for others when it comes to being LGBT+ and being a commentator in the sport, or being a journalist, a podcaster, just being in media.
“I think there’s still a role to play with a lot of what we’re seeing in the sports LGBT+ group, because that community is only continuing to grow, and we’re only continuing to give opportunities to young people that want to be able to be themselves and want to be able to cover the sport that they love and care about. That’s how I feel about it.”
While most of Wollin’s work comes behind a microphone, he also has the opportunity to affect change on the pitch with the San Francisco Spikes. The Spikes – an International Gay and Lesbian Football Association affiliated side – play in a straight league as well as competing against LGBT+ clubs across the country, the continent in North American Championships, and across the world in the Gay Games.
Joining them eight years ago, Wollin has since served on the club’s board as secretary as well as his current position, vice-president, but mostly he just relishes the opportunity to keep playing a sport he fell in love with during his formative years in London.
“I actually used to play against the Spikes on a straight team,” Wollin recalled.
“I just wasn’t ready at the time. I talked to someone that was close to me, and I asked for their blessing to go and do this, and they gave their blessing. Not an actual one, but I said ‘this is what I want to do, I appreciated playing on all the straight teams that you helped coach, what do you think?’ And he said he thought it was great for me, and that I should do it.
“I went out there, nervous as hell, because it was a bunch of gays that I was playing with, but it’s a wonderful group of committed people that love the sport and loves the game.
“We’re starting to ramp up some more community work, I think that side has been a little bit missed over the years. Doing some good work in the social community is actually one of my charges on the board. I’m trying to get the community side up and running.
“The club is changing in many ways, it was predominantly an all-men’s football club when I joined, but now we have a women’s programme, and we have everybody under the LGBTQ umbrella, which is great. We have members that identify with every letter within our community, which is amazing, and special, and very touching.
“It’s an incredible group, as individuals a lot of these people are some of my best friends. I’m very fortunate to be in the Spikes and be able to play every year and enjoy it. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to share in the game and still be able to play at a decent recreational level at 33 years old, and also be accepted for who you are within the spirit of football.”
Wollin has witnessed significant moments for the progressions of LGBT+ people in sport, and he hopes to be a conduit to even more change. So what does he think are the next steps to take?
“I think it comes back to diversity and inclusion within LGBT+,” Wollin reasoned.
“It’s continuing to tell stories because there can never be enough, continuing to understand that the LGBT+ community is complex and beautiful, and weird, and hopeful, and are continuing to fight for equality and justice.
“It’s so important, and it’s never finished, it’s never done. There’s always going to be people that are not going to feel included within our community, and there are going to be atmospheres that don’t feel quite right.
“We have to continue to move the needle with LGBT+ supporters groups and Pride nights. We need to hear from real people, from shared experience that people are having – out there playing the game and journalists covering the game, maybe even other people in the stadium that have never been able to tell their story. There’s always more that we can be doing, continuing to have these nights, networking, creating atmospheres where you can watch your side compete and be with other fans in a queer space.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re just getting started, but other times it’s like ‘damn, there’s a lot of stuff that we’ve done and are continuing to do’. We’re all in this together, and sometimes we forget that.”