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Anton Hysen: Gay soccer players want to come out

September 27, 2013 -- Updated 1005 GMT (1805 HKT)
In 2011, Anton Hysen became only the second active footballer to come out as being gay -- more than 20 years after Justin Fashanu did so. While Fashanu was a high-profile star in England, Hysen plays in Sweden's lower leagues. In 2011, Anton Hysen became only the second active footballer to come out as being gay -- more than 20 years after Justin Fashanu did so. While Fashanu was a high-profile star in England, Hysen plays in Sweden's lower leagues.
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Coming out
Rainbow Laces
Rogers retirement
Fashanu suicide
Breaking taboos
Collins' brave move
Tennis pioneer
Equal rights
Earning respect
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Anton Hysen was the second active football player to come out as openly gay
  • He has received calls from players too scared to come out in the game
  • Labels Russia's anti-gay laws as "Stone Age" ahead of 2014 Sochi Games
  • Hopes he can help fellow gay players to come out in the future

(CNN) -- Anton Hysen is a football player. He is also gay.

"So what?" he says. "Being gay is not a choice -- I hate it when people say that."

In March 2011, Hysen, who plays in the lower leagues in Sweden, became the first man to come out in more than 20 years within the world of football. He broke the taboo.

Fast forward two years and, while his life has changed immeasurably, the same problems remain.

"There's so much ignorance," he told CNN in an exclusive interview.

"There's a lack of knowledge. Some people who are homophobic don't even know a gay person. It's all about preconceptions.

"I hear that football players are supposed to be masculine. I know plenty of straight guys who are more effeminate.

"There's this illusion that every football player has to be macho and have a model girlfriend. It's not acceptable to be a gay player.

"Why not? We can run, we can play, we can score. So what's the problem?"

Read: Is laces campaign tied up in knots?

The fight against homophobia in football has been stepped up in the UK in particular, with the "Rainbow Laces" campaign taking center stage over recent days.

Stonewall, a UK-based gay, lesbian and bisexual charity, teamed up with Irish bookmaker Paddy Power to promote the initiative -- which urged players to wear the colored laces to promote awareness.

The organization sent laces to all 92 professional clubs in England and the 42 in Scotland but enjoyed only limited success, with clubs unhappy with the inclusion of a gambling firm and a lack of notice given by the charity.

Many football fans took to Twitter to say they were unable to even see the laces, especially with players often boasting luminous footwear, while some professionals decided against wearing them for a multitude of reasons.

'It needs to be discussed'

But while he supports the campaign -- Hysen wore the laces during his most recent game -- he stresses that it is only a small step in bringing about a meaningful change in attitudes towards homophobia.

"I think it's a good idea," he said, after laughing that he had hit the post when he should have scored in that previous match.

"It's not a big change but it is a step forward. It's the least we can do. We can have lectures, we can ban people -- and laces won't change the mind of an idiot.

Swimmer Ian Thorpe, seen here in 2004 with one of his five Olympic gold medals, told an Australian news outlet that he is gay in an interview that aired on Sunday, July 13. Click through to see other openly gay athletes. Swimmer Ian Thorpe, seen here in 2004 with one of his five Olympic gold medals, told an Australian news outlet that he is gay in an interview that aired on Sunday, July 13. Click through to see other openly gay athletes.
Openly gay athletes
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Photos: Openly gay athletes Photos: Openly gay athletes
Marcus Urban was an East German football player who turned his back on the sport in order to live as an openly gay man. Urban told his story in the book "Versteckspieler: Die Geschichte des schwulen Fußballers Marcus Urban", "Hidden Player: the story of the gay footballer Marcus Urban".
Marcus Urban was an East German football player who turned his back on the sport in order to live as an openly gay man. Urban told his story in the book "Versteckspieler: Die Geschichte des schwulen Fußballers Marcus Urban", "Hidden Player: the story of the gay footballer Marcus Urban".
'The hidden footballer'
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Marcus Urban\'s battle with homophobia in football Marcus Urban's battle with homophobia in football
Olympian opposes Russia boycott

"A homophobe won't change his mind because players are wearing rainbow laces, but we're putting it into their minds and we're putting the issue into society so we can talk about it.

"It might make people more aware and make them reconsider but it's not going to make people come out instantly.

"We can talk about it and discuss it. It needs to be discussed. There are not many players out there (wearing them) but it's a nice gesture.

"I've heard some idiotic excuses. I respect anyone who doesn't want to (wear them) and has strong opinions on the matter but don't give lame excuses. That's silly.

"There are a lot of different things we can do -- but this shows some players are ready to show their support. Seeing a professional wearing them is great and gives comfort to gay people who are playing and aren't ready to come out."

Who's next?

In February, U.S. soccer player Robbie Rogers revealed he is gay but at the same time announced he was retiring from the sport.

Rogers, who was playing in England at the time, has since reversed his decision to quit and now plays back in his homeland with Major League Soccer side Los Angeles Galaxy.

But not since the tragic death of Justin Fashanu has a top-flight division witnessed an openly gay professional football player.

Fashanu, who committed suicide in 1998, became the first £1 million black player in the history of English football when he signed for Nottingham Forest in 1981.

Constant speculation surrounded his private life, and at one time he reportedly claimed he'd had affairs with Conservative MPs -- which further fueled media interest.

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With the rumors continuing throughout his career, he finally came out in 1990 and continued to play for a whole host of lower league clubs.

Read: Rogers' retirement reasons could bring change

"You have to understand," he said in an interview before his death, "that footballers are very narrow-minded people. It's the nature of the business. When you put yourself in the firing line, you are open to attack. I know I'm there to be shot down in flames."

Following his passing, one particular group of fans would recite the chant: "He's gay, he's dead, he's hanging in a shed, Fashanu, Fashanu."

'I hope someone else will come out'

While there has been huge progress since those dark days, the presence of homophobia in football has not been extinguished.

Hysen had hoped that he would become a trailblazer -- but Rogers aside, there has been little movement in terms of players coming out.

"I've had quite a few anonymous phone calls from players who want to come out but I don't know who they are or where they play," said Hysen.

"I hope that someone else will come out just like Robbie Rogers did. That was great for U.S. soccer. At last we're having a discussion about it and that's huge.

"It has been pretty quiet and I understand that. People might not want to come out publicly and I understand.

There's this illusion that every football player has to be macho and have a model girlfriend. It's not acceptable to be a gay player.
Anton Hysen

"For me, the whole experience has been really positive. I've not had any trouble at all. If somebody says something, then I don't care. I don't have time for any of that. I don't waste my energy on that.

"Lately it has been really good -- I don't know why it's a problem."

Putting the Gay in Games

But it's not just in football where the problem exists -- the 2014 Winter Olympics have also courted controversy following the Russian government's decision to implement a new law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors."

There have been protests across the globe, with some athletes threatening to boycott the Games over what they believe are archaic and draconian laws.

Russia says the legislation is intended to protect children by prohibiting discussion of gay rights and relationships within their earshot.

Read: Anger grows over Russia anti-gay propaganda laws

"I don't understand what's happening in Russia," sighs Hysen. "What year are we in?

"It's like the Stone Age out there. I respect their laws. It's their country and I respect that but it's all about human rights. We're all humans. It's prehistoric stuff. It's 2013 now.

"Athletes aren't going there because of their sexuality. You're going there to perform your sport -- you go out there and play and do your best.

"You're not living there -- you're just going to compete. It's a problem. It's difficult because you have to respect their laws but it's ridiculous how we treat people in the 21st century.

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"I know a few people going but I'd never go. I'll watch at home on television."

Football family

Hysen is not shy in giving his views -- although he does squirm at the thought that he has become some kind of spokesman for gay sports stars: "I always speak from the heart and don't care what I say."

With a strong family around him, he has grown into a confident and aspiring young man who quickly realized that his life would never be the same.

But by his own admission, the fact that he is the son of Glenn Hysen, the former Liverpool and Sweden international footballer, may have given him an advantage which others may not be as fortunate to enjoy.

Read: The gay footballer who chose freedom

As a player, his father won the now defunct UEFA Cup twice with Swedish side IFK Gothenburg before moving to England, where he won the league title in 1991.

He is now on the coaching staff at Anton's third division club Utsiktens, while brothers Tobias and Alexander are also professional footballers.

Dancing star

But Anton is famous in his own right -- his story an inspiration to millions around the world -- while he cites his victory in Sweden's "Dancing with the Stars" as another reason for his current popularity.

"In Sweden I get recognized a lot from my football but also from the dancing," he laughs.

"I didn't think people would care that much but it's nice.

"When I first came out I thought I would be in the newspapers in Sweden for a couple of days and that's it -- I didn't think people would really care to be honest.

"And then suddenly it went crazy, and within two days the whole world knew, but it feels pretty good. I know that I've done something good with my life.

"I was just a kid who happened to be gay -- I never thought it would be such a big deal."

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