By Aaron Hicklin
Photography by Elisabeth Toll
I get a kick out of seeing Anton Hysén scramble barefoot up a tree in a pair of my shorts. The 20-year-old Swedish soccer player has done a quick switch with me in one of the 18th-century houses that straddle the hills of Skansen, an outdoor folk museum in Stockholm. It's a satisfying juxtaposition: the old, creaking relics of the past, and Hysén, the face of the progressive, tolerant nation that legalized gay marriage in 2009.
This past March, Hysén became only the second professional soccer player to come out. The first was Justin Fashanu, a dazzling young English player who was hounded out of the closet by Britain’s merciless tabloid press. That was in 1990. Eight years later, Fashanu committed suicide, a tragic symbol of the sporting world’s stubborn homophobia. All of which makes Hysén's decision more vital: His natural ebullience and breezy manner is a world away from the shame and intimidation that destroyed Fashanu's life, and the reaction from press and fans has been equally relaxed. Hanging out with Hysén in Stockholm, what I find most striking is how similar he is to so many other 20-year-old guys. He likes tattoos and roller coasters. His favorite show is Family Guy. He thinks American men are hot. "You should bring all the New York hotties over to Sweden, because I’m bored with all the non-hot guys here," he says with near-flawless English. "I'm not into the whole blond, blue-eyed thing. I'm more into darker skin, dark features."
It's still novel to hear a male sports player talk this way. The tribal nature of that world -- in which Kobe Bryant's well-publicized homophobic slurs are the rule, not the exception -- is still notoriously oppressive for gay competitors. Equally, as the rest of society has evolved, the penalty for staying in the closet has become ever more apparent. In May, Rick Welts, the president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, revealed just how much he'd sacrificed by not being out in the workplace -- unable to properly mourn the death of his partner from AIDS, having another relationship crumble under the pressure of secrecy. "My high profile in this community, and my need to have him be invisible," Welts told The New York Times. "That ultimately became something we couldn’t overcome."
For Jared Max, the ESPN radio sports reporter who came out the same month as Welts, there is no question that it was the right thing to do. "Whether or not we realize we’re living under dark, gray skies while staying closeted, it's critical to know that those skies can immediately part and breathe bright sun over our existence -- if we only take the chance," he says.