Photography by Elisabeth Toll
I get a kick out of seeing Anton Hysen 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 Hysen, the face of the progressive, tolerant nation that legalized gay marriage in 2009.
This past March, Hysen 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 Hysen'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 Hysen 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.
It may be easier to be out in Sweden than in the U.S., but it's all relative. Hysen might not have taken the plunge without the support of his father, Glenn Hysen, soccer royalty in Sweden, who played for legendary English team Liverpool (among Anton's eight tattoos are the letters UNWA, a reference to Liverpool FC's popular anthem, the Rodgers and Hammerstein number, "You'll Never Walk Alone"). He says his father wouldn't care if he was a ballet dancer, but like his two older brothers -- Tobias, a celebrated striker for the Swedish national team, and Alexander, a goalkeeper for Ostersunds FK -- soccer is in his blood. "The first time I touched the ball out on the pitch, I thought, This is what I want to do. It's just pure adrenaline."
In 2007, Glenn Hysen made an unexpected appearance at Stockholm Pride. He'd made headlines six years earlier after throwing a punch at a man who apparently groped him in the bathrooms of the Frankfurt airport, and he took the opportunity to set the record straight. More important, he used the podium to talk about homophobia in sports, asking the crowd to imagine a 16-year-old soccer player afraid to come out to his teammates. That young man was Anton, still coming to terms with his sexuality. "He just said, 'I'm going to do it, and I hope it's OK for you -- it's just to show you respect,' " recalls Hysen. "I was like, 'Yeah, you should do it, not just for me, but to show people that a legendary football player is supportive of the gay community.' "
Like most celebrities, Hysen has had to come out twice. The first time, to his family and friends, was, he says, the hardest. He started by telling his mom he was bi. "She was, like, 'No shit, Sherlock. I saw you dump your girlfriend, the hottest girl in Stockholm. You're not bi, you're gay.' " He says he realizes now that his lack of interest in the girl, a model, was an obvious sign, but that it took time to understand why. Gay dating sites helped clarify things, but they also opened him to public exposure. "I had a profile on this gay website, and I was talking to this person and he had a really good photo on the site," recalls Hysen. "We talked and talked, but it turned out that he wasn't actually the guy in the photo; he was a 50-year-old guy. He said, 'I'm going to pull pictures of you, and I'm going to say you're Hysen's son and you're gay.' And I was like, 'Get the fuck out of here, you're not going to do that.' "
Hysen was out to family and friends at that point ("My dad was, like, 'You want me to go beat him up?' "), but the experience helped hasten his decision to come out publicly, initially in football magazine Offside, where he described the lack of gay players as "fucked up." Although he cringes at the suggestion that he's a role model, he realizes the value of setting an example. "I wasn't really an angel," he says. "I actually had a gay guy in my classroom, and me and my straight friend, we bullied him. And at the time, I understood what it was and what it was all about. I've seen it all, and I've experienced it."
As for his own experience, he says the reaction in Sweden has been largely positive. "There's always going to be negative stuff as well, but I tend not to care about that. Why should I listen to it? It doesn't give me anything good in life."