Robbie Rogers didn't expect to be by himself for long.
Rogers, a midfielder for the Los Angeles Galaxy, made headlines in 2013 when he revealed he was gay. A few months later, when NBA center Jason Collins came out and NFL defensive end Michael Sam did the same in 2014, there was a prevailing feeling that sports in America had turned a corner and were ready for a wave of professional athletes to come out of the closet and live their lives free from burden.
"I was hoping there'd be more athletes that would come out, and after that it just wouldn't matter," Rogers said. "I was hoping there would be so many out athletes that it wouldn't be a topic to talk about."
But as hundreds of thousands helped Chicago celebrate the progress the LGBTQ community has made with a parade Sunday, Rogers remains a lonely one _ the lone openly gay male athlete in America's five major professional sports leagues _ the NBA, MLB, NHL, NFL and MLS. Multiple active WNBA players have come out and thrived over the last decade, setting an example for young women everywhere. The few men who have tried on a professional level have met resistance.
Collins is now retired from the NBA. Sam never played a down in a regular-season NFL game. And no other professional male athlete has come out except for David Denson, a 21-year-old outfielder who plays for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, a Class A affiliate of the Brewers.
There was no wave and hardly even a trickle of athletes coming out in the wake of Collins, Sam and Rogers.
To Rogers, it's puzzling.
"I'm at the stage where it's kind of stupid. What's going on?" Rogers said. "I would never force anyone out, and everyone has their time, but come on, it's 2016. A lot has changed in the United States and around the world. Obviously there are a lot of rights to fight (for) and a lot of hate here toward the LGBT community, but it's an opportunity to be a role model for millions and change the lives of kids not only in sports but in our culture and around the world. It's a little disheartening."
This has happened despite organizations like the You Can Play Project working to promote a more positive atmosphere across all sports for gay athletes. Teams, leagues and commissioners have pledged that gay athletes are welcome to play for them. Yet the results have barely changed.
Cyd Zeigler, one of the founders of Outsports.com, a website devoted to covering gay issues in sports, said there's a clear reason.
"People will try to point to the fans," Zeigler said. "Some people will try to point to the coaches. Some will try to point to the front offices. Some will try to point to the media. But at the end of the day despite all those things, nobody has chosen to do it. Social change happens when somebody just decides to do it, and nobody decided do to it."
But there are reasons why almost nobody has decided to do it. The place to start is the locker room.
Homophobia is a word that often gets associated with the sports world. Some may have an image of a locker room being a place where gay people are put down and where homophobic slurs are thrown around in a casual manner. But people who work with gay athletes tell a different story.
According to Wade Davis, a gay former NFL player who serves as the executive director of the You Can Play Project, homophobia is not unique to sports. It exists in sports the way it exists in the rest of society.
"I'm not saying it doesn't exist in the sports world," Davis said. "I think it's reinforced in the sports world, but you learn you can't be out much sooner. When I realized I was gay in the 10th grade, I knew immediately what I was feeling was not OK, and that didn't come from me playing little league football. It came from television. It came from everywhere."
Zeigler, author of "Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes are Claiming their Rightful Place in Sports," defied the notion that sports are inherently homophobic. Part of what is keeping gay athletes closeted, Zeigler said, is the hyper heterosexism that exists in locker rooms. Negative talk about gay people is not the issue. Instead, it's the demeaning talk about women.
"I don't believe most professional locker rooms have a ton of homophobic language. I talked to a lot of people," Zeigler said. "But what does happen is constant heterosexism, constant talk about women, constant talk about sex with women, women's body parts, objectifying women _ that's something a gay athlete has no relation to.
"He's totally excluded from that conversation and it marginalizes him from what is a major part of men's sports locker rooms. It's not the constant uttering of (homophobic slurs), it's the constant conversation about women and sex with women. If that changed in a locker room ... that would change the dynamic for gay athletes."
According to Rogers, the main concern a closeted athlete has is how his teammates and coaches view him.
"My biggest fear was I was going to go in the locker room and there would be whispers when I walked in," Rogers said. "I didn't care about stadiums, I didn't care about agents. I cared more about how my teammates were going to treat me, how my coach was going to react. That's the biggest thing. Guys are afraid of being treated differently by their teammates."
To Davis, homophobia and sexism in locker rooms are interconnected. The insensitivity of language toward women spurs homophobia.
"I think the root of homophobia is sexism," Davis said. "It's so insidious and pervasive, it's everywhere. Anytime you exist in a space where you understand that being gay is correlated to being weak and like a woman, anytime you hear sexist language, it almost feels the exact same way."
The stereotype that gay men are not as masculine, and therefore, weaker than straight men is perhaps the most significant hurdle gay athletes have to overcome. It's a stereotype that has no basis in fact but one that has permeated the culture not just of sports, but society at large.
"We've been trained so much when we were kids that gay is soft, 'smear the queer' and you don't want to throw like a girl or a fairy," Zeigler said. "It's so ingrained in us that there's a disconnect between that and homophobia."
But those ideas create confusion in gay athletes that they must put on a strong facade so as not to appear weak and to conform to societal norms of what it means to be a tough man. This played out in a fascinating way last season in the NFL involving Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Opposing players reportedly directed homophobic slurs at Beckham because he acts differently than the stereotypical NFL player. Beckham dyes his hair, wears fashionable clothing, and likes to dance _ sometimes shirtless _ with male friends in videos he posts on Instagram.
"I think Odell is the litmus test to where we are," Davis said. "Just the way he shows up as being not hetero-normative makes people uncomfortable. (To them) if you're not acting in this very specific way, everything outside of that is gay, weakness, less than. ... The fact that he can dance and have fun with his friends, do all these videos, wear 'skinny (or tight-fitting) jeans,' all of that diminishes everything else he's done to so many other men because Odell Beckham makes them uncomfortable."
The fact that players like Beckham can thrive in the sports world is a positive sign to former MLB player Billy Bean, a gay man who is now MLB's vice president of inclusion and social responsibility. It shows a younger generation is not constricted by the norms previous generations had of what it is to be masculine.
"Some of our deeply embedded stereotypes take a long time to unlearn," Bean said. "I do think there's a very interesting shift with our youth where those type of labels are disappearing. It's very interesting to see this generation sort of move that old stereotype away."
This is a vital moment for LGBTQ rights in America. There are still reminders that hate and discrimination exists toward LGBTQ people. The recent deaths of 49 people at the hands of a gunman at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., are a distressing reminder of that. But in many ways, there has never been a better time to be out. Gay marriage is legal and opinion polls have shown Americans' attitudes toward LGBTQ people have become more positive. Sports remain a final frontier for LGBTQ people to conquer. Those few who have tried have met resistance.
What happened in Sam's brief NFL career did not encourage other closeted gay athletes who watched as Sam was out of the league without making an active NFL roster.
"That hurt," Zeigler said.
Zeigler is adamant that Sam would have made an active roster if Sam did not reveal his sexuality. Davis said there were many factors that contributed to Sam exiting the NFL but added: "The honest answer is that he probably would've had an easier path to still being in the NFL (if he didn't come out)."
So what needs to be done to prevent a situation like Sam's from happening again? What needs to happen for the next openly gay athlete to thrive like Rogers is or like those in the WNBA, where the atmosphere is more welcoming to out athletes?
The You Can Play project has worked with all the major sports leagues to help foster an environment of acceptance and make sports a place where gay athletes will feel comfortable living their lives in the open.
Zeigler said leagues, and specifically team owners, need to go a step further. The videos and public service announcements they produce "aren't working" he said. Owners need to take a more active role in identifying gay athletes _ "They already know (who the gay athletes are)," Zeigler said _ and assist them in coming out.
They need to go so far as to guarantee them a spot on a team and salary, Zeigler said. In other words some owner has to want to be the Branch Rickey of gay athletes.
"If you want to make change, you have to be deliberate in your actions and sometimes you have to break the rules and if guaranteeing somebody a salary is part of that then that's what you have to do," Zeigler said.
It's a bold approach, one that might be impractical for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the coming-out process for an individual is a complicated one that involves more than just the workplace.
"I know Cyd very well, and he definitely is aggressive in his opinions and he's a warrior for the LGBT community, but (divulging) a person's sexual orientation, that's a personal decision for someone," Bean said. "This is a personal choice. It's like who you want to marry or where you want to live. We don't pick our sexual orientation, but we do choose who we tell our not."
One of the biggest fears closeted LGBT people have is other people finding out about their sexual orientation before they are ready to reveal it. Any inkling that people know, especially an employer, could set back the process of coming out.
"People would say gay players should come out, but we still haven't addressed what that individual is going through," Davis said. "There's so many factors involved. If sports are safe, who's to say that person's family is ready? Or that person may be dating someone and they're not ready?"
Rogers said one thing teams could do is to offer psychological help a closeted athlete may use as a sounding board for his problems.
"I do believe in all sports _ I don't think there's enough of this _ there needs to be more mental help," Rogers said.
For example, Bean went his entire career, which included six seasons in MLB, without telling anyone in his family or on his team he was gay, not even when his partner died.
"The best moments I played in the big leagues I had my partner hidden secretively in my own home," Bean said. "Our home, but it felt so amazing to feel normal with someone I loved. And when he died, it just ripped me in half. I felt like I could not tell anybody. I couldn't even tell my parents, and my career it just went straight down the gutter from there."
One day the hope is that athletes can live their lives free of the torment Bean and others like him endured because they were gay and afraid of losing their jobs. Some have said it would take a superstar to come out _ someone who is secure in their career from a monetary and performance standpoint _ to alter attitudes toward masculinity and show that openly gay athletes can flourish in professional sports.
"I don't think it's going to take one of anything," Davis said. "It's going to take multiple people. It's going to take multiple generations. No one person."
But the ingredients to make it happen are in place. Leagues, teams and players are now more conscious of how to create a welcoming environment for gay teammates, and they are still learning. For example, Andrew Shaw's suspension for using a homophobic slur during a playoff game was an eye-opening moment for the Blackhawks and the entire NHL, which is the only league that has not even had a former player come out of the closet. In years past, Shaw's actions would not have garnered much attention. In April, it earned a suspension for a playoff game.
"That there is a collective momentum, that is wonderful right now," Bean said.
There are still obstacles for gay athletes to overcome in sports, and they aren't as imposing as they once were. Still, Rogers remains alone, like an exasperated band leader looking for some backup.
"I know there are gay athletes out there," Rogers said. "I've heard from them. I know they exist, but it's just a little frustrating. ... I think they don't realize how many people they can help by being out and being honest and open with people."
And they can open doors that have been locked for too long. Those doors are unlocking. They just need people to go through.
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Credit: Channel 2 Action News