You don’t grow up hating yourself by accident. You don’t learn to lie about your true nature on a whim. You don’t pretend to be straight just for the fun of it. You have to learn and be taught these things, and I was a good student.
There’s a song from the 1949 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” called “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” that reminds me of my experience growing up. The first line of the song is, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.” The lyrics go on to talk about prejudice and describe how children are taught to hate people who are different from them and to hate all the people their relatives hate.
My family and church would never have tolerated the kind of prejudice described in the Rodgers & Hammerstein song. But gay people were another story, and growing up I heard and saw plenty that made me think that being gay was bad, defective and sinful. I guess if you’re straight and taught to hate gay people that’s not as big a problem, because then you don’t grow up hating yourself, although teaching children to hate anyone is wrong and I think deeply held prejudice of any kind is soul-destroying. But when you teach a child who is gay (or lesbian, bisexual or transgender) that his fundamental nature is somehow bad, you create a situation where that child grows up hating himself and feels compelled to hide his true feelings, no matter what the cost is to him and those around him. And that’s what happened to me beginning in early childhood.
Just a quick disclaimer before I say anything more: My parents did not set out to knowingly hurt me. They were taught by their parents and church to believe certain things about homosexuality and gay people that were widely held beliefs at the time. My goal in sharing my experiences with you is not to trash them (or other family members, or teammates or friends), but to give you insight into my experience growing up as a gay kid in a world that was filled with hate and prejudice. It was a world in which I learned to hide anything about myself that might have given anyone any idea that I wasn’t the All-American Straight Golden Boy they wanted to believe I was—and that I desperately wanted to be.
It all started with “My Little Pony,” a cartoon TV program I liked to watch when I was a very young boy. The show was built around a cast of characters based on the colorful and highly decorated plastic pony toys manufactured by Hasbro. I can’t tell you why I loved “My Little Pony,” but I did. (Ironically, my favorite pony was the blue one with wings and a rainbow-colored mane and tail —- for those who don’t know, the rainbow flag is a symbol of gay pride.) The fact that I loved “My Little Pony” in the first place was the problem, because the “My Little Pony TV” show and the “My Little Pony” dolls that I collected and played with were designed for and marketed to girls.
I have to give my mom some credit because when I asked for “My Little Pony” dolls for Christmas and birthday gifts (and we each got to pick out a new toy when another sibling was born), she let me choose whatever I wanted. And what I always wanted was a “My Little Pony” doll and another less-than-masculine toy, this stuffed dog that had a flap on its belly with little puppies inside.
But I don’t want to give my mother — or my sisters — too much credit, because they liked to tease me about the fact that I liked to play with toys that most boys had no interest in. They used to sing a song meant to torment me about “My Little Pony and baloney,” and they’d sing it back and forth until I started crying. I was very sensitive when I was a child (I still am), so it didn’t take a lot to get me to cry. Still, I don’t remember the teasing bothering me all that much. Though apparently it’s not that way for every boy who loves “My Little Pony.” I recently read about an eleven-year-old boy who was a fan of the “My Little Pony” cartoon show and was teased so relentlessly that he tried to take his own life, which is beyond heartbreaking.
Other than the occasional teasing, my sisters were happy to play dolls with me. And my mother was content to let us enjoy ourselves. My father was another story, and on a few occasions when I was very young he made it clear that he didn’t like his namesake playing with “girlie things.” I remember one time overhearing him say to my mother in a really angry voice, “I don’t ever want to see him playing with dolls again! I don’t want a fairy for a son!”
It would be years before I understood that the word “fairy” was a stand-in for “fag” or “homosexual” and that my father was afraid that by playing with dolls I’d grow up to be gay. What was clear from my father’s tone of voice was that whatever kind of fairy he didn’t want me to be, I figured it had to be pretty bad. After that my mother deftly shifted me away from “My Little Pony” dolls and over to more standard toy horses, which she would buy for me at the general store. Happily for everyone, as I got older and my brother Tim and I spent more time playing together, we only wanted toys that would shoot stuff. We’d set up little soldiers and go at it the way boys were supposed to play. That must have come as a huge relief to my father.
From “Coming Out to Play” by Robbie Rogers with Eric Marcus. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Robert H. Rogers, 2014. The book is available on BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com and in West Hollywood at Book Soup at 8818 Sunset Blvd. west of Palm.
Robbie Rogers, 27, is an American professional soccer player who plays for LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer. Rogers has also represented the United States men’s national soccer team. In February 2013, Rogers came out as gay, becoming the second male footballer in Britain to do so after Justin Fashanu came out in 1990. In May 2013, he became the first openly gay man to compete in a top North American professional sports league when he played his first match for the Galaxy.