Published on June 25th, 2014 | by Martin Aston0
In 2012, I interviewed Swedish footballer Anton Heysen, only the second professional footballer to come out as gay, and the first since Justin Fashanu in 1990.
On the back of his neck, Anton Hysén has a tattoo that reads Made In Liverpool, acknowledging the Swede was born on Merseyside. But below it, he might consider an addition to the bodymap – Made In Heaven. Because for those who experienced LBH – Life Before Hysén – the boy seems too good to be true.
For here, at last, is a young – not even 21 – professional footballer who has come out. Not during the comparatively less risky twilight of his career, or in a comparatively genteel sport. So not to diminish the bravery and impact of rugby icon Gareth Thomas and England cricketer Steven Davies’ trailblazing closet-busting, but this is football. True, Hysén plays for Utsiktens BK, in the fourth tier of the Swedish league. And we’re talking sophisticated Scandinavia, not backward Britain. But this is still football. The planet’s most hotly contested, scrutinised, image-dependent and politically charged sport. Where terrace abuse from fans wishes AIDs on players who have never even declared themselves gay. Where Hysén’s only predecessor, Justin Fashanu, came out in the British game as far back as 1990 and whose collateral damage only ended when he hanged himself eight years later, long ostracised by his family and hounded by accusations of sexual assault.
And then there is Hysén’s family. Another astonishing facet to his saga is that his family are not just on side; they’re a Swedish football dynasty. Older brothers Tobias (who played for Sunderland FC in the 2006-07 season) and Alexander are professional footballers too while their father Glenn once played for Liverpool FC, British football’s most successful team, (Anton was ‘made’ there in 1990 but the family returned to Sweden in 1992) and played for the national team. And then, to top it all, it was dad was first outed Anton in an interview.
“But the thing was, I was already out,” Anton recalls, winding down after his Attitude photoshoot, dressed in a bear print T0shirt (“I like bears, but not those kind!), patched jeans and a hooded sweatshirt that says Tattooed For Life on the back. “My family knew, we talked about it like it was nothing, common stuff. I’m gay, I have lesbian cousins, my uncle is gay too. He knows that I don’t care.”
Enriching the plot, it turns out that dad Glenn has ‘previous’ – he threw a punch at a man who propositioned him in a toilet at Frankfurt airport in 2001. The subsequent negative publicity saw him address a Stockholm Pride event in 2006, where, among other conciliatory comments, he said, “How easy would it be for a sixteen-year-old boy who plays football to come out as gay to his team mates?” He meant Anton.
“He said, ‘I’m doing it for you.’ My dad is really a typical footballer, a macho guy, but inside he is just really humble, he can talk about anything. He told me, ‘what’s the matter with you, do you think I’ll change my mind about you and how you live your life? As long as you’re happy.’ That’s why he said what he did in that interview. Why not? It’s the truth.”
On Anton’s arms are tattoos of his parents’ first names; on his wrists, the birthdates of his two brothers and sisters, evidence of a particularly close-knit unit. When I mention Justin Fashanu, he responds, “That was bad. His family turned his back on him, and you don’t do that in a family. The family is the one thing that matters the most so it would be a hard impact on you. It is a tragic story but I try not to think about that. I mean, why would I? I can’t change anything.”
It is the nonchalance of a 20-year old, whose brazen generation has not experienced the stress of the closet and the absence of role models, who can equate being gay with pride instead of shame. When I compliment him on his bravery, he says it didn’t even occur to him. “I really don’t think it’s a big thing,” he ventures. “I mean, of course it’s brave but why should be it be brave?” Because you’re practically unique, I suggest. “Sure. But I don’t think that way. Maybe I’m stupid but It’s just so normal for me because I’m so secure with myself and my family. But I see it’s big for others and that it’s been taboo in football. That’s sad. Where are all the others?”
Hiding, presumably. According to publicist Max Clifford, he advised two gay Premiership players to remain closeted because football was “in the dark ages, steeped in homophobia.” Anton is the first to come out in the enlightened age, but there remain so many reasons to stay put. The money to be made from image rights by keeping schtum, which your football club would also encourage, to preserve your transfer value in the marketplace. The pressure to put your career and security first. The fear and violence that oozes from football chants such as “He’s gay, he’s dead, he’s hanging in a shed, Fashanu, Fashanu,” that Ipswich FC fans chant at neighbouring Norwich, where Fashanu began his career.
“The worst thing a player can think of is the reactions from the fans, and their family and teammates,” Anton reasons. “But if you’re secure in yourself, it shouldn’t matter. If you just focus on football and what you like and what you’re good at, it shouldn’t matter.”
West German footballer Mario Gomez reckons out players will make better players. “They wouldn’t have anything to hide,” Anton agrees. “You just play the game you love, and be yourself. What I do, that’s my business. If you’re a Chelsea supporter and you don’t like Manchester United, you still don’t do anything about it. The same with a gay player. Live on.”
City/team rivalries exist in Sweden too, such as Stockholm versus Gothenberg (where Anton lives). “Swedish fans are not as brutal as other countries but they might have attempts at shouting,” he wagers. But I really do not care.” Since he came out in March, he has played three matches, one being a regional cup final against Assyriska where he experienced his first terrace homophobia. “When I fell down in a duel with another player, I heard, ‘Anton is on all fours, he’s bending over’, which is so funny, I just laugh. And they’re like, ‘stop laughing!’ And they’re saying ‘fag’ too. But I don’t think they mean it. They just want to psych you out. But I’m extra-psyched by it. I want to concentrate on the game and beat the other team.” Utsiktens BK won 2-1. “It’s just the stupid younger fans who shout. But at the same time, other fans were saying ‘shut up, you shouldn’t say stuff’, so good people are trying to tone it down.”
Off the pitch, Anton says his team mates already knew he was gay, “so they don’t think me being out is a big deal either. He says there is dressing-room banter, but no more than between relaxed straight and gay mates. “Those that are a little outside of my friends, they were talking about it, like ‘he can’t be gay, he doesn’t like this and that, he doesn’t do this and that.’ But now they have proof!”
Both Anton’s footballing brothers have been, “super-supportive.” Tobias, 29, blogged, “This is the best thing that could happen.” Alexander, 24, “called me the day after I came out and said, ‘you’re my idol right now’.” His only negative reaction has been one letter. “It said, ’I’m never going to watch you play again, you’re nasty, what you’re doing is bad for football’. OK, we have many other supporters, we won’t lose because you’re not watching anymore. I just laughed and tschhhkkk [mimes tearing up letter].”
He’s even almost sanguine about becoming a potential public target. “There are always crazy people out there. I don’t worry about it. This won’t change anything.” Nor does he regret surrendering his privacy, or how potential boyfriends might view as celebrity fodder. “If I want to meet a guy, I will meet a guy,” he shrugs, true to nonchalant form. The right guy, though, would preferably be dark-haired, a little older than Anton, and definitely sporty and fit. “Respect to everyone, because we’re all different, but I want to have something in common.”
Yes, Anton is clearly a sports gay. For instance, he enjoys a few beers with mates over a game (American football and ice hockey included). He’s fine with saying he’s gay, and even having his photo taken, glistening with baby oil, in silken shorts, on a rooftop or even in the park, where Attitude position him near a bunch of kids having a kickabout. But standing on a platform at Pride events is much trickier. “It’s good to have Pride but that’s not my kind of scene,” he admits, showing his first sign of discomfort. “To be out there with a flag, jumping around, partying… The whole symbol, gay gay gay gay gay… I mean, we are gay, I understand that, and I understand the need for a sign that gay people exist. And I’ve been to Pride, it was fun then, but it’s too hysterical for me. I’d rather do something like this, a magazine, to reach out to people.” So he’s declined all invites, from Pride to parties. “That’s not the message, to be famous and go to parties and DJ. I’m a football player, that’s all. But to make messages for people that might have problems; that would be good.”
In an interview last month, Anton said “If anyone is afraid of coming out, they should give me a call.” He says he didn’t think people would take him literally. “But I’m a good person to talk to.” What advice would he give? “It’s not easy but try to be yourself, be secure with who you are, do not care what anyone else says, don’t let anyone stomp on you for who you are. That’s how you’re born and that’s how you are and no one can take that away from you.”
When all’s said and done, Anton wants to get on with his life as if nothing has changed. As a nifty left-footed midfielder (his role model is Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard, though I stopped short of asking him if he fancied him to boot, dammit!), he did sign to a top-tier Swedish team before injuries halted his progress, and he’s now rebuilding his career at Utsiktens BK. But is there a chance a footballer can enjoy the life of a comfortably out gay man?
Anton says he has ventured into gay bars, and tonight plans to hit Old Compton Street. He enjoys hip-hop and R&B, and dancing. Besides Swedish, he speaks fluent English, some Spanish, Serbian and Croatian (he grew up with Balkan friends), but talks with a distinct American twang, after spending six months taking Social Studies at a college in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The accent appears to come in handy when he feels in the mood: “if I’m out at a bar in Sweden, I might say I’m a celebrity from Orange County, California, haha!” He went to America, he says, “because I wanted to play football in college, and I wanted an adventure somewhere new. And I love the college life; the dorm rooms, the games, the parties, stuff like that. But I got bored with studying. If you ask me what I don’t like, it’s studying.”
It first dawned on Anton that he was gay when he was 18. “Well, I knew it all along, from when I was 12 or 13, but I forgot about it, and dated girls.” He didn’t have any schoolboy dalliances and admits he hasn’t fallen in love with any guy yet. He had a girlfriend for 18 months “but I realised I was playing for the other team.” She ashe did was ridiculous. You should be supportive, but everyone is different. Whatever. No, we don’t talk anymore. I don’t need false people in my life.”
But he could do with a gay male friend, which he’s yet to acquire. “I have friends in my team, and my cousin, who’s a lesbian, she plays football too, and another friend is a lesbian too. I don’t know why I have no gay male friends but I just don’t think we have anything in common. Yeah, football. I wouldn’t mind having a guy I could talk to but I can talk to my cousin about everything. I let her know how her girls are looking, and she says ‘you should take that guy over there’! She also works at same place [he does part-time construction work to supplement his football income]. She’s tough but humble and sensitive as well. Like me. I’m masculine but sensitive too. You have to have both sides.”
Indeed, between athletic poses during Attitude’s photoshoot, he pulled the odd ballet stance and larks around, flamboyant and relaxed. It’s true; he really doesn’t care what anyone thinks. “Who cares? I know I’m secure in my sexuality and how I act so whatever, let’s just have fun. Free stuff, you know. A free world.” For his sake and ours, and football’s, let’s hope so.