Under His Influence
Coming Out with the Help of Robbie Rogers
In December 2011, I was freelance consulting as a brand strategist and creative director for a boutique menswear brand in New York. The founder wanted to produce a series of interviews with influential men who fit the image of the label. We didn’t have a lot of time to find people, so I started with a quick search through the brand’s Twitter followers to see if anyone fit the bill.
My thumb stopped scrolling when I came across a handsome man named Robbie Rogers. He had a strong jawline and kind eyes. When I saw that he had over 70,000 followers, I began my research: he was a 2008 Olympian for the US men’s soccer team, and had won a Major League Soccer Championship with the Columbus Crew. I instantly followed Robbie back and sent him a private message asking if he might want to be involved in the project. Within a few hours, he responded and agreed to participate.
Two months later, Robbie walked into our showroom. He was taller than he seemed in photos and even better looking in person. He said “please” and “thank you” and was courteous to everyone. Pleasantly surprised, I sent him an email right after the shoot thanking him for dropping by. He responded asking if I wanted to grab coffee two days later before he left for the UK (to play for a top-tier team in the English Championship League). Of course, I agreed.
Over coffee, we talked about everything: playing sports in college and sharing permanent injuries, as well as fashion and culture. Our conversation felt like two old friends reconnecting and not two strangers meeting for no real reason. Little did I know that there was, in fact, a reason that our coffee meeting would grow into one of the most impactful friendships of my life.
At 11 years old I knew I was gay, though denied it for the next 18 years, all while living in one of the most socially progressive cities in the world, spending countless hours alone as a freelancer, left only to my own poisonous thoughts. At social
events, I put on a masquerade that I was fine, successful, happy, and independent, when in reality I hated the game I was playing. I hated that I didn’t allow my friends to truly know me. I hated that my faith in God made me believe that my only choice was a life of loneliness. Moments of happiness and fulfillment were always limited because of my secret. I wanted to release myself from this but didn’t know how, so I continued on with what was easier.
Over the next year, Robbie and I grew from acquaintances to close friends. We texted and Skyped often and made a point to meet up whenever he was in New York. He opened up to me about his struggles with injuries and how frustrating it was to not be playing. After a month of rehab, he was sent to a lower-tier league in England to rebuild his strength and immediately got injured again. He admitted to sometimes not even wanting to play the sport anymore. I attributed it solely to the injuries and mental fatigue that came with the job.
Near the end of 2012, Robbie was back in New York for a few days during the off-season. We met up for lunch and afterwards found ourselves walking through the side streets of SoHo. “You dating anyone?” I asked. Robbie paused for a split second and responded that he was going on dates but didn’t have a serious girlfriend. Then he turned the question back on me. “I’m too busy lately,” I said. “But you never know.” We shared the same tone in deflecting the question. It felt all too familiar to me, but I let the moment pass.
Along with the rest of the world, I learned Robbie was gay from a tweet:
“Just get t ing s ome s hit of f my chest” - @RobbieRogers, February 15, 2013
It linked to Robbie’s blog where he had written a heartfelt letter noting his retirement from professional soccer, and that he is gay. I sent him a text from across the ocean: “Proud of you dude. Know it took a lot of guts to do that.”
It took him two days to reply. “Thanks dude, it’s been a wild ride. I can’t believe this is all happening. I wanted to tell you before, but… you know.” His confession had been retweeted tens of thousands of times. He landed on the homepages of BBC, ESPN, CBS Sports, CNN, and just about every gay publication in the world.
It took us nearly two weeks to finally catch up over Skype. All things considered, he was in good spirits but admitted to missing home. He
mentioned he was considering moving back to California but still needed to figure out what was next. Fashion had come to mind. He was about to start an internship in the style department at Men’s Health UK and was getting his portfolio ready to apply to the London College of Fashion. We went through his designs and sketches and talked about how he could improve them.
Every so often, I slipped in a question about his coming out process. “What was the hardest thing about it? What ultimately made you decide you were ready? Did anyone close to you have anything negative to say about it?” He answered each question swiftly and confidently but I didn’t dwell on the subject too long. I didn’t want to make him feel like this was another interview. One thing he did reveal was that he’d told some members of his family back in October so they’d be prepared. Like me, Robbie is a Christian and was raised in a very conservative home. Although he admitted he was afraid to tell his family because of their beliefs, he said that they had been nothing but supportive. It was while discussing his family and his faith that he said something that’s stuck with me since: “I don’t think God created me to be miserable.”
I spent the next few weeks praying and thinking about my life, my faith, and my future. I saw how happy Robbie had become and how he had developed such a positive outlook on life despite the fact that soccer – the primary thing he had worked for – had ended.
We met again in April 2013 in New York. The city was slowly coming to life with spring and Robbie was in town for a series of meetings, including an interview with Anderson Cooper. Despite his busy schedule we managed to meet for sushi on the Upper East Side. We chatted away, only this time I was the nervous one. When there was finally a lull in conversation, I went for it. “So I’m gay, dude.” Robbie stared at me curiously and said: “Are you serious?” Then, a hug.
Not long after, Robbie came out of retirement and was signed by the Los Angeles Galaxy. On May 26, 2013, in the 77th minute, he jogged onto the field at StubHub Center in LA as a substitute during a match against the Seattle Sounders. Once the whistle blew to resume play, he became the first gay male athlete to play in an American professional sport. From New York, I watched proudly as my friend created history.
Robbie continued to be a sounding board for me during my coming out process. I called and spoke with him often, asking him questions about how his family reacted or how he had dealt with dating for the first time.
It’s October 2013 and I’m in Los Angeles to photograph Robbie for this story – the second time I’m shooting him because of his influence. The situation is at once familiar and completely different. Our worlds have turned upside down in the two years since we met – but in a good way. When I look through my lens at Robbie Rogers this time, I see more than I did in early 2012. He’s more confident. More assured. Reinforced. My camera clicks away as he stares into the lens, embodying the very words he wrote in his comingout blog post:
Life is only complete when your loved ones know you. When they know your true feelings, when they know who and how you love. Life is simple when your secret is gone. Nate Poekert is a retired commercial photographer currently serving as a freelance creative director in the menswear/retail industry. He is also currently developing a fashion accessories brand set to launch in Fall 2014 called Proper Assembly. He grew up in Florida and lives in Brooklyn, NY.