Un­der His In­flu­ence

Com­ing Out with the Help of Robbie Rogers

Hello Mr. Magazine - - UNDER HIS INFLUENCE - By Nate Poek­ert

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.

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