Monday 26 March 2018, 07:59

Erlachner out into the open

  • ​Swiss referee Pascal Erlachner reflects on his journey to coming out as gay

  • Latest issue focuses on the FIFA Conference for Equality and Inclusion

It certainly grabs your attention when you see a picture showing a figure as imposing as “The Terminator” taking a stand on something so sensitive. With the same iconic hairstyle and black leather jacket, as well as a machine gun slung casually over his right shoulder but yet there is one big difference in this picture: a rainbow filter.

There was no doubting the message behind Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Facebook post in the summer of 2015 – he was simply throwing his weight behind the Supreme Court’s ruling in favour of same-sex marriage across the United States. And what better way was there for “Arnie” to get his point across?

And yet a few fundamental questions always raise their head. For example: why should, in the 21st century, a ruling allowing lesbian and gay couples to marry be regarded as extraordinary? Wouldn’t it be stranger if they weren’t allowed to do so? And: why are so many homosexual people still facing so many restrictions in terms of what they may and may not do?

For many years, Pascal Erlachner simply did not know what he was allowed to do. Being gay was one thing; telling his friends and family was another. It was a vicious circle. Once you have decided to keep everything secret and under wraps, then you will always be living a tiresome, exhausting double life – unless, of course, you also decide to deny your own feelings. For Pascal Erlachner, it meant a life with two mobile phones, one for his nights out in gay bars and trips to foreign cities, forever accompanied by the feelings and thoughts that only he knew about.

But how exactly, and when, do you go about reconciling the inner and outer conflicts?

There’s no handy instruction manual for coming out. Staying silent only makes you feel bad, just like lying, and it gets to the point that you just want to put everything straight right away. And then, a leap of faith as you reveal everything quickly, in the space of a few seconds, maybe with a couple of words or in a brief phone call. Or even in a text message. “I was 30 years old and I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Erlachner explains to FIFA 1904 when we meet in Zurich. “The sadness and loneliness were simply gnawing away at me.” And then, one evening, he fired off an SMS to his parents, who immediately jumped in their car to come and give him a hug. “It was out there. Finally.”

Enduring stereotypes That one word – “finally” – would be such a welcome sight for homosexual footballers in terms of acceptance. It should always be about how good someone is as a referee or a player, and not about with whom they go to the theatre or with whom they may choose to start a family. Other professions have been fully at ease with homosexuality for years. When Elton John told Rolling Stone in 1976 that he was also attracted to men, the story was done and dusted in the space of three days. That was 42 years ago.

In football, however, there can still be a sense of uneasiness around a person’s sexual orientation. It simply begs the question – what kind of prejudices are at play? Obviously thoughts such as: “A footballer who loves men should not be on the same pitch as heterosexual players. He probably shouldn’t even be in the same dressing room as them.” Sometimes, it’s almost as if football is still trapped in its old-fashioned views and unable to move with the times.

There are hardly any limits in terms of homophobic vernacular either. Some fans and players are happy to use the word “gay” to make fun of someone or to mock a failure. You can only begin to imagine what thoughts go through gay footballers’ minds when they hear such nonsense.

Erlachner, however, is remarkably composed when discussing these things, most likely because he has been so deeply involved in it all for so many years. He used to laugh along or make such inane comments himself, simply to fit in, but then, as soon as he got home, he would be consumed by his emotions – anger, rage, despair. “In football, there is an overwhelming fear of rejection. So you simply start disguising the real you, hiding yourself away from your team-mates.”

Hundreds of text messages Although he came out to his parents and his friends, it was still a further seven years before he made it public knowledge just before Christmas 2017. Newspapers were the first to carry the story, initially the Swiss press before the international media also ran with it. And then there was a one-hour special on Swiss TV to which there was an incredibly positive response. Erlachner reaches for his mobile and shows me how many text messages he received, including thumbs-up and beating-heart emojis. He scrolls gently up his screen through the long list. “Congratulatory messages, all of them. Isn’t that great?” He smiles, takes a sip of his tea and leans back in his chair. Today, Erlachner lives a life true to himself. A double life no more.

One cannot help but think about Erlachner and all that he went through, however, when you see the trailer to Mario, a recently released Swiss film that tells the story of a young footballer who falls for a team-mate and puts his whole future career at risk. It bears striking similarities to Erlachner’s story, and comments on those tired, old clichés that society needs to make a thing of the past. Hasta la vista, baby.