San Diego Loyal midfielder Collin Martin urges FIFA to listen to LGBTQ+ fans’ concerns over the Qatar World Cup as he opens up on the homophobia he has faced in his own professional soccer career.
The 27-year-old has been working towards making soccer more inclusive for years ever since coming out in 2018 while playing in Major League Soccer.
Now playing in the USL Championship, the San Diego Loyal star exclusively tells Sportsmail he ‘prays’ supporters feel safe cheering their teams on after revealing he worried there ‘wasn’t a place for him’ in soccer growing up.
San Diego Loyal midfielder Collin Martin speaks exclusively with Sportsmail about coming out, his experiences of homophobia in soccer and the safety of gay fans at Qatar World Cup
Martin came out publicly while he was playing for Minnesota United FC in Major League Soccer in 2018.
He had come out to his friends and family two years previously and some of his teammates and club staff knew but he felt propelled to come out publicly as he no longer wanted to feel ‘disingenuous’ playing the sport.
‘It got to a point where I was playing and I was well supported and it felt disingenuous if I wouldn’t share with more people that I was gay and I was playing soccer,’ he explains.
‘Growing up I was worried if there would be a place in professional soccer for me being gay because frankly there wasn’t a ton of role models to look up to.
Martin came out publicly while he was playing for Minnesota United FC in MLS in 2018
‘I was figuring out my sexuality myself and, especially in my teens around 14 to 16, I was worried that I was potentially going to have to hide my sexuality while trying to pursue a career in sports.
‘There was some anxiety for myself and just a lot of questioning, wondering; “can I do this? Can I do both? Can I be an out person?”
‘And for a while I thought this is something I’m going to have to keep to myself. I’m going to be able to play soccer, do something I love, but I’m going have to keep this secret.
‘Fortunately, through my experiences with my first two teams and now at San Diego Loyal, I realized actually I think this is something I can share with people.’
Five years on from Martin’s experience of publicly coming out, the FIFA World Cup will be hosted in Qatar later this year.
He reveals as a teenager he did not feel he could be a professional soccer player and be out
The decision to award this year’s tournament to Qatar has faced heavy criticism due to the country’s human rights record.
Male homosexuality is punishable by a prison sentence, same-sex marriages are not recognized by the government and women’s rights are much tighter than in some other parts of the world.
Fans from the LGBTQ+ community have expressed concerns over their safety traveling to the Middle East country for the winter tournament.
And while he will no doubt be cheering on the US national team, Martin urges FIFA to listen to concerns voiced by gay fans over their safety at the tournament.
‘We have to acknowledge that fans feel this way and first hear them,’ he says.
‘These are not just empty words. There’s a reason why they don’t feel safe. And, that’s because the government has made it clear that they are not willing to outwardly support gay people on a basic level. There’s consequences to that which gay fans don’t feel comfortable supporting their teams.
Fans from the LGBTQ+ community expressed concerns over safety at the Qatar World Cup
‘If I’m FIFA and there’s anyone who is trying support the beautiful game but don’t feel comfortable in stadiums, that’s an issue.
‘If it’s based on sexuality, race or gender, whatever it is, there needs to be work done and it needs to be made a point to make these people feel comfortable going to the stadium.
‘But the reality is also that we’re going to see gay fans go to Qatar, and I hope that they do feel safe and I hope that they are comfortable expressing themselves. I hope that they’re able to go to these stadiums and support their teams.
‘I pray that that is the case.’
His own experience of homophobia on the pitch also made Martin urge football’s governing bodies to enact change.
Back in 2020, then Phoenix Rising player Junior Flemmings directed a homophobic slur towards Martin during a match.
Junior Flemmings (left) directed a homophobic slur towards Martin during a match in 2020
San Diego were beating Phoenix Rising 3-1 at the time and needed the win to remain in the USL Championship playoff hunt.
However, angered by the discrimination towards their teammate the Loyal players decided to walk off and forfeit the game in protest.
‘Probably the most humbling experience I’ve ever had as a person to see that type of support,’ Martin says.
‘From a very hard experience in a hard moment for myself being subject to that while just trying to play the game came this beautiful story of my teammates stepping up and supporting me in a really hard moment.
‘I try to share the positive outcome of very hard situation.’
Martin’s San Diego Loyal teammates walked off the pitch and forfeited the game in protest
Despite being moved by the gesture from his teammates, Martin did not believe it was fair that it was his team that were penalized as a result of him being abused.
‘I did not think it was fair,’ he insists. ‘I also think it showed that the governing bodies in our league and FIFA at large didn’t have specific measures in place – they didn’t know what to do if something like this happened.
‘In a lot of ways, it awoke the sport, to make sure that not only are our referees more educated and able to do the right thing but also coaches.
‘Even if there’s abuse from fans I think it needs to be clear that that if a team is going to walk off the field, when they’re being abused – whatever type of abuse – they aren’t going to be penalized for doing that.
‘If there’s fans of a certain team that are doing is doing this, they need to be held accountable and there needs to be repercussions for that team.’
Martin reveals he later spoke to Flemmings about the incident and claims he actually felt sorry for the 26-year-old.
‘I spoke to the player and obviously it was a really hard time for him because he was receiving a lot of abuse from fans that were angry with him,’ he explains.
‘I think he was starting to realize the toll of his decision. So, I had some empathy for him, because I felt the whole world was closing in on him and clearly he needed to be educated.
‘I hope we can educate people without there being first a negative reaction or negative language that’s used.
Martin reveals he later spoke to the then Phoenix Rising forward about the 2020 incident
‘Ideally we get to the point where we’re all on the same page and we don’t have incidents to educate people.
‘That’s why I think it’s huge that we have interviews like this, or we have initiatives that are actually educating people so that we can have it be clear what is acceptable and what’s not so that we don’t have incidents that end up hurting people.’
However, it is clear that education is still needed especially among players.
Earlier this year, it was reported that Paris Saint-Germain player Idrissa Gueye, a devout Muslim, missed his side’s 4-0 win against Montpellier because he didn’t want to wear the special Pride jersey to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in May.
Martin claims he was not surprised by the midfielder’s alleged refusal to wear a rainbow-colored themed kit but urges Gueye to consider how he would be supported by the sport in the face of discrimination.
‘This isn’t the first time I’ve heard something like this,’ Martin reveals. ‘I have heard it in Major League Soccer. We’ve seen it at the women’s national team level.
PSG midfielder Idrissa Gueye reportedly refused to wear a rainbow jersey earlier this year
The French side wore special shirts ahead of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, on Tuesday May 17
‘So it doesn’t surprise me. But Idrissa Gueye not wearing a Pride jersey and refusing to be a part of the match, that’s pretty hurtful.
‘If I could say something to him, I’d say I would stand in solidarity for him for other reasons, such as if he had abuse towards him or in general to highlight other social causes or to just support any teammate in any way.
‘I think that if he could think about the impact of supporting a community that is marginalized and discriminated against and what that would mean to them, maybe he would’ve thought differently. It’s only about spreading awareness and spreading love and supporting a community.’
At the time of coming out, Martin was the only male professional athlete in the major American sport leagues to do so.
And over the past few years, the world has witnessed other players making the courageous move.
Adelaide United left back Josh Cavallo, 22, came out as gay last November before Englishman Jake Daniels, 17, became the UK’s first male professional footballer to come out since Justin Fashanu in 1990.
Adelaide United left back Josh Cavallo, 22, came out to the world as gay last November
Jake Daniels, 17, became the UK’s first male professional footballer to come out this year
Martin is incredibly supportive of the youngsters, insisting it is encouraging to see players coming out at a global level.
‘I thought it was incredible,’ he enthuses. ‘I was so happy for both of them – in two different leagues. There’s something to be said there that gay players can come from anywhere and in all shapes and sizes and all different types of leagues.
‘That’s why it’s so important that we’re talking about this on a global level because there’s players out there that need to hear that sport is for them and that you’re going to be supported.
‘Josh, what he did was incredible. And to see the global response was very special. And then, Jake’s case, it was just incredible courage at that age to come out. I was in awe of his courage.
‘For both of them, I wish the best for their careers and I hope they continue to play as long as they want to.’
Both Cavallo and Daniels were hailed for kickstarting a positive change in the sport, which is needed in light of research from BonusFinder.com that reveals that nearly one in five American sport fans think professional athletes should hide their sexuality or gender identity.
Over half of sports fans said they believe spectators would chant abuse towards an athlete of the LGBTQIA+ community.
However, almost a third of fans called for further education within sport and Martin backs them.
‘The fans play a big role in sport obviously and for me I think it a factor when I was coming out,’ he says.
‘I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just making sure the people that I saw on a day-to-day basis supported me, but that I was coming out on a big scale.
‘On social media, you’re going to be subject to a ton of different opinions, the fan culture and what the fans think, I think weighs on players, for sure.
Martin believes players do not come out due to the toxic masculinity and homophobic language at an early stage in the sport
‘[The data] is interesting for me because I think that there’s a good amount of fans that really think that there should be more work done to make sport more inclusive. It’s not one hundred per cent but to know that there’s a good chunk that think that there needs to be more done is important.
‘A lot of fans are indifferent and they prefer just to focus on the sporting side of things but for me, 30 per cent is a decent amount.
‘We’re getting there. Especially at youth level and grassroot level. There’s being work done to educate coaches and educate young players. That certain language is just not okay.
‘If we can cut out a lot of homophobic language that is used at a youth level, it’s going to create a more inclusive environment. It’s also going make gay players feel more accepted and they’re going to continue to progress in the sport.
‘I think that’s why we don’t see a ton of gay out professionals, because earlier on in their experience in sport, there is this toxic masculinity and homophobic language and it deters them from continuing to play because they just don’t think it’s a place for them.
‘If attitudes are changed, not only on the field and within locker rooms, but also within fans, and if it’s more inclusive and there’s more representation seen in stadiums, then there’s going to be a more inclusive environment for our players to continue to play.’
Collin Martin, San Diego Loyal soccer player, who came out as gay in 2018, has partnered with BonusFinder and LGBT HERO to understand representation and attitudes towards the LGBTQIA+ community in US professional team sport.