David Testo made headlines earlier this month when he came out publicly as a homosexual, the first North American professional soccer player to do so. A onetime team MVP for the Montreal Impact, Testo was released by the new MLS club recently and is dealing with his new public identity and the ramifications it might have on his professional career.
He spoke with MLSsoccer.com's Nick Firchau about his decision, his days with the Columbus Crew and why he turned down a chance to return to Major League Soccer before he came out.
MLSsoccer.com: More than a week after your announcement, have you been surprised by the public reaction? It doesn’t seem like there’s been a great deal of controversy or backlash about your coming out.
Testo: When I did the interview [on CBC], I didn’t think it would have the echo that it’s had. I’ve been living in Montreal for the past five years, and I live in kind of a bubble in these terms, so when the interview had the ripple effect that it did, I was kind of in shock. But then I started getting nothing but positive feedback and congratulations, and lots and love and support. It’s been pretty awesome to see that people are so supporting, accepting and moving in the right direction.
When I gave the interview, I didn’t tell anyone. So when all of this happened, I started getting calls from my mom asking me, "What the hell have you done?" because reporters were calling my house in Ashville (N.C.) I couldn’t believe it had gotten there already. I didn’t even think twice to tell anyone or forewarn anyone.
MLSsoccer.com: Why now? Did it have anything to do with being cut recently from Montreal?
Testo: There have been a lot of things going on in Canada recently, and I’ve heard a lot about these gay teen suicides. One guy here named Jamie Hubley just committed suicide a month ago and he was a 15-year-old figure skater, and I really haven’t been able to get that out of my head. Things started making more sense and pointing in the right direction to do this, and I’m completely comfortable with myself. It just made sense to step up and try to help someone else.
When you make this statement, you have to be in a place in your life where you can take on a lot more than your own private stuff. And when I did this, I weighed the pros and the cons, and the pros were just so much greater. There are a lot of people out there struggling. It can’t be that I’ve played professional soccer for 10 years and not known one other gay player. You just have to imagine all the guys out there struggling with the same issue, and maybe if I take this step, it will create some kind of moment of change. And the more people who can do it, the more we can normalize this issue.
MLSsoccer.com: Do you think there are guys currently playing in MLS or the NASL who are gay, and just haven’t come out?
Testo: Let’s be realistic. There have to be. It’s almost 2012. It’s not normal that all these guys are playing and not one person is out. I think it speaks volumes for someone to say, “I’m a person who lived it and suffered through it, and it sucks.” But it shouldn’t have to be like that.
MLSsoccer.com: You came out to your mother when you were with Vancouver in 2007. When did you decide to you were comfortable enough to tell your teammates?
Testo: I had just developed very good relationships, and I got tired of substituting “her” for “him.” And I got to a point where I told one person and got really positive feedback on it and a lot of support, and the closer those friendships got and the more friendships I built, the more trust I developed in them, and the more open I became. I think the word spread fast, but I never knew who knew. It was always very complicated because I knew I had told some of the guys, but it was hard talking to people when I didn’t know who knew or cared.
MLSsoccer.com: So nobody officially knew when you played with Columbus in MLS?
Testo: No, I hadn’t officially come out to anyone specifically in the organization. But there were pockets of people who knew. Some guys knew, because I just felt comfortable enough to have that conversation with them. Guys like Kyle Martino and Frankie Hejduk knew.
MLSsoccer.com: Did you actively hide your sexuality in Columbus?
Testo: Yeah, because there was a very small pocket of people who knew, and that was eight years ago, with a completely different level of acceptance. We’re in a very different time now, and now I live in a pocket in Montreal where it’s completely accepted. Only a specific group of people knew then, and I think they knew not to spread it around the way it might get spread now.
MLSsoccer.com: When the former NBA player John Amaechi came out in 2007, he said he always felt “alone, isolated and afraid” in professional sports. Did you feel the same way?
Testo: I definitely felt alone at times, because it’s just such a macho, macho sport. And there’s obviously a boys club, where the guys can get together and they can relate to each other. But I always had great friendships on the teams I played on, and I developed deep friendships with my teammates. And I think that shows that soccer players are really awake, conscious and supportive, and maybe they’re a little further ahead than some of the other sports.
MLSsoccer.com: How often did you hear homophobic slurs on the field or in the locker room, because of the unfortunate nature in which some guys talk to each other?
Testo: Since I was in Montreal for so long and the word was pretty much out, I think that played into the tone of the team. I didn’t hear a lot of gay slurs when I was playing. But I just went home to North Carolina and watched my old high school team play and I heard tons of gay slurs. I was blown away, because I had forgotten that stuff existed. I think, to my teammates’ credit, guys watched what they said when I was around. I hardly ever heard that stuff.
MLSsoccer.com: Did you know or care if the players you played against knew about your sexuality?
Testo: It didn’t really come into my mind, because in the heat of the moment, slurs come out no matter what. It was always part of the game. But when more people knew my personal life later in my career, the slurs starting coming out against me during the game. But I tried to use it my advantage. When someone insulted me I would say “thank you” or help them up off the ground. I was always trying to change their perception of me.
MLSsoccer.com: So you heard slurs from opposing players?
Testo: Oh yeah, 100 percent. It was generally from players I didn’t know or didn’t have a connection with. Soccer players generally aren’t people with that kind of character, but sometimes in big moments, when the tension and the stress gets really high, it would come out. It took me a while to get past it. If someone calls a straight person a "faggot," it doesn’t resonate with them the way it does for a gay person. I just had to deal with it.
MLSsoccer.com: You had your best season in 2009. You were the MVP of the Impact that year. Was any of that because you’d grown so comfortable with the team and your teammates?
Testo: Exactly. After that season I had a lot of offers from MLS, and I actually decided to stay in Montreal because I felt comfortable. My management knew and most of the guys knew. I wasn’t ready to pick up all my stuff and start all over again, even if it was for MLS. And if I was straight, I would have left, 100 percent. I would have jumped at the chance. I would have started somewhere else and maybe I would have had a different career. But I stayed because of my private life here, and the fact that the way I was living was accepted.
As much as I wanted to get back to MLS, I had the perfect situation. And I knew Montreal would be joining MLS, so I just thought I could maintain the consistency on the field until they joined the league. But it was a crazy year this year, and I think the club is headed in a different direction now.
MLSsoccer.com: You haven’t explicitly said you’re retiring. What comes next for you on the field?
Testo: I really don’t know my future in soccer right now. I haven’t personally closed the door on Montreal, but we’ll see what happens. If I were to go somewhere else, a lot of circumstances would have to be in place. I’m not just going to pick myself up and go to a city where I don’t know people, or if I don’t know the organization.
I definitely know that I come with a little bit of baggage, and maybe a club is hesitant to pick me up now because of all this. But if that’s the case, then I don’t want to play for that organization anyway.
MLSsoccer.com: Do you think you’ll be a better player now that you’ve come out?
Testo: I do. Who knows why this happened and the way it happened. Maybe if I’d had a great year and I signed back into MLS, I would never have come out. But maybe this whole year happened for a reason. Maybe I’ll get signed again and now I can have the year of my life.