One of the world's most high-profile openly gay sports stars has described the teenage torment of coming to terms with his sexuality and urged young people to ignore homophobic bullying.
In a moving open letter to his 14-year-old self, United States international footballer Robbie Rogers who briefly quit the sport and came out after a troubled period playing for Leeds United, described how he would sometimes pray: "I don't wanna live through this, why I can't be like my brothers and sisters?"
But he said he had been happier since going public over his sexuality saying: "…the world is changing. People are becoming more accepting."
Rogers, 26, was one of 12 leading sports stars including Andy Murray, asked by ESPN magazine to write to their younger selves. Earlier this year the midfielder became the first openly gay man to play in a top-flight sporting event when he took to the field for David Beckham's former club LA Galaxy. He now hopes to represent his national side at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Rogers came out just weeks after quitting Elland Road in February following his brief injury-marred stint playing in the Championship later claiming he believed British sport was more homophobic and racist than in the US.
He was only the third footballer after England under-21 star Justin Fashanu and British-born Swedish midfielder Anton Hysen to have come out. Welsh rugby international Gareth Thomas also revealed he was gay in 2009. Fashanu killed himself in 1998.
In his letter Rogers, a devout Christian, warned young athletes not to be put off by locker room taunts. "They aren't really homophobic. These are people trying to please others, or think that's what they're supposed to say," he said.
Campaigners welcomed the letter. A 2012 report by Cambridge University for the charity Stonewall found that one in four young LGBT people had tried to take their own life whilst half said they were taught nothing about their sexuality issues at school.
Wes Streeting, head of education for Stonewall said many teenagers felt isolated, lonely and had no one to talk to.
"Teenage years are stressful at the best of times but for LGBT young people they can be particularly challenging especially because of the climate in many schools and communities where homophobic bullying is still prevalent."
"It is particularly encouraging that Robbie Rogers has written this because we know homophobia in sport is still a huge issue both on and off the pitch," he said.
Rogers' decision to come out inspired professional basketball player Jason Collins to disclose he too was gay in a move which was hailed by former President Bill Clinton as "an important moment for professional sports".
THE MOVING LETTER
You’re walking around with a cramp in your stomach. You feel trapped within yourself. The pressure of being a high school freshman and playing for the national team is stressful enough.
But on top of that, you’re worried that you’re different from everyone, especially your team mates. And you think that if they figure out who you are, you want to be able to play the sport you love, or your family won’t agree with it. Sometimes you pray and think: “I don’t wanna live through this, why can’t I be like my brothers and sisters?”
I’m not going to tell you to come out at 14 years old. I’m not going to tell you what’s going to happen in the future either, because the journey is important. But I want you to realise that God made you this way for a reason. You’re not damned or going to hell. You didn’t have a choice in this. But you do have a purpose in life, just as everyone does.
When guys say things in the locker room, remind yourself that most of them don’t actually feel this way. They aren’t really homophobic. These are people trying to please others, or think that’s what they’re supposed to say. Everyone is dealing with something, whether they’re gay or straight.
You don’t have to feel like you’re alone.
Which brings me to this: if there’s any great advice I can give you, it’s to find someone you can speak to about what you’re feeling inside, someone you can trust who won’t judge or expose you. Because you can’t walk around with a burden like the one you’re carrying. You’ve got to share this with somebody.
I know I said I wouldn’t tell you what your future holds, but I will tell you that everything’s going to be fine – one day you’ll be happier than you ever thought possible. And while you can’t envision sharing your secret now, the world is changing. People are becoming more accepting.
And when the time is right, the day might come when you’re ready to face the world as the beautiful person you truly are.