I long for a day when gay footballers like me and Josh Cavallo don’t need to be so ‘brave’

Josh Cavallo announced his sexuality to the world through a social media post this week. Some will respond with love and support, offering congratulations to him for his bravery and courageousness in speaking out. Others will ask why this is important. But why do people need to announce their sexuality at all?

The power of statistics and research can be used to highlight the need for visibility and representation within LGBTQI+ communities in sport. These are important and should not be overlooked, but it is stories like Josh’s which can really resonate – stories that can ignite a motivation in people to go against the grain, and so too be brave and courageous.

I know this because I too, like Josh, announced I was gay in May of 2019. I am a former Newcastle Jets player, and at the time I came out was playing in the Victorian National Premier League with Green Gully. Growing up, I had no gay role models, no oneto look up to and see that it is OK to be gay and play football.

Instead I grew up hearing things like “Oh, that’s so gay”, gay being used as a word to represent something distasteful, something that someone didn’t like. While this type of homophobia was everywhere, it was particularly bad in masculine environments. It was not only ingrained in me that football and being gay was a no-go, but being gay itself was against the norm.

Before coming out, you first must learn to accept yourself for who you are. This was not easy for me. During my time at the Jets, before accepting myself, I carried a sense of inadequacy and shame everywhere I went. At times, with other compounding stressors, this weight resulted in a deep self-consciousness and feeling of worthlessness in my playing ability. At times, I defeated myself before I had a chance to succeed.

At Newcastle, I used to walk out onto the training field and feel that I was being watched and judged. I felt that the coaches did not want me there and that I was not good enough to be there. Any mistake I made, I felt it only validated their opinions of me.

It wasn’t until I was 25, after moving on from the Jets, that I began to see this way was not sustainable. Moderating my behaviour and what I spoke about, and never letting my guard down became too much. I could not keep living this way. I said to myself that I need to be me, a that I need to accept myself for who I am. I remember the fear. I remember crying.

However, for the first time, I remember realising that if someone does not like or accept who I really am, then I do not need them in my life. Sporting associations like the PFA (the players’ union) have an important role in helping gay players, and it was the PFA who helped facilitate my coming out.

Sitting here today in the wake of Josh’s amazing story, I can reflect back on my own experience and be proud of how far I have personally come. I am proud to be gay. Each and every person who announces their sexuality to another person – their family, their peers or, like Josh, to the world – plays an important role in the fight for acceptance and equality within our society. Josh’s story stands as an example of why representation is important. It answers questions like: “Why feel the need to come out?”

Still, in reflection, I find myself asking, how is this fair? Why did I, why does Josh, and why do countless others need to actually be “brave” and “courageous” in the first place? To simply be who we really are? There is still much work to be done to ensure that sporting environments are safe and inclusive for LGBTQ+ people, so athletes like me and Josh feel it is a safe place for us to come out.

I personally never felt brave or courageous, because to me I was just being myself. Looking back, what I really think is brave and courageous has been seeing my teammates or friends fight back against homophobic comments.

After coming out during a training session a player used a homophobic slur. It’s important to stress the impact of a throwaway comment like this has on an LGBTIQ+ person. For me, a homophobic comment can slice right through me and take me back to feelings of worthlessness and being in a constant state of self-consciousness. It takes a moment to rationalise my thoughts and pick myself up. “It’s just a product of our environment” or “they didn’t mean it, it was in the heat of the moment” do not cut it.

My teammate, James Brown, in the middle of the practice session and in response to this particular comment, picked the ball up and kicked it two fields away. He said: “don’t you dare say that”. Hearing these words picked me up immediately.

This to me is courage. This to me is bravery. A person standing up for another in the face of homophobic comments. We need more people like James Brown. Knowing how to be an ally is difficult – at times even I find it tough to know what to say and when. This is why initiatives such as Proud2Play, an organisation that focuses on increasing LGBTIQ+ engagement in sport, are so important in providing people and clubs with the information they need to be themselves.

Fighting against homophobia and creating a safer environment for people to be themselves has become a real passion for me. In volunteering for Proud2Play I dream of a world where sportspeople – both professional and amateur – don’t even have to come out. I dream that young LGBTQ+ people do not pull out of sports because they feel as if they don’t belong.

Sport has been a part of my identity and brought me so much joy. It should be the same for any person, no matter their identity.

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