Out Australian A-League soccer star Josh Cavallo revealed he was unhappy leading a double life in the closet as a professional footballer, and that he would have concerns about playing in the upcoming World Cup in Qatar due to the country’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws.
Cavallo spoke with The Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast where he discussed the difficulties of playing professional soccer as a closeted gay man. He told podcast host Michael Safi that he first realized he was gay around the age of 16. He said he was confused by his thoughts, but felt he couldn’t share them with anyone.
“At the age of 16 I was very scared to talk about that sort of stuff,” Cavallo said. “I was feeling those emotions, but I didn’t know if that was something that would come and pass by and I’d be straight. I was very confused with my sexuality.”
Echoing a common theme among gay athletes, Cavallo spoke of how the lack of visible gay athletes impacted his decision to stay in the closet.
“Not having anyone to look up to and to see, ‘Okay, they’re playing football and they’re gay and having a successful career,’ that is something that scared me and something I was worried that I was to potentially come out one day, would it affect my career in a bad way.”
Cavallo enjoyed rapid success as a soccer star, yet said his mind was constantly struggling to maintain his “mask” of heterosexuality as well as keep track of all the lies he was telling to cover his true identity.
“It’s hard. I didn’t just hide it from my teammates,” he explained. “I hid it from my family. I hid it from my friends. I hid it from everyone I hang around. It was only when I was by myself that I could generally relax and not worry and not stress.”
He began to seriously think about life after soccer, revealing he “thought of alternatives” if football didn’t work out because he “didn’t want to continue playing football and being a closeted gay man and not happy.”
“On the pitch it was great, but when I got off the pitch it was hell,” he said. “I did not like my life at all. I was going to bed and I was unhappy. Some nights I was crying myself to sleep.
When he signed his first contract, he presented as happy on the outside. On the inside, though, was an entirely different story. Rather than celebrating signing his first contract, Cavallo had other things on his mind.
“It made me think maybe I have to hide who I am for a very long time,” Cavallo recalled, later speaking of the Faustian bargain he made with himself to have a chance at soccer stardom. “I was ready to sacrifice myself little bit and hide myself until I was ready. It wasn’t a time where I was prepared to come out, and I wasn’t ready at such a young age.”
Winning his team’s Rising Star award was “the tipping point” for Cavallo. He described how he wanted to celebrate the award openly and fully, but his fear of being outed stood in his way.
“It was something I couldn’t continue to deal with and I couldn’t hide. I didn’t want to be someone else. I wanted to be myself. And it was greater than football for me. It was my personal life so at the end of the day you want to go to bed and you want to be happy, and you want to wake up and you want to be excited to go through the day and not making it miserable and something you don’t want to participate in.”
Coming out lifted a great weight from his shoulders, but it also opens a new set of concerns for Cavallo. While he is not a member of Australia’s team competing at the World Cup in Qatar, he would be afraid to do so considering the Gulf country's complicated history with laws criminalizing homosexuality. (Recently, Qatar was one of three countries to ban the recent release of Marvel Studios' latest film Eternals because of its positive representation of the gay superhero Phastos.)
“I read something along the lines of that [they] give the death penalty for gay people in Qatar, so it’s something I’m very scared [of] and wouldn’t really want to go to Qatar for that,” he said. “And that saddens me. At the end of the day, the World Cup is in Qatar and one of the greatest achievements as a professional footballer is to play for your country, and to know that this is in a country that doesn’t support gay people and puts us at risk of our own life, that does scare me and makes me re-evaluate – is my life more important than doing something really good in my career?”