“I’m a footballer, and I’m gay.”
In 2021, it’s hard to believe that this statement could be so revelatory.
But by Friday, Josh Cavallo’s tearful coming out video had received close to 10 million views on social media, and was in turn lauded by names as synonymous with men’s football as Juventus and Manchester United.
On Twitter, Cavallo released a statement which spoke to the gravity of the moment:
“There are currently no gay professional footballers who are out and actively playing, not only in Australia, but around the world.
“I hope that in sharing who I am, I can show others who identify as LGBTQ+ that they are welcome in the football community.”
As welcome as the sentiment is, the assertion that there are currently no gay, out professional footballers is simply not true — not if we are talking about both men’s and women’s football, anyway.
A plethora of top women’s footballers are openly LGBTQI+, including Matildas captain Sam Kerr and the USA’s Megan Rapinoe.
Indeed, during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France — which coincided with Pride month in Paris — Rapinoe famously quipped that “you can’t win a championship without gays on your team … that’s science, right there.”
The stark contrast between these examples begs the question: what makes the culture of men’s and women’s football so different when it comes to the politics of sexuality?
Ryan Storr is a researcher at Swinburne University and co-founder of not-for-profit organisation Proud 2 Play, which aims to promote LGBTQI+ inclusion in sport.
He said a major barrier to gay men coming out was the “hypermasculine” nature of men’s team sport.
“It’s the type of environment and culture that isn’t always respectful of or welcoming of minorities,” Storr told ABC Sport.
“Hyper-masculine team sporting environments are hostile to gay men because the norms and expectations for male athletes are characterised by a very specific form of traditional, heterosexual masculinity. In this environment, gay men fear coming out and being alienated from the team culture.”
Storr’s own research on football and cricket found that 75 per cent of LGBTQI+ people playing these sports had witnessed or experienced homophobia.
“Speaking from personal perspective, the problem with being a gay male athlete is that you suppress your emotions and feelings. You kind of hide in your shame,” Storr said.
“So then suddenly, if and when you do come out, you’ve got a lot of emotions and feelings that you need to deal with. That’s partly why gay men have such high levels of depression and anxiety.
This is a key reason why many gay men withdraw from team sports before they reach the elite level.
According to Professor Simone Fullagar — an expert gender equality in sport at Griffith University — men’s sport can often seem unwelcoming spaces for gay men because they reproduce “dominant ideals of masculinity … defined as notions of toughness, strength and courage that play out in a competitive dynamic of bonding with or dominating other men in sport”.
“This prevents the expression of different kinds of masculinity and fails to challenge misogyny, racism and homophobia,” Professor Fullagar said.
Women’s sport leading the way for LGBTQIA+ athletes
In stark contrast, Storr said research showed queer women sought out team sports as a “safe space”.
For Professor Fullagar, this is due to women’s sport having a “a long history of creating cultures that challenge heteronormative stereotypes about femininity, weakness, fragility and [women as] sexualised objects”.
“Queer and heterosexual women are connected through women’s sport in ways that can expand their physical capability, autonomy and comradery … and this has [in turn] necessitated a questioning of homophobia,” Professor Fullagar said.
This does not mean, however, that professional women athletes do not deal with their own fair share of homophobia.
Former Matildas vice-captain Moya Dodd said this was evident in stereotypes of professional women footballers as “tomboys and butch lesbians”.
“Historically, women who played sports — especially those that were male dominated — were characterised as being somehow male themselves,” Dodd said.
“It meant parents were worried about their children [playing in a team with lesbians] and sponsors stayed away.
“So in a way, women’s sport has always shouldered the burden of homophobia and been held back in its progress.”
As has been reported, such stereotypes have arguably resurfaced in the recent reporting on and social media reaction to Lisa de Vanna’s accusations of a culture of “grooming” and “predatory behaviour” inside Australian women’s football.
“In both men’s and women’s sport, LGBTQI+ people have [traditionally] been characterised as predatory,” Dodd said.
“This includes jokes about not picking up the soap in the shower and old tropes about lesbians grooming younger players.
“You certainly can’t rule out this kind of misbehaviour in any sport. But those experiences are extrapolated to LGBT people in a way that doesn’t happen with straight people in sport.”
As a result, both Dodd and Professor Fullagar argued that Cavallo’s public coming out story provides an opportunity for men’s and women’s football to be united in dismantling damaging stereotypes about LGBTQI+ athletes.
“His video demonstrates a different kind of courage and a strength in speaking out about the shaming practices of homophobia that drive people out of sport,” Professor Fullagar said.
Dodd agreed: “I hope the Australian football community can make this a big step forward in unison, by seeing our differences as a source of strength and not something that divides us.”