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Josh Cavallo on why sharing his sexuality with the world has made him a better footballer

Eight months after coming out publicly, Adelaide United's Josh Cavallo is thriving - both in his personal life, and on the pitch.

2022-06-30

Words: James Hodge; Images: Gymshark

In partnership with Gymshark

I first learned of Australian footballer Josh Cavallo in October 2021 when he released his inspiring coming out video to fans. It’s a hugely moving piece of film: a then-21-year-old Josh, at once nervous and brave, shares his need to be his authentic self. ‘"I’m Josh Cavallo, I’m a footballer, and I’m proud to be gay." The only top-level pro male footballer to be out publicly at the time, the video quickly went global, becoming one of the most-viewed Twitter videos of all time.

When I meet Josh eight months later, he is positively glowing – relaxed, quietly assured and with a massive smile on his face. I ask him how life has been since. "It's been absolutely crazy," he tells me. "It feels like five years since I released the video - so many things have changed and so much has happened."

It’s clear that Josh has been energised by the experience. How does he look back on the video? "Putting that video out was tough for me. I had been a closed book and now I was opening up for the first time – beginning a new chapter."

Josh has been praised for his authenticity and integrity. This was key to the production of his video. "Whilst we clipped the final video to two minutes, the production took over three hours of filming. I sat in front of the camera, just me in the room, and talked. There were times when I wouldn’t say anything for half an hour, I’d just be shaking my head and thinking about what I wanted to say. We left some of those moments in the video because I wanted everyone to see about how hard it was to open up. Being gay is such a common, normal thing, and there’s lot of people experiencing the same struggles – but it still isn’t easy."

He is still overwhelmed by public reaction. "Within the first 30 minutes I had over 700,000 messages in my DMs. Instagram was so overwhelmed that it shut down on me! I think it speaks for how relatable my story was – whether it be the viewer who is LGBT+, or whether it be they know a family member, a friend, a neighbour, a colleague."

I ask what the best thing about coming out has been longer term. On the one hand, he believes that by being true to himself, he has actually improved his abilities as a footballer. "You know, in the last season, I’ve been absolutely ecstatic when playing. I haven't had this feeling before on the field. Before I was always afraid. I dreaded being asked if I had a girlfriend. It felt like I was always wearing a mask and it was these distractions that affected my football, prevented me from being the best I could be possible. The constant acting was tough – but letting that go this year has been the best thing ever. Once I had told my two coaches, I felt like 20 kilos were lifted off my shoulders. I went out onto the pitch and absolutely smashed that day’s training session. My coaches said after, you can come out every day of the week if you’re going to train like that!"

But it’s seeing his coming out have impact on the real world that means the most to him. "So many charities and organisations have reached out, inspired by my story, and are doing little things that make the world a little more inclusive, a little bit better. When I came out, one of the first messages I remember opening was from my junior soccer team. Now, they’re putting a ‘Proud 2 Play’ logo on their badge to show that they're an open LGBTQ+ inclusive environment for both players and fans. Imagine that kid who might be struggling with their sexuality. They’re training and they see that little badge and think, this is a place for me – this is a sport for me."

"I’ve heard from so many people who stopped playing football because they didn’t feel they’d fit in. Through my story, they are playing again now – but perhaps if they had seen Proud 2 Play logos on their own junior football uniforms, they would never have left the sport in the first place."

Inevitably, there has been some negative reaction to Josh’s coming out. In January, whilst playing for his team Adelaide United in a match against Melbourne Victory, he was subjected to hurtful homophobic abuse. I ask how he maintains his high energy and positivity in the face of homophobia. "I knew that it would happen at some point and it was unpleasant to hear one or two people in the crowd being offensive. But what was amazing was to see the love that I received in response to that. Even at the game itself, there were more Victory supporters telling them to stop."

"The thing is, if I’m helping change lives for the better, I’m happy to take as much hate as is needed. There are millions and millions of people around the world that are coming out and feeling like they have a place on this earth because of my story. Hate doesn’t affect me – it just motivates me to be a better representative, to keep striving, to keep being a role model."

It's ironic that the social media Josh used to launch himself has also been a place where he has experienced further homophobia. "Day to day, if people are saying hateful comments on my profile, it doesn't really bother me. It’s the young kids who read it we need to worry about, who are still finding themselves. It might put doubt in their mind. Instead, it’s important that we spread love and we lift each other up. I hope every kid that follows me knows that there are 10,000 positive messages in the inbox that outweigh the negative. That’s the reality."

Since Josh’s coming out, his story has already inspired other footballers to come out – including Blackpool player Jake Daniels. What does it feel like to be changing the face of football? "I have a lot of professional athletes reaching out from around the world, all from different fields of sport, all wanting to come out. Literally, thousands and thousands, seeking guidance. I always tell them, it’s a very personal journey. It’s hard to advise on what to do and better that I listen, support, make them feel confident that they will thrive once they are out and proud and being themselves."

Josh confides that he wishes he had come out sooner, but life was different when he was growing up, with minimal representation. "Justin Fashanu was the first ever footballer to come out in the 1990s and sadly, he ended up tragically taking his life. He was an icon, I looked up for him, he made me feel that I could begin my career as an athlete and be myself at the same time. Justin’s story may have ended too soon, but I want to be the person that continues his legacy."

This Pride, Josh is an LGBTQ athlete for Gymshark, the sportswear brand that has shown constant and active allyship with the LGBT+ community. He’s excited to work with them and continue to spread his story. "This was a great opportunity for me to show what my legacy is made of. Gymshark share the message that everyone should be able to be their true selves. That’s vital, and not just for sports people. I’m just a normal guy, even with my platform. I'm humbled to be in a position where I can spread my message alongside the brand."

Even today on his day off from training, he’s wearing a Gymshark t-shirt. "It’s so lightweight and breathable. I’ve always loved it as a brand and it’s perfect for someone like me who spends a lot of time in the gym. It’s so comfortable that I end up wearing it around the house as well!"

In an increasingly hostile climate towards LGBT+ people, Josh recognizes the importance of Pride this year and the progress that needs to be made. Currently visiting London, he observes: "It’s just beautiful that walking the streets you can see flags celebrating us everywhere, everyone being made to feel welcome.  And what I like about pride is that it's celebrated worldwide. It's not just in Australia, it's not just in the UK, it's everywhere. It shows that the world is evolving in a really positive way."

On the increased debate around excluding trans people from sports, Josh seems disappointed. "There’s a lot of work to be done surrounding the issue. I will absolutely stand by them. Everyone deserves a place on earth and everyone has the right to play sports." His message to LGBT+ people who might be struggling is clear: "I’m here to celebrate every athlete. Everyone should feel comfortable in their own skin."

Looking forwards, Josh is excited about the future, proud of the progress he continues to make as both an activist and an athlete. "I still want to be know as Josh Cavallo, the footballer. It’s amazing to be an advocate and that will continue, but also, football has got me to where I am today. My ultimate goal is to demonstrate my talents at the World Cup. I’m so excited to see what the future holds."