Moira Gordon: Josh Cavallo's decision to come out opened eyes - but will others feel able to follow?
Adelaide United’s Josh Cavallo did a courageous thing on Wednesday. He decided to stop hiding who he is.
In an emotional video, he came out as gay – the only current male professional top tier footballer in the world to do so – and, in opening up, he challenged the sport to prove that it has evolved.
The hope is that after the initial headlines, news of his sexuality can be filed under ‘so what?’
But, for now, given the fact he is the exception and that he represents a section of society that still feels unwelcome or vilified in a game that should be open to all, his step into the unknown was meaningful and brave.
The initial response from his club and from fellow players around the world who have taken to social media to offer their support and best wishes, has been more positive than he imagined.
But, whether others follow his lead remains to be seen. Other gay footballers – and let us not kid ourselves, there must be many, many more – will be watching, almost holding their breath, to see what happens now.
They will have scrolled through thousands of messages, both good and bad, online and on forums, they will have registered the number of clubs and pros who have raised their heads above the parapet, and they will be waiting to see what happens, not just when he next plays – against Perth Glory on November 20 – but beyond that.
They will take on board any toxic shouts from the stands and they will be watching to see if his sexual preferences impact on his career prospects and his popularity and it will determine how open they will feel they can be.
Ensuring football is a comfortable environment for all is vital. And while the perception is that attitudes have improved, some responses to Cavallo’s news prove there is still a disturbing level of ignorance, intolerance and prejudice out there.
It is almost 30 years since Justin Fashanu played in Scotland, for Airdrie and Hearts. He was the first and remains the only openly homosexual footballer to do so. No Scottish footballer has been so upfront.
So how many felt the need to lead a secret life and how many were scared away?
A few years ago Leeann Dempster, who was chief executive of Hibs at the time, stated her belief that Scottish football was enlightened enough to deal with the reality of someone opening up the way 21 year-old Cavallo has. It would be great if that was true.
The young Aussie explained that he had kept his sexuality secret in an attempt to “fit the mould of a professional footballer”. But what is that mould? Footballers these days are a varied breed. Diverse, multicultural dressing rooms have helped with that, while the ongoing fight against racism and sexism have hammered home the message that football is a sport for all.
But, in 2020, results of a Scottish Football Supporters Survey showed that less than half of fans canvassed said that Scottish football is an inclusive place for people of any sexual orientation.
It is hard to argue when homophobic slurs remain an issue on and off the pitch.
While there are lots of initiatives, with players wearing rainbow laces in support of the LGBT community and Partick Thistle even incorporating the rainbow detailing into their 2019/20 away kit design, recent events have underlined the need for ongoing education.
In May of this year, referee Craig Napier sent off on-loan Rangers teenager Chris McKee for using “foul and abusive language of a homophobic nature” in the League Two play-off final between Brechin City and Kelty Hearts.
And just this month, Hibs defender Ryan Porteous was subjected to vile online detritus, which included sectarian and homophobic abuse.
“It has to stop. There are kids growing up who think religious abuse, gender abuse, homophobic abuse are all OK. It has to be called out. I won’t shy away from it,” said the 22-year-old, who received support from his club who were worried about his mental welfare.
Which is why it is so important to let anyone hiding in the shadows, scared to be “their authentic selves”, as Cavallo described it, for fear it will trigger that kind of poison, know that they are not alone and that, should they wish to come out, they will be met with as much positivity as negativity.
Cavallo said that he had grown up worried that he would never be able to pursue his dream of playing football as a gay man. Which is why he kept quiet. But his mental health suffered as he found himself in some dark places.
"It just slowly eats away at you and it's not something I wish upon anyone,” he said.
Described as a private man, Cavallo has opened eyes and prompted discussions and the discourse and the education must continue.
In February this year, the SFA launched the Football Unites: Football v Homophobia Scotland e-learning course, which can be accessed by anyone involved within Scottish Football and beyond and is another step in the right direction as football tries to tackle one of the last taboos.
“All I want to do is play football and be treated equally,” said Cavallo, echoing the thoughts of so many victims of sectarian, racist or sexist discrimination over the years. Those fights are ongoing but they are gathering momentum. Hopefully, the battle to defeat homophobia can do the same thanks to Cavallo’s bravery and the positive response he received.