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Josh Cavallo on coming out and kickstarting change in football

Attitude's Man of the Year, supported Virgin Atlantic, has generated a butterfly effect for LGBTQ people in sport and beyond.

By Florence Lloyd-Hughes

Josh Cavallo wears a tuxedo and black trie for the Attitude Awards issue
Josh Cavallo wears blazer, by Canali, shirt, by Prada, bow tie, stylist's own (Image: Sam Wong/Attitude)

Twelve months ago, Josh Cavallo made an announcement that would change his life forever. In a simple video posted on Twitter, the Australian midfielder revealed that he was gay. In doing so he became the only out footballer playing in a top-flight division anywhere in the world.

The “domino effect”, as Cavallo calls it, of that moment was nothing the young Adelaide United player, now 22, could have predicted. A year since the life-changing announcement, he shares what life has been like since that day in October 2021 as he receives an Attitude Award for Man of the Year, supported by Virgin Atlantic.

Cavallo and I are chatting on video call in the early morning on his side of the world but in the late evening in London. Despite his 6:45 am start, he looks fresh-faced and full of bounce. Before he even says a word his presence instantly brings a smile.

Josh Cavallo on the cover of the Attitude Awards Issue, October 2022
Josh wears full look, by Sandro, ring, stylist’s archive, cross necklace, Josh’s own, silver necklace, stylist’s own (Image: Sam Wong/Attitude)

I start with a simple but huge question. “How does it feel?” Cavallo takes a breath and as he exhales, he proceeds to unload the rollercoaster of the past year. “It feels absolutely insane,” he laughs. “So much has happened in a small space of time.” He’s not wrong; since he posted the video, which has been viewed 11.2 million times on Twitter, he has become a global spokesperson on LGBTQ+ rights around the world — and not just in sport. He’s graced the cover of several magazines, including this one, and received an honorary doctorate from Flinders University in Adelaide — and that’s just for starters.

Not many people make such a personal and private announcement with the expectation of becoming a campaigner for change and the poster boy for gay men in football around the world overnight. Cavallo knew that following his bravery there was going to be a certain level of pressure, but he could never have anticipated the reaction he received.

Josh Cavallo
Josh wears jacket, top, and trousers by Informale and shoes by Ashai from Informale (Image: Sam Wong/Attitude)

Locally, he went from being occasionally recognised to being stopped on every corner of Adelaide, but his newfound celebrity extended further than that. On a recent trip
to London, where Cavallo was part of Pride’s 50th-anniversary celebrations alongside Stonewall, the Australian was mobbed like an A-list celebrity. He admits this reception was probably the biggest he’s had: from the airport to the parade, he was taking selfies, shaking hands, and rubbing shoulders with local VIPs like London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

But global fame, media coverage, and endorsement deals were never his goal; it was making a difference to individuals that he was really hoping for and he’s pleased about the impact his public confession has had within the LGBTQ+ community. “I love that my story is a space where anyone struggling can be themselves and be guided by my experience. That’s kind of the way I wanted it to happen. The way I wanted to share it is to help others as well, whether that’s non-binary, transgender, or anyone that feels they need help to become the person they’ve always dreamed about.”

Josh Cavallo
Josh Cavallo wears jacket and shirt by Burberry (Image: Sam Wong/Attitude)

One example of his influence is the time a woman stopped him in the supermarket to tell him how, as a result of his openness, her daughter had found the confidence and strength to reveal her sexuality. He’s also received direct messages from young people who felt just as lost as him but were empowered to embrace their true identity because of his video.

Ever since Cavallo came out, he’s been determined and unwavering in his support for all of the queer community, especially transgender and non-binary people. Being a voice for everyone is always at the forefront of his mind. “I wanted to help others and to show that it’s possible to be yourself and comfortable in your own skin,” he tells me. “I wanted to take that leap, and it was quite a scary leap, I’m not going to lie; it left me quite vulnerable, and it was one of the scariest things that I’ve done in my life. For me it is almost like I was closing this old chapter of myself, this old book and opening a new book, and it was a really exciting moment.”

In the world of football, Cavallo’s revelation was equally important because it marked the beginning of a new era. Seeing well-known figures be open about their sexuality has a powerful effect on younger generations and fans that look up to them; it’s about representation. But for decades the sport has stood out among others for its lack of publicly gay athletes. Cavallo set in motion a chain reaction in football that has been witnessed on a global scale.

Josh Cavallo
Josh Cavallo wears jacket and shirt by Burberry (Image: Sam Wong/Attitude)

In the UK, for example, in May of this year Blackpool forward Jake Daniels became the first out footballer in the men’s professional game in England since Justin Fashanu came out in 1990. Not long after that, Zander Murray became the first openly gay footballer in the men’s Scottish game. “Thank you to those before me, who had the courage,” Murray wrote afterwards on Twitter.

Cavallo’s courage undoubtedly influenced both Daniels and Murray. The Australian says seeing the news gave him a “spark” and reassurance that his “plan was working”, before adding that he’s been in contact with Daniels to congratulate him. In just a short space of time, Cavallo has proved that men’s football is ready for gay players.

At a more local level, Cavallo has been able to facilitate change in Australian football, too. His actions resulted in the introduction of an annual Pride Cup game by the A-League — the inaugural match took place in February this year. And next year’s Pride Cup will see his team, Adelaide United, take on Melbourne Victory, in partnership with Australian LGBTQ+ sports movement Pride Cup Australia.

Cavallo also influenced the adoption of new technology by Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) and the A-League which blocks out hateful messages on social media.

Josh Cavallo
Josh wears shirt by Sandro, ring from stylist’s archive, his own cross necklace throughout, and stylist’s own silver necklace. (Image: Sam Wong/Attitude)

Although the vast majority of the Australian football community has been welcoming and supportive of Cavallo’s news, there’s still a minority on the terraces and online that have directed homophobic insults at him. Earlier this year, Cavallo was abused at a Melbourne Victory game, and although the league was quick to intervene and fine the club, the club itself didn’t hand out any bans.

Cavallo understands that the position he’s in means that he will be targeted, but he’s willing to take on the burden of going through it so that others who come after him won’t have to suffer in the same way.

“Is it OK? No, it’s not,” he says. “Unfortunately, being the first out footballer, I knew that I’m going to have to run through this at some stage in my career, whether it’s in Australia, or somewhere else. This is what I have to do and this is what I’m prepared to do to lay the path out for the future generations, the current people or people older than me, that feel like they want to come and play football.

Josh Cavallo
Josh wears shirt by Sandro, ring from stylist’s archive, his own cross necklace throughout, and stylist’s own silver necklace. (Image: Sam Wong/Attitude)

“It’s scary territory because you don’t know what to expect or what’s going to come your way. I’m a very strong person, I can deal with the hate when I know that I’m out there saving lives. I know how hard it is to not be out and to be in the closet. I’m here to help them, support them and pave the way for them. Don’t get me wrong, I do get some hate, but the amount of love I get, it outweighs any sort of hate thrown my way. So, that’s the way I deal with it going forward.”

Cavallo says the far more frequent positive interactions he has with opposition fans is what matters to him and he constantly reiterates that his coming-out story has been an overwhelmingly positive one. He is adamant that there is nothing he would do differently about how or when he came out because it was “authentic”. It’s plain to see that a weight has been visibly lifted from his shoulders: his energy is optimistic and endlessly upbeat.

Above all, he is thankful that he can be an “approachable” face within the LGBTQ+ community where he’s found so much happiness. So what’s his favourite thing about being part of it?

Josh Cavallo
Josh Cavallo wers full look by Sandro (Image: Sam Wong/Attitude)

“It’s not limited,” he says affirmatively. “I’ve got so many friends that are transgender now and to see their stories and their journeys and paths that they had to walk is crazy. To see that we can connect on a similar level, and we can help each other, and bounce off each other is amazing. That’s something that I least expected but has had the most powerful impact on me.”

The past year has seen Cavallo build friendships with other well-known gay people in sport, including Tom Daley, who Cavallo says has been an important source of support and someone he can look to for words of advice over Facetime. The two share the unique and challenging experience of having come out in the spotlight, but Cavallo acknowledges it’s been hard for him to know what the future holds beyond the here and now as he’s still one of the few out men in the game.

“For me, it’s just difficult because I can’t see the future,” he reflects. “I’ve never seen a footballer that’s done this and after five years, after 10 years, seen what’s happened. So, it’s uncharted territory.”

Josh Cavallo
Josh wears shirt by Coach and stylist’s own ring (Image: Sam Wong/Attitude)

Speaking of which, has Cavallo found it hard to balance this new-found notoriety and workload with his footballing career? Not really. “For six years, I’ve been a professional footballer,” he says. “Nothing’s changed and, if anything, it’s evolved my football for the better. For me, it’s not a job at all, it’s just me being my normal self. I don’t find any pressure or any need that I have to perform or do anything better than anyone else. At the end of the day, all I have to do is wake up and be Josh and that’s enough for people, so it’s really exciting.”

Now that Cavallo has experienced revealing his true self on the biggest stage of all in an extremely pressurised and toxic industry, what would he say to anyone considering following his lead or who is in need of guidance?

He has three clear words of advice that have helped him when he has faced tough times in the past: “Love always wins.”

Check out Josh’s acceptance speech at the 2022 Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards below:

Words Florence Lloyd-Hughes Photography Sam Wong Creative director Joseph Kocharian Stylist Carlos Mangubat Grooming Nicola Abela Photography Assistant Jack Fenby Production Long Story Short

The Attitude Awards issue is out now.