South Africa's first openly gay soccer player says coming out almost destroyed his career

South Africa's first openly gay soccer player Phuti Lekoloane says he would not advise other players to come out as it would jeopardise their careers.

South Africa's first openly gay soccer player Phuti Lekoloane wearing a yellow jersey and holding a ball.

South Africa’s first openly gay soccer player, Phuti Lekoloane, has shared that he would not advise other local players to come out because the sporting world is not ready to accept them.

In an interview with TimesLIVE, Lekoloane spoke about the time he was turned away by a team in the national first division because of his sexuality. Since coming out in 2015, he has faced several barriers to playing soccer on a professional level due to prevailing LGBT+ stereotypes.

Lekoloane said, “I wanted to play in the (national first division), but if teams in this league discriminate against you because of your sexuality, then it’s another thing. You can’t go there if teams still don’t understand homosexuality, so that is how I got rejected. If I was in the closet, I think I would have made it.”

Across the world, LGBT+ soccer players are speaking out about their lived experiences and the challenges they face daily. It acts as a way to highlight the ongoing challenges within the sporting world in terms of living openly. Though Lekoloane is optimistic that the game should have a gay player, he acknowledges that it falls upon those in charge to make the decision. He said, “I risked everything to live my truth, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to come out now because of the stereotype. There is a lot at stake. If you come out, you have a lot to lose. I have lost everything that I have dreamed of.”

Phuti Lekoloane further details what it means to be South Africa’s first openly gay soccer player, “There are a lot of gay guys in the closet that are playing in the league and the funny part is that it’s not only players, even the team managers are (gay). We do have bisexual team managers and coaches who are in the closet, so it’s always like that. I am the sacrificial lamb.”

In August last year, Lekoloane revealed other players would gossip about him and eventually he was asked to use a different changing room than the one his teammates shared because he was ‘different’. Speaking to MambaOnline, he described the experience, “I have never felt so much pain. I felt numb.. my mouth was dry… I felt dizzy as I walked out of that changing room without saying anything to anyone… I took a taxi and I went straight home. However, some teams eventually warmed up and got to know me as a real person and forgot about my sexuality.”

Currently playing as goalkeeper for Makapanstad RFC in the ABC Motsepe League, Lekoloane has dedicated himself to being an activist for LGBT+ rights and recognition in sport. On Human Rights Day this March, he will launch a new initiative called the Legacy Games, where teams of LGBT+ and allied players compete in 18 matches. He said, “We want to tackle homophobia in football. Our message to the whole world is that football is everyone’s game, so we want to fight for inclusion and for equality.”

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