'I'm braver than I thought': South African footballer Phuti Lekoloane tells his coming out story

LGBTQ+ athletes on how they came out to themselves (2:53)

Out sports stars from across the globe detail their experiences of coming out to themselves. (2:53)

Football goalkeeper Phuti Lekoloane [he/him], 30, is the only recorded out gay male footballer in South Africa to play at a high level. He has featured in the country's third division, professionally, but says being out has severely damaged his career.

What was the 'coming out to myself' process like for you?

I think my parents made it easy for me. They made me understand who I am at a young age, because I would question, 'Why am I not allowed to play with girls when I want to play with girls?' My mother is a very strong woman who sat me down and told me, 'You might be in this situation [gay]'. She made things easy for me. I've always been open about my sexuality.

Did you have a specific reason for coming out to the media/public, rather than keeping your private life private?

Everybody knew that I'm gay. It's just that not a lot of people in soccer knew about it, so it wasn't an easy thing for me [to be outed on live radio in 2015]. It was something that I was not prepared for, but I like challenges, so it was a bit scrappy because they caught me off guard. It was something I was not yet prepared to speak about publicly. That's when I learned that I'm braver than I thought. I just woke up on a Tuesday morning, then I got a call from a producer on some radio station. She just invited me for an interview. She knew about my sexuality, and I think they wanted to know more and I was not prepared for that.

READ: 17 LGBTQ+ athletes share their coming out journeys

Has coming out impacted your career and opportunities at all?

Yes, it had a negative impact on my soccer career. A lot of clubs shut doors in my face because of my sexuality. Not everyone will be comfortable with something they don't know, so it has hit me very hard and it has taken a lot from me. The question was, 'How are we going to accommodate you, because we don't feel like our players will be comfortable sharing rooms and showers and going to camp with you.' Another time -- it was an ABC [Motsepe League] team, not an NFD [National First Division] team, the owner of the team told me straight that my sexuality is against the team's beliefs, so it wouldn't look good to have a gay soccer player in the team.

Personally, it has helped me a lot, because from 2015, I have been a different person. I've grown personally and now I can publicly speak about my sexuality without feeling small. I can work at any club without telling them about my sexuality, because they already know. It has redirected me from someone that thought they would be a soccer star to someone who would pave the way for future [gay] athletes.

How has your sport changed with regard to the LGBTQ+ community during your career?

Not yet, because remember: I'm the only out gay [male] soccer player [in South Africa], so not a lot of people have been around me or experienced my presence, so it hasn't changed that much. But at least now, there are some people who are very accepting and there are teams who are willing to come out [against] homophobia. People -- opponents -- know that I'm gay and they're using that against me. It was very stressful at some point, but now I've learned to take that and use it as motivation.

What is the most rewarding, and perhaps unexpected, part of being out?

I think it's finding my purpose. It has really helped me a lot. At that time, I didn't know what was my purpose. Why am I playing football? Why did God give me this talent and make me gay? Now, I understand why God has chosen me to be in this field, so I've made peace with it.

What would your advice be to folks who are struggling with their identity?

People should know that you need to find yourself. You need to make yourself feel better and good about yourself. It is not about the next person. It doesn't matter how many doors are shut in your face -- you need to stay true to yourself.

When debating coming out in your mind, what were your worst - and best - case scenarios? And did either come to pass?

I was scared for my life because of the LGBTQ+ killings in the country. It's an everyday thing. I'm even scared to go out -- you never know when they're coming for you. That's the only thing that I'm scared of.

Did you ever feel any pressure, either internally or from speculating fans, to be a role model or an ambassador for the queer community? And is that something you embrace now?

I think, sometimes, I struggle with that because I'm not a person who would want to live their life based on making others happy. I want to live my life, but then sometimes you feel it [pressure] because you are not allowed to do some of the things because of your status. It comes with a lot of pressure. There is a positive side, because it makes you protect your image -- something that you would be proud of.