'Seba, you look so happy': Argentine basketballer Sebastian Vega tells his coming out story

LGBTQ+ athletes on the rewarding aspects of being out (1:36)

Out athletes from a variety of sports share their stories on the most unexpected benefits of coming out. (1:36)

Professional basketballer Sebastian Vega [he/him], 33, came out publicly as gay in March 2020, and says he did it to combat what he calls the macho stigma in the sport. He plays in Argentina's top league, for Gimnasia de Comodoro.

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

At first, it was a very tough process to understand what I was going through, when I wanted to be just like my teammates, and why I was different. I was in a relationship for a while, and that helped me a lot, I made short but secure steps throughout that process. I started to go down that road with the people I trust the most. I wanted my parents to hear from me about what I was going through, about who I really was. Afterward, I told my closest friends in Gualeguaychú, and, bit by bit, I started to open up a little more. A situation that was very difficult for me was the issue of my job, the basketball environment. When I was able to say it and publish the letter, it was the moment when the [coming out] process, which was quite complex and lengthy, really ended.

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

I remember a conversation I had with my dad about this subject. I told him, 'I am this, but I don't need anyone else to know about it.' Progressively, I realised that I was unconsciously hiding everything I did, who I was with, or several parts of my life, so no one would know that I was gay. So, I wasn't really myself, and I felt neither free nor calm. I kept on hiding things when I wasn't doing anything wrong. Until, one moment, it was like, 'OK, this is who I am.' I was harming myself, and I didn't see why I had to hide things. I didn't find any sense in it. So, I knew that the basketball environment is pretty macho, and I felt that me not doing anything, being in a place where I could contribute a lot, I was contributing to that [stigma]. I wasn't doing my part to help to change the situation.

READ: 17 LGBTQ+ athletes share their coming out journeys

Has coming out impacted your career and opportunities at all?

Yes, it did. The [coronavirus] pandemic hit just as I made my sexual orientation public. I posted the letter on March 10, 2020, and on March 16, the tournament in Argentina ended. So last season was atypical because we played behind closed doors with no fans. I experienced a drastic change, not from a technical standpoint, shooting percentages, or my sense of the game, but mainly regarding the enjoyment and confidence I felt on the court. I really enjoyed daily activities and all the things that were happening to me, which I previously didn't because there were always roadblocks, things inside my head, ghosts that didn't allow me to enjoy things. Many reporters, many teammates, and acquaintances told me, 'Seba, you look different, you look so happy and great on the court.' Inevitably, that influenced my performance to the point of experiencing a huge improvement.

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

There is still a lot of work to be done [in basketball]. However, undoubtedly things around basketball have been improving. Back in the day, I remember when I was younger, you didn't really talk about those issues. It was strictly forbidden; people looked down on gay people calling them [slurs]. Things have been evolving bit by bit, just like you see it inside the society, or as you see it on TV. It happened to me with my teammates. Progressively, they start to acquire vocabulary habits: speaking, handling themselves, saying certain things, or talking about some very sensitive subjects. I notice that there is a lot more visibility, and now you can discuss topics that you simply couldn't talk about before.

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

I was ready for some not-so-good things. I was so surprised by the massive support I received, and not just from the basketball world. I felt so good, I felt truly embraced, and I was able to verify that last season with referees, coaches, and players who congratulated me and provided me their support throughout the games. I have also been approached by people to thank me and congratulate me for my courage, telling me they relate to my story and that thanks to it, they were able to come out to their relatives, or gaining courage to come out to their friends, parents, or to whomever they needed to come out to. That made me feel very proud.

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

From my own experience, they must live the process as they feel it, because the acceptance process is quite unique to each person, and you go through it as you think it. They give themselves some time, some space. They should trust, and find support in the people next to them, the people who love them, because it helped me a lot personally. I wouldn't tell them, 'Nothing will happen to you, go and do it, be fearless,' because that would be very naïve of me. I would tell them, though, something I read before writing my [coming out] letter: 'Do it despite your fears, do what you feel like doing, because there's always going to be fear. Have the courage to do it, because if that's what you feel or need to do, and it will make you happy, then that's the way to go. There is no other choice."

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

The worst possible scenario was me being discriminated [against], that I would be very exposed, and that teams wouldn't want to hire me because of my sexual orientation. I really contemplated the possibility of me being unemployed. The outlook was quite dark in that regard because it was a massive leap into the unknown, and I didn't know what the response would be like. However, it was something I needed to do. Now that I look in retrospect, it was all positive, and everything was incredibly beautiful. The team supported me with everything, we worked together with the PR aspects of my coming out. Not only that, but we also extended my contract for two more years. And I realized that the one thing that matters to people is that you're happy, and when they see you happy, they're at ease and happy as well.

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

Being a professional athlete, it was inevitable that the news would draw plenty of attention when I came out. Without realising it, I became a role model. A couple of years ago, when I started to deal with this whole process, I was in front of a computer, searching for 'gay basketball player' or 'gay athlete who has come out publicly,' because I needed a role model or a person who I could relate to, to see that everything was alright, to see that I could be a gay man and a professional athlete. But I couldn't find anything. So, being the first out gay male basketball player [in Argentina] has transformed me into that role model I was looking for. It's a huge responsibility. Even though when I wrote the letter, I didn't feel like an activist, I currently feel a lot more comfortable playing that role because I have the knowledge, I have the strength to do it. I have met many wonderful people who are part of the community who have helped me a lot. When I started to reach out to them, I realised a lot of things and why you must keep up with this fight, which is crucial.

Read Sebastian Vega's interview in Spanish HERE