'When you're ready, you will not be alone': Brazil volleyballer Douglas Souza 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)

Brazil volleyball star Douglas Souza [he/him], 26, is an Olympic champion, winning men's volleyball gold at his home Games at Rio 2016. His Brazil team came fourth in Tokyo. He is currently the most followed volleyballer on Instagram, and came out publicly as gay in 2020.

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

I think I have always known that I was gay. When I was about 10-11 years old -- when you are pre-teen and begin to be interested in other people -- that's when I noticed that I was more attracted to men than women. For me, it was easy because I was focused on playing volleyball. I wanted to learn, I was having fun with my friends, so I didn't think much about this kind of thing. It was a very natural process, as I think it should be.

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

At the age of 17, I played for the first time in a professional volleyball league and everybody already knew about it. From my first teams, the managers from the clubs I played for, my teammates, everything was very clear, I never tried to hide. So there was no reason [to come out to the media]. I never hid on social networks or anything like that.

READ: 17 LGBTQ+ athletes share their coming out journeys

Has coming out impacted your career and opportunities at all?

I don't think being open about it has impacted my career because I always try to [promote] the professional Douglas, not the Douglas sexuality, which is something very private. Of course, today everything is highly exposed because of social media, but I always try to be as professional as possible. I think that your sexuality, no matter what it is, is not going to have an influence on [your] workplace, or at least that's the way it should be.

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

Speaking specifically of volleyball, the LGBTQ+ community has always been very active, especially in women's volleyball. Everybody is always rooting for the national team, for the club leagues. I think what's changed is that, with the growth of social media, there are thousands of groups talking about the players. I think people are more engaged, but the LGBTQ+ community has always been very active in volleyball. I would guess that they were 90% of the audience, it was a lot of people. I think now we have more of a space to speak, more groups. I think it is very positive.

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

The most rewarding thing, without a doubt, is all the support I get on social media. Everything that happened in my career, especially after the Tokyo Olympics, where I got a lot of attention... I didn't expect that. I get texts every day from many people saying that they identify with me. Some say that they are still afraid to come out to the world, that they struggle with parents, friends, that they are afraid -- which is totally understandable in Brazil. We are trying to change it little by little, and we are getting there.

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

Take your time. Don't rush, don't follow other people's pace, and don't pressure yourself to do something you don't want to do. When you feel comfortable with yourself, when you are sure and happy with yourself, everything will be easier. Then you come out to whoever you feel you have to come out to. Or if you think you don't have to, that's fine too. Straight people don't come out. We also need to break this idea that [gay people] must come out. I think we have to live with love, love those who are around us. Find your community, because it is big and very supportive. When you are ready and feeling good about it, you will not be alone.

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

The worst scenario is the one where the person is underage and totally dependent on their parent. There is always the possibility that parents are not supportive and you feel like you are alone. For sure this is the worst scenario. And this is what happens with many young people today. The best scenario was mine, where I came out about my sexuality and my parents understood very well, supporting and caring for me no matter what. But I also left home very early, at 14 years old, to pursue my dream of playing volleyball. Only at 18, when I was already financially independent from my parents, did I first introduced a boyfriend to my parents. I never told them I was gay but they already knew because I never hid it on my social media. It was very natural.

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 now?

I never felt pressured to be some kind of ambassador. Last year, in 2020, people were saying that I represented a lot of people, or [asked] if I wanted to talk more about it and help my community. My answer was that when I had more of a voice, more relevance, I would talk about it a lot more. I always really wanted to contribute to the LGBTQ+ community. I get a lot of affectionate texts from people saying that they feel supported -- and this is the best -- but I never felt under pressure [to be a reference of the Brazilian gay community in sports].

Read Douglas Souza's interview in Portuguese HERE