Facundo Imhoff

“The precedent has been set and now a new generation of athletes can be open about it.”

«When the star player in the Argentina national volleyball team was able to open up to his teammates began a story that would set a precedent and inspire many other athletes. From Argentina to Switzerland and going through Romania, professional player Imhoff explains why making his sexual orientation visible has become an act of athlete activism.«

Today, being open about homosexuality or any difference is still taboo in sports, and even more so in masculine team disciplines. How do you think acceptance of diversity could be fostered in the world of professional sports?

I think it depends mainly on each athlete’s sphere. For example, there’s still too much discrimination in the environment of soccer. I don’t think it’s the players who discriminate against; in fact, I imagine they’d be the first to accept and support a gay player. But the environment where they train and develop their career is absolutely sexist and is subject to a lot of financial pressure. Therefore, there’s a whole system fostering the taboo. However, I see the volleyball world as more open. In my case, I have never been discriminated against. And that’s what matters. There might be someone who doesn’t like that I’m gay, but what matters to me is that they don’t disrespect me. I’d say the true change will come with the new generation of athletes.

Do you think education is key in this change?

I think that if children have this information in their heads since they are little, they’ll normalize it. Nowadays, if a 20-year-old still asks himself if he can be openly gay while playing a sport, it’s because, apparently, it hasn’t been a possibility for the past 20 years. So there’s a lot of wrong patterns that he has incorporated up to that age and needs to modify. On the other hand, I think the new generations are already growing up surrounded with that information and it seems natural to them. In that process, I think Comprehensive Sex Education plays a key role not only in schools, but also in a person’s first steps in the sports clubs of their childhood’s neighborhood. Children should already have this information in their heads. 

“When I was dancing in a club, people came to me to tell me they’d come out to their parents by showing them my video.”

Your Wikipedia biography mentions “In August 2019, he publicly came out as gay.” How do you feel about your private life becoming public?

At first it seemed weird, because it didn’t really matter where I’d played or which were my athletic accomplishments. The only thing that mattered was that I was gay. It was a shock. But at the same time, I understood that it was part of the process. And that it was necessary. I always say that, in order to normalize it, you have to make it visible. And when the umpteenth gay comes out, we’ll say “OK, that’s not interesting anymore” (risas). That’s when it’ll become normalized, when it stops being news. But if we're still sitting here today doing this interview, it’s because there’s still some way to go.

Sport psychology draws focus on mental health as a key element in high-performance sports. Do you feel that worrying about having to hide your sexual orientation has affected your performance in any way?

I think they are 100% connected. Luckily, I came out of the closet more than ten years ago and did most of my career as an openly gay athlete. At 23, I was selected as part of the Argentina national team. I feel this is connected with the fact that I opened up to my teammates in Lomas de Zamora, the year before. It’s not that they called me into the team because I was “gay,” but because of my good performance. And I feel that my performance improved because I was open about my sexuality. Because I could live freely. Before that, the energy I spent hiding my double life made me play worse, I’d been having lots of injuries. An athlete is a sum of everything, and it’s important that we connect personal well-being to general performance. Luckily, nowadays there is increasing awareness on this subject. 

“There’s still this mindset in the collective unconscious that dictates that being gay means being weak.”

As part of Pride Month 2021, you posted a video on Instagram where you shared a difficult situation you experienced when you wanted to wear your hair long. Is there any hair advice you’d like to share with the new generations of athletes?

I’d tell them to do whatever the hell they’d like. And not abide by anybody else’s rules. If you want to dye their hair green, do it, but don’t pay attention to anybody else’s opinion. On my first day on the first team where I played professionally, the captain grabbed the hairband I used to tie my hair because I was letting it grow long. He tore it off my head, saying this was a “men’s” team, and that I should cut my hair for the next game. It was power abuse and it left such a big mark on me that I couldn’t let my hair grow long again. It took me more than ten years to allow myself to do it again.

Do you believe today’s new generation of athletes feels the door’s been opened?

It’s clear that there have been changes. At a social level, there’ve been great improvements in terms of rights and inclusion. However, sports is one of the fields that improved the least. If you think about it, in professional soccer, which is the most popular sport in Argentina, there still “aren’t any gays.” The same thing happens in other sports: it’s only two or three of us who decided to come out —for example, basketball player Sebastián Vega. I do think today the new generations have more tools, but it’s clear that there’s still a lot of fear and taboo.

Nowadays your career is moving forward in Switzerland and you’ve had a chance to be a part of several different European teams. How do you see LGBTQI+ inclusion in sports at an international level?

I’ve had to start over in each new country, retell everything. I ended up having interviews, and had articles written about me as “the gay high-performance athlete.” So I think this issue knows no boundaries… Except in Romania, which is a very conservative country on these matters. I didn’t have any interviews there, but I had a lot of conversations about it with my teammates. And it was incredible, how they changed their mindset —from the first day, when they didn’t want me to share their shower, to the end of the season where they became activists within their own families and other teams. It was a tough process for me, but it’s the one I enjoyed the most. Little by little, they started opening up about their own sexuality, because even sex is taboo there. But I opened a door and we were able to trust each other with lots of things they’d never been able to discuss before. It really brought us together as a group!

You’re saying a club has everything to gain by opening themselves up to diversity…

Yes, it would be great for clubs or institutions to bear that in mind. A gay person isn’t going to affect the team in any negative way —quite the contrary, it can bring it together. In my experience with the Lomas de Zamora, team, I ended up being a role model within the team, and not only because of my performance as an athlete. The trust I developed with the other players and the connection I had with the audience transcended it. Saying “I’m a sissy!” was character-building. There’s much more behind it than just a decision.

What is said about him…

“I think he’s an amazing being. What I like the most about Facundo is that we have one thing in common—sports saved us from a lot. I admire him. I think he’s an incredible person and a hell of a player.”

Jessica Millaman

Her numbers:

  • 17 The number of his team shirt.
  • 9 The age he was when he first played volleyball.
  • 17 His age at his professional debut.
  • 1989 The year she was born.
  • 22 His age when he came out of the closet. 

His track record:

  • Three world leagues.
  • Champion of the German and Swiss cups. 
  • Champion of the Swiss and Argentine leagues.


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