My hidden journey: A professional soccer player reveals he is gay

Editor's note: Thomas Beattie played professional soccer from 2008 to 2015. A native of England, he came up through the Hull City youth academy, but his career took him across three continents as he searched for his true identity. This is his story, as told to Emily Kaplan.

When my club, Warriors FC in Singapore, qualified for the Asian Champions League in 2015, our first match was in Myanmar. There were 40,000 fans in the stadium, rocking. The buildup alone -- having the badge on my shirt, hearing the Champions League anthem -- gave me goose bumps. As a lad in northern England, I dreamed of being on a stage like this.

The match went into penalties, and I took the second one. The walk from the halfway line on the pitch felt super intimidating. Everything slowed down; all eyes on me. I blocked out everything around me until it became one ringing noise. I went to the keeper's left, and scored. We won the match, a massive moment for both me and the club.

But when we landed back in Singapore, I felt empty.

I lived with a few teammates, and because we had the next day off, they wanted to go out. I told them I would do my own thing, maybe go to the gym. I couldn't lie like this forever. I'm usually super social, but I was becoming antisocial to avoid scenarios that might expose me. This was a pattern that had also taken me all over the world.

I lay in my bed and stared at the ceiling, feeling like the loneliest lad in the world. Tears welled; a paralyzing flood of emotions engulfed me. My whole body was burning; my arms tingled and my heart raced, like a thousand beats per minute. I prayed that I would wake up and this would all disappear, although deep down I knew I was praying for the wrong thing. I needed to ask for the strength to accept myself.

It was strange because at that moment, I actually said it out loud for the first time. I heard the sound of my voice, but it sounded like somebody else saying it.

Five years have passed, and I've never been more comfortable with who I am -- not pieces of me, but all of who I am. Of all the things I've achieved or accomplished, the pursuit of mastering myself has been the most liberating. So I'm able to say it out loud now for everyone to hear: My name is Thomas Beattie. I'm a brother, son, friend, former professional footballer, entrepreneur and annoyingly competitive lad.

I'm a lot of things, and one of them is gay.

Justin Fashanu became the first professional British male football player to come out in 1990. Eight years later, he tragically took his own life. Since then, there have been so few visible stories of gay men in our sport, especially in England. Robbie Rogers came out in 2013; although Robbie is American, he did play for Leeds United. German midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, the only known gay man to play in the Premier League, came out in 2014, the year after he retired.

Being gay and having a career in football never felt like an option. Society told me my masculinity was linked to my sexuality -- something we of course know is a false assumption -- but I felt as if I couldn't be a footballer and accept who I was. Everything around me suggested these two worlds were pure enemies, and I had to sacrifice one in order to survive. It doesn't feel that way in other industries. In music, we love Freddie Mercury and Elton John. It's accepted in film. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, is gay, and these things are all OK.

But in football, there's still fear a gay teammate might disrupt the team environment. Sometimes it's brushed away, like homophobia isn't an issue in football anymore. Obviously that's not true if there are so few examples young kids can look to as role models.

I have heard gay slurs fly around in changing rooms and on the pitch. I mean, one of the worst things you can say to someone in a sporting environment is: "You're so gay." These words and these phrases are ingrained in parts of society. But I don't think many people who say those things mean them to be what they are. They're just repeating things.

Statistically, it's impossible to say there aren't perhaps many other footballers like me -- living in silence, just like I did. If they are reading this, know I am here and can be a source of support. To be fair, I also understand why they haven't come out. During my 10 years playing professionally, that was me. Professional sport can be quite volatile, quite ruthless. Various factors influence conformity. As a young lad, you look up at people above you: veteran players, coaches and management. If you don't see people above you who are similar, you don't have the confidence those two worlds can coexist.

It's probably not a coincidence that football took me as far away as possible; I came to America, then went back to Europe. I played in Canada, then Singapore. Football was my savior, and allowed me to hide who I was. I could refocus every ounce of energy, every ounce of my being on football. And because it wholly consumed me, I could ignore that nagging thing in the back of my mind.

I grew up in a small town called Goole in North Yorkshire. The people there are hardworking and pride themselves on manual labor. I was never really exposed to LGBTQ+ people. I always went to bed with the dream of being bigger tomorrow than I was today, and I was relentless in the pursuit of what would set my soul on fire.

At age 9, I started playing football, and football became just that. Within six months, I signed with Hull City. I was really into school, and heavily into music, but to my peers, football gave me a stamp of approval. I left school early four times a week to train at the academy. Everyone had these high hopes that I'd go on to play professionally.

I signed a youth professional contract with Hull, and as an initiation, the senior pros took us out to the strip club. Being an athlete, hyperfocused on reaching my goals, I was always at the center of everything. I'll never forget that night at the strip club because it was the first time in my life I was on the outside of an experience. Everyone around me said this was going to be a fun, cool time. But I sat there detached, thinking, this just feels strange. I thought at the time, maybe some of my friends were feeling this as well; I don't know.

Two years into my contract, I started to lose the love of football. I was 18 and confused about who I was. People around me were exploring and experimenting, and I never really felt comfortable going out to bars. Football was always my excuse. I'd say, I haven't got time for this, I'm training, I'm doing my thing.

Emotionally, I knew I was different, but I couldn't identify why. It felt like this massive contradiction. Football was my passion, the only identity I knew. I was on the cusp of reaching my goal, making first team at Hull City. And yet, everything I worked for and loved led me to a place where I couldn't function. I was starting to feel uncomfortable by the environment I was in, debilitated even.

I asked to have a meeting with the senior management at Hull City, and we met at the training ground. I was struggling, but I couldn't articulate why. To be honest, I was petrified of figuring out why. I just said I wasn't happy.

Management was good to me. They asked if I wanted to go out on loan, or wait and develop until I made the first team. I kind of wanted to be as far away as I could. Since I had good grades, someone from the club suggested I go for a scholarship in America. I never knew that was an option. I took an ACT exam, and literally a week later, I was on a plane.

Initially I was going to attend UNC Chapel Hill, but because I had signed the youth professional contract, I would have to redshirt a year. Instead, I went to Limestone College, a Division II school in South Carolina, because I could play right away. I loved it. You could have put me anywhere in the world outside of where I was and I would have thought it was amazing. Football in England literally felt like I was under the magnified glass of a snow globe, and I had finally broken free.

In university, it wasn't uncommon for me to sneak into the music department and play around with instruments or drag teammates to the gym late at night. There was no way I was going to be lying in my bed until I was physically at the point where I couldn't stand anymore. I feared being alone at night. When I was dormant and idle, that meant I was alone in my thoughts. The more I could stay awake, the more I could put off addressing how I really felt.

As a sophomore I was named the program's first-ever first-team All-American. Agents approached me about my interest in Major League Soccer. Even though I was on track to finish early, it was really important for me to finish my degree. Plus, everyone I was around at the time had the goal of playing in Europe. I got semi-influenced into believing that's what I wanted, too. I signed with an agent, left school and flew to Norway, where I was supposed to sign a contract.

Three days in, I knew I made a mistake. I had been so happy in America. I had found the love of playing again. Being back in Europe was an environment where I felt there was no way I could figure out who I was.

I called my agent and said, "I can't be here." Obviously he was disappointed, especially because we turned away a lot of things in America. He sent me to Scotland. I already knew before I went there, it wasn't going to work out. I wanted to be somewhere the spotlight wasn't on me, where I could figure out who I was. I stayed in Scotland for about three weeks and they asked me to sign a one-year contract. I didn't want it. I was 23, and all I wanted to do was hide.

In 2008, I signed in the Canadian Soccer League. It was supposed to be temporary, but it ended up being a year, then a second year. I was the Rookie of the Year, top scorer in the league. I captained the Ottawa Fury in its first season. I did everything I needed to do, but I was exhausted. Even as I saw success, I was burying this thing that was festering. I was constantly having to suppress it, which took up so much of my mental bandwidth, I was drained. Most of my friends were settling down, having children, buying houses. I felt like if I stayed too long, people would start wondering why I wasn't, too.

I couldn't believe I had to go through this again. Every time I moved, I thought I could start over, with a new slate. You can be who you want to be in a new country, or so I thought. I felt so alone.

Nine months after the AFC Champions League game in Myanmar, I had a horrific collision in a game going for a header. Everything was wrecked: I broke my skull, I suffered a brain bleed and my frontal lobe was completely shattered. When I got out of the hospital after surgery, I told myself, if I get through this, I'm going to allow myself the time and space to embrace who I really am. Life is so fragile, and the things that once mattered no longer did. No amount of money, houses, cars or achievements in football was ever going to bring me contentment if I didn't look inward and understand my feelings.

I call the injury "my beautiful nightmare." The beauty that came out of it was an epiphany that I no longer had to run from myself.

The injury forced me to retire from football at 29, and I began a career in business. I'm now a serial entrepreneur. Only over the past three months, I started coming out to close friends and family. I'm the first professional male footballer in Asia to come out.

Living in this gray area the past few years has been strange. In 2019, I was named one of Singapore's most eligible bachelors, which brought me a lot of attention I could have done without. I had certain obligations that I was supposed to fulfill -- speak at news conferences, ask my social media followers to vote for me, accept invitations from women to accompany them to events -- but I was refusing to do them. Throughout the whole ordeal I asked myself, why am I still doing this?

I feel an obligation to tell my story now. Growing up, I never read a story like this, and I wonder how my life might have been different if I had. I also know I am writing at a time when so many of our lives have been disrupted. The current climate has us stuck inside, isolated more than ever. This is nothing new for a closeted gay athlete. Try having to deal with this feeling your entire life; it can be debilitating.

To anyone struggling with identity reading this story, I want you to realize that the one specific moment you can learn to embrace and truly understand who you are, that's the moment you become powerful. I ask that you be kind to yourself because the thoughts you speak to yourself become words and words become actions. Once I learned that, I became the best possible version of Thomas Beattie. I hope my story can resonate with you so you know that you are not alone, and one day in time you will live in a world where these two environments can co-exist. I hope we eventually get to a space where you don't have to sacrifice who you are to become an athlete.

And to the world of football -- players, coaches, management, ownership, supporters -- I challenge you to be compassionate. Search inside and ask yourself: What is it you truly believe about diversity, inequality and social injustice? Be conscious of the environment you are creating and try to decipher whether it is conducive for all groups of people to feel included. Do not fear the day where a gay athlete is wearing the badge on your shirt. Fear the prolonged period of time when there isn't. After all, we could be missing out on the next Lionel Messi, who just might happen to be gay.

I hope in time these things no longer have to be spoken about. I realize to get to that point, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. But I would love to be part of that conversation, and have a seat at the table.