By Oscar Lopez
MEXICO CITY, March 19 (Openly) - Traveling Argentina and the world as a professional basketball player, Sebastian Vega was living his childhood dream. But carrying a secret deep within was a nightmare.
"When I started to feel attracted to a man, I had a very bad time," Vega recalled recently on the phone from his home in the southern city of Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina.
"I felt shame, guilt, a lot of rejection, but at the same time the desire to be with someone," Vega told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
That all changed last week when Vega posted a letter on social media coming out to his fans - the first openly gay professional basketball player in Argentina's history.
"I was really scared, but the fear didn't paralyze me," said 31-year-old Vega. "I felt truly free: it had been a long time since I'd walked without such a heavy weight on my shoulders."
Argentina has made significant progress on LGBT+ rights in recent years, in 2010 becoming the first country in Latin America to let gay and lesbian couples marry and adopt children.
But despite this, in a country where machismo is common and gender roles are strictly enforced, homophobia persists.
Vega grew up in Gualeguaychu, about 125 miles (200 km) north of Buenos Aires, and said it was tough for some relatives to accept his sexuality at first, particularly his father.
"As parents, their greatest fear was that you might suffer ... because of your sexual orientation," he said.
And while Argentine society has evolved to some extent on gay rights, sport remains particularly homophobic.
During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, football's governing organization FIFA fined the Argentine side $105,000 for homophobic chanting and violence.
The country was fined for homophobia five times during World Cup qualifiers. Such attitudes have made Vega's revelation particularly remarkable, garnering global headlines proclaiming the star was helping "break the taboo of homosexuality" in Argentine sport.
But it also made coming out all the more challenging: the basketball star recalls fellow players regularly using homophobic slurs, on and off the court.
"Unfortunately, (homosexuality in sport) is still a taboo topic," said Vega. "It's very difficult to say you're gay...you have to be masculine to not be (seen as) less than."
Vega had few role models to emulate: despite progress on gay rights worldwide, just a handful of professional athletes have come out as LGBT+ in recent years, including U.S. swimmer Abrahm DeVine and the British Olympic gold-winning boxer Nicola Adams.
In Argentina, footballer Nicolas Fernandez and volleyball's Facundo Imhoff are among the few to have come out as gay.
The Argentine Football Federation is deciding if transgender player Mara Gomez can compete in the professional women's league, if so becoming its first trans athlete.
For Vega, his fear was misplaced: since coming out, he has found his fellow Gimnasia de Comodoro club players nothing but accepting. Some even apologized for past homophobic remarks.
"The most beautiful thing of all is that nothing has changed - on the contrary, it has changed for the better," he said.
"We formed a stronger bond."
Still, Vega said the support of players and fans may also stem from advances in LGBT+ rights in law and society.
As well as gay marriage, Argentina passed a law in 2012 allowing trans people to change gender on official documents and other records without physical or psychological tests.
Trans men and women can also get access to free sex-change surgery and hormone therapy in public hospitals.
"If I had (come out) five or six years ago, I don't know if society would've been ready," said Vega. "People are becoming more aware."
Vega hopes that by coming out, other young athletes may have an easier time revealing their sexual orientation.
"It might help things to keep getting better," he said. "So that in the not too distant future, being gay is no longer news." (Reporting by Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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