Josh Leafer was a high school athlete who threw parties and chased girls. But it was all a cover. The state champion soccer player was engaged in a never-ending internal battle about his sexuality, and worst of all, didn’t think there was anybody else like him.
Then he started his own TikTok account. With one video, “@closeted_fratguy” introduced himself to the virtual world. In it, Leafer posed the question he had been asking himself for years: “Anyone else like totally straight but secretly gay?”
The responses started to pour in, and they haven’t stopped. Over the last year, Leafer has heard from hundreds of other secretly gay guys who were wondering the same thing. And they’ve all been able to connect through TikTok.
On this week’s edition of “The Sports Kiki,” I spoke with Leafer about his social media quasi-fame, and the very Gen-Z experience of coming out to the Gay TikTok world. The support that Leafer received online propelled him to come out IRL. Today, he’s an out and proud junior at the University of Tampa. The frat guy is closeted no more.
“I was just letting people know they’re not alone,” Leafer said. “Even if I’m not telling people who I don’t personally know, just saying those words out loud that I’m gay and I’m struggling makes you feel better. That weight lifts off your shoulders.”
Generation Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse in American history, and also the most gay. Only 66 percent of young people today identify exclusively as heterosexual, according to a 2018 study from Ipsos Mori.
But those numbers don’t mean it’s easy to come out. Casual homophobia is still prevalent in cafeterias and locker rooms; prejudices still exist. Leafer stayed in the closet, because he didn’t want to be known as the “gay kid.” Despite growing up in liberal Massachusetts, Leafer thought being openly gay would destroy his identity, and thus, his life.
“I just thought if I came out, people would just automatically think differently of me,” he said. “I wouldn’t be the Josh that they knew, I would be ‘Gay Josh,’ and I did not want that label growing up.”
The anonymity of TikTok allowed Leafer to broadcast himself to the world without the fear of being labeled. Dressed up with the appropriate hashtags, his videos started to go viral, and reached struggling gay kids across the world.
Like all social media sites, TikTok’s algorithms allow users to curate their own feeds. Once “@closeted_fratguy” broke into Gay TikTok, his following soared. Today, Leafer boasts more than 61,000 followers.
“When I made the TikTok, I was like, ‘I want to put these qualities out here and just see if there’s anyone else like me, and surprisingly that video got a lot of attention,” he said. “There were definitely a lot of closeted guys who were a lot like me.”
In his first videos, Leafer divulges the most intimate details of his coming-out journey, and is candid about his inner-anguish. Last summer, Leafer shared his anxieties about telling his father, writing a letter to him in one clip—accompanied with audio of Tom Brady honoring his own dad.
“It was the part that I was struggling with the most,” Leafer said. “I could be honest with myself by sharing it with a community that was supporting me. Once I could get over the fears of telling my dad, I knew I would be on to living my true life. But getting there was really hard.”
Thanks to the unyielding support from his TikTok followers, Leafer worked up the courage to tell his dad. They share everything together, including a love of sports. Leafer says his dad never missed a game growing up, once instructing his mother to take him straight to the fields from his hospital bed. Even neck surgery wouldn’t stop him from seeing his son play.
Leafer’s bond with his dad made coming out difficult. He often regaled his father with stories about his college rendezvous, and chasing boys never entered the conversation. At first, Leafer says it took his dad some time to process the news. They didn’t talk for a few days.
“Telling him really scared me, because I don’t want to lose that bond we had,” Leafer said. “Coming out, I felt like I was taking away part of his son.”
Fast-forward several months, and Leafer’s bond with his old man is as strong as ever. This past winter break, they sat down and watched the Patriots together. It was just like old times, except for the fact they stunk.
“It took me 20 years to understand who I was as a person, and what being gay meant,” Leafer said. “I expected it take him some time to understand it, too. I’m giving him the time he needs, and all I can ask for his is his love and support, and he’s given it to me so far.”
Out and unburdened, Leafer finally showed his face on TikTok last August. “@closeted_fratguy” was officially “@out_fratguy.” The video garnered nearly 135,000 “likes.”
Leafer’s story illustrates the life-changing power of visibility. He created his TikTok to find other people like him, and in turn, people watched his videos for the same reasons. Even in the darkest moments, Leafer knew there was a loving and supportive community waiting for him. All it required was opening up the TikTok app.
“I knew I was posting videos not only for myself, but for others, too,” Leafer said. “It was just amazing connecting with all of these people that were so similar to me for the first time in my life.”
Recently, Leafer shared his story on the Sports Equality Foundation’s TikTok page, proudly announcing his identities as a soccer player, state champion, college student, TikTok creator, and yes, openly gay man. Leafer didn’t lose his reputation when he came out. Instead, he added to it.
He’s openly gay and overjoyed.
“I’m still Josh,” he said. “I’m still in a fraternity, I still play sports. It took me a little bit to realize that even though I’m gay, I can still be everything I was before. That’s what I’m trying to show people. I know other guys are going through the same fears that I went through. They’re scared of the same thing. If I can show them that I can have a successful story, then why can’t they have one, too?”
Click here to check out this episode of our Outsports podcast, The Sports Kiki. You can also subscribe to the show on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.