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Ablett: Homophobia no longer ‘part of the game’

This article was originally published in The Roar on April 18, shortly after the AFL and other major Australian sporting bodies met to create the ‘Anti Homophobia & Inclusion Framework for Australian Sport‘. 

In 1993, with his shirt raised and his middle finger pointed squarely at his stomach, Nicky Winmar told us that racism wasn’t welcome in sport and should no longer be accepted as ‘part of the game’.

Despite initial resistance, and two years before the AFL codified this expectation, a movement was born. Australian sport can be proud of its attempts to eradicate racism in recent years. Yet other forms of discrimination, particularly sexism and homophobia, remain largely unchallenged across all levels of sport.

Last week, however, the heads of Australia’s four major sporting codes, the AFL, NRL, Australian rugby union and Cricket Australia, came together to unite in “an unprecedented commitment to eliminate discrimination against gay, lesbian and bisexual players, coaches, administrators and fans in their sport”. Presenting a unified front and making a public stance on homophobia is without doubt a positive step.

The 20 years since Winmar’s famous gesture provide valuable lessons on how to tackle social issues within sport. Yet, to address racism and homophobia in the same manner ignores the complexities of each issue.

‘sexuality is a very personal matter… just because someone isn’t discussing it through the media, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are hiding it.’

Racism largely targets people’s appearance. It is to do with their ancestry, their culture, their heritage, as well as their skin colour. Someone’s sexual orientation, particularly in a sporting context, is not so obvious.

Therefore, while the impacts of racism and homophobia may be comparable, to assume we can address them in the same way is overly simple.

Many people point to the fact that there are no publicly non-heterosexual players in any of our major sporting codes as proof of inherent homophobia. While it can be hard to argue with this interpretation, it is overly simplistic.

While any player who doesn’t fit the hetero-normative stereotype would be worried about how teammates and coaches might respond, there are factors such as friends, family, supporters, crowd members, and most significantly, I would imagine, the media, that must be taken in to account.

Being the first publicly known non-heterosexual player in any of these codes will be a huge flag to carry, and there must be many athletes not prepared to carry that burden.

Therefore, the point of any anti-homophobia campaign should not be to have people ‘come out’. Rather, it should be about fostering environments that are welcoming and inclusive, in both sport and the wider community. It appears that this is what this new campaign is about.

We must remember that sexuality is a very personal matter, and that just because someone isn’t discussing it through the media doesn’t necessarily mean that they are hiding it.

I applaud these sports for making a public stand about an issue that causes much heartache for many people, particularly young people, around the country. However, if we expect the major sporting codes to affect all social change for us we will be very disappointed. Not because they are incapable, but because homophobia and homophobic beliefs extend far beyond the sporting arena.

If this campaign is to become anything more than symbolism, it must extend into schools, workplaces and anywhere else people meet. It must move beyond overt forms of homophobic language and focus on the Australian culture that says it’s OK to call your friend a poof, to call an opposition player a homo, or to describe something as gay.

We need to make it unacceptable to use any language that infers that it’s wrong to be gay, or that it is something to be ashamed of.

This language is used daily by people who don’t realise its impact. While many bemoan the age of political correctnesss’ young people around the country are constantly being told, inadvertently, that they are less valuable because of their sexual orientation.

A common defence of this homophobic language is that it isn’t directed at someone who is gay and that it’s just a throwaway comment, that people shouldn’t be so sensitive. We need to understand, however, that there are many people who remain ashamed of their sexuality or are frightened to be outed. That welcoming and inclusive environment doesn’t exist yet.

We need to understand that the use of this language reinforces shame and fear on a daily basis. We must acknowledge that language is powerful and that words hurt, even when they aren’t intended to. We must listen to the GLBTIQ community about their experiences and learn why many don’t play sport, particularly male team sports. We must ask and listen to what makes them feel unsafe and unwelcome.

We must begin to understand that homophobia is more than directly vilifying or discriminating against someone due to their sexuality. It is also the homophobic language that people use on a daily basis, across the entire Australian community. There is no doubt that major sporting organisations and other businesses play an important role in social change.

Yet, if standards being set by these companies aren’t taken seriously by sport and ignored in the rest of the community, the agreements reached in Sydney become nothing other than a good photo opportunity.

Luke Ablett is a former AFL player and premiership winner with the Sydney Swans. He is currently studying a Masters of Gender and Development and is a lover of good music, coffee and books. You can follow him on Twitter @Luke_Ablett.