On Saturday 17th May 2014, I witnessed something huge.
Just like any Saturday, I was playing football for Yarra Glen. Our opponents on the day were Gembrook. The footy had been wrapped up in a pack and the umpire had blown the whistle to call a ball up. A pile of bodies lay on top of the ball when across the fence a man shouted, “get off him, poofter!”
‘Since coming out, homophobic language has been something I hear a lot less on the football field , and this is in no small part thanks to those AFL players who have made their voice heard on this issue.’
With that remark echoing through an otherwise silent end of the ground, a few cars down another man stood up, looked over to the man and shouted back: “You can’t say that, mate. Pull your head in”. Not another word was uttered by him for the remainder of the match.
It has been 18 months since I publicly came out as gay, becoming the first Aussie Rules player at any level of the game to do so. Since then, I have seen a change in the game that I had never thought possible.
Growing up playing football, homophobic language was an accepted part of the game. Not once did I hear anyone question it, possibly out of fear that they too might be referred to as a “faggot” – seemingly the worst insult you could throw at another player.
This had a profound effect on me during my early playing years. It made me wish I wasn’t gay. It made me feel like I would have to hide it forever. It made me question whether or not I would be able to continue playing the game I love. At one point it even made me contemplate taking my own life.
Since coming out, homophobic language has been something I hear a lot less on the football field , and this is in no small part thanks to those AFL players who have made their voice heard on this issue.
Last year, on International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO), some of the biggest names of the game took part in #Footy4IDAHO; a social media campaign encouraging fans and players to pledge never to use homophobic slurs and to stand up to those who do, with a goal of making the game more inclusive for everyone, regardless of their sexuality.
This year I was thrilled to see the campaign not only continue but broaden to include a host of new players, as well as club coaches, presidents and even members of the AFL executive who were prepared to put their name to the cause.
— Jason Ball (@jasonball88) May 17, 2014
So last Saturday wasn’t really like any other Saturday. It was actually IDAHO. Disappointingly, it happened to be the first time I had heard a homophobic remark shouted from across the fence in over a year.
But what happened next was bigger than that. What happened next I hadn’t experienced before in country football. When a member of the crowd stood up to a fellow supporter shouting a homophobic taunt, to me it represented the dawn of a new era.
We no longer tolerate racism in our game. The idea that homophobia is just as unacceptable as racism might seem like a stretch to some. But if sexuality is part of who we are, no more and no less than the colour of our skin or the colour of eyes, then we must accept that discrimination or vilification based on such characteristics is also wrong.
While we may never stamp out homophobia completely, the least we can do is ensure that we personally don’t contribute to it, and just as importantly, as I realised on Saturday, we must also be prepared to make a stand and call out those who do.