SIMON ORCHARD: The harsh and true reality of homophobia in sport

Simon Orchard Columnist

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    Matt Mitcham was one high profile Australian athlete to come out in the public eye. (Image: Wikimedia Commons/Lance Richardson CC BY-SA 2.0)

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    Almost five years to the day, my friend Gus Johnston shared a remarkably candid video on YouTube that laid bare the harsh reality of homophobia in sport.

    Gus sat face-to-face with the lens of a video camera in the bowels of the Essendon hockey club, and with his hands trembling and heart racing, he announced to the world that he was a gay man.

    That ladies and gentlemen, is the stuff heroes are made of.

    In sporting terms, forget Luke Hodge going back with the flight into an AFL pack or Steve Smith standing firm against a bouncing barrage from Dale Steyn. Those types of moments pale in comparison to what LGBTI people of all ages, sex, race and religions contend with on a daily basis.

    Whether it’s the taunts and teasing from the mean-spirited, or the blatant belligerence from the uneducated or socially inept, the LGBTI community has long been denied the right to be treated as equals by ignorant punters and shortsighted governments. For a variety of unfound reasons, gay is synonymous with the lesser.

    You only have to look at what’s going on in Canberra at the moment to realise that the current Government’s marriage equality plebiscite debate is cruelly shining the spotlight on our country’s severe lack of basic human rights. It has only led to further questioning of the LGBTI community’s place in society, let alone their place on the sporting field.

    Five years on from Gus’ magnanimous moment however, I write to support the Australian LGBTI community, and demand to know why they are still being ostracised from sport around the country. But why?

    Why does this hostility still exist? Why do cases of discrimination and prejudice continue to be missed? And at a time when we should strive for personal bests, why do our politicians do nothing but jest?

    The 2015 study Out On The Fields was the very first of its kind carried out internationally on homophobia in sport, with nearly 9,500 people taking part worldwide.

    The survey’s mission statement envisions a world where everyone feels welcome to play and enjoy sports without fear of discrimination. Sadly, according to their findings, that is still nowhere near the case.

    The 3,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and straight Australians who were surveyed highlighted several alarming statistics about homophobia in sport in this country.

    • 80 per cent of all participants reported witnessing or experiencing homophobia in sport.

    • 80 per cent of those involved in sport in Australia believed gays and lesbians were not accepted within the sporting community.

    • Nine out of ten young people felt they could not be honest about their sexuality, with many citing bullying from other players, and discrimination from coaches and officials as the main reason for keeping it a secret.

    • 70 per cent believed that youth team sporting environments were not safe or supportive of LGB people.

    • Australia had the highest number of gay men who believed they were not ‘at all accepted’ in sport with 13 per cent, compared to Canada at 5 per cent.

    So to put the results of this survey in a sporting context many of you might understand, Australia is to equality and fairness what Eric ‘The Eel’ Moussambani was to the 100m freestyle at the Sydney Olympics; a long way behind the leaders.

    It doesn’t make for good reading, but I think sport in this country has one of the best opportunities to help change this. Why? Because one of sports greatest strengths is that it brings people together.

    And it starts with Gus’ video.

    Since it was released, it has had over 175,000 views and drawn praise from people all around the world. It is powerful, raw, and at times confronting, but he draws from his own personal experience in order to help bring homophobia to an end.

    He speaks about the weight of expectation and pressure that became almost too difficult to bear. About the ‘secret’ that seriously limited the bonds and friendships that he craved with his teammates. About the worry of being misjudged, and how that would impact his team and his clubs reputation. And he speaks of the deep battle with depression and loneliness, all because he was hiding from his true identity. And why?

    Because he was afraid, lonely and felt like he had no one to talk to. He even contemplated suicide, which unfortunately is an all too real scenario in this day and age.

    I had the pleasure of meeting Gus at the end of 2012 in Melbourne. We were both attending a hockey function and we bumped into each other during the festivities. He was polite, friendly, cheeky and charming, and above all else; he was smiling from ear to ear.

    He looked as if the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders, and from his own admission, he has truly lived since the moment he shared his powerfully honest message with the world.

    But this message didn’t just reverberate around my head when I watched Gus on YouTube or shook his hand for the first time that night. No, it’s been a part of my family fabric for quite a few years, because my brother Ben, among many other fantastic things, is also gay.

    He’s 28 now, but I remember him making the incredibly strong decision to tell my family and me way back in 2008. Looking back, I don’t think as a collective we handled it as well as we could have.

    I had moved away to Perth a year earlier and I had watched, mostly online, as my brother’s world seemed to change. It was extremely difficult, as I didn’t know what to do or how to help. I was 21, he was 19, and it felt like a huge chasm, both physically and metaphorically, had developed between us.

    My mum, dad and youngest brother were left to handle the news alone. And I know they found it hard at first to understand. Because as Gus says, “your parents have an expectation that their son will grow up and marry a lovely lady and have kids, and grandkids, and will follow all of those societal norms”. Ben had to break that mould and it must have been so difficult for him. I just wish I were around to help.

    We are from a relatively small country town called Maitland, and I sensed that it was fairly confusing and intimidating place for Ben to grow up. He used to play hockey as well and was bloody good at it. But I fear, actually I know, he was lost to the game because of a few complete knuckleheads that made him feel among other things, inhuman or abnormal. Guys who to this day, would still have no idea of the adverse affect they had on him.

    Ben spoke of feeling unfairly treated at times because ‘he was different’ and even speaks of one team in the local competition that called him ‘the faggot’ during matches. It’s hard not to see red when you hear these comments, but I guess it helps hearing Ben speak about it now.

    Although he does speak of some deep seeded animosity, which will probably never die, he seems to take some solace in the fact that those peoples ignorance will be their cross to bear. I understand his pain; I just tend not to agree with his sentiment that leaving the bigots to their obliviousness is the best solution.

    Perhaps whimsically I think everyone can change, or at the very least understand the error of their ways and say sorry.

    Ben is doing really well now though and I always take great delight in hearing him describe his life as ‘fabulous’. Whenever he uses that word it always makes me smile, and it makes me proud. And I know without hesitation that my family feels the same way.

    My mum and dad especially feel the same, because at the end of the day, they just want what every parent wants – their child to be happy. I feel like Dad constantly worried about Ben, probably more than he knows, just because he wanted him to be treated like everyone else.

    I remember one moment from the hockey World Cup in Holland in 2014 that will stick with me forever. Every Australian supporter that attended that tournament treated my brother like an absolute equal and when I asked Dad how everyone had enjoyed the event, he smiled and said, “It’s been great to see Benny so happy”. It was in that moment that I knew my sport and its people were capable of healing the very wounds it ripped open several years earlier for my brother.

    Another Ben that articulates the ignorance many of us carry around at the moment is Ben Haggerty, aka hip-hop artist Macklemore. His song Same Love includes the following lyric – ‘Man that’s gay, gets dropped on the daily. We become so numb to what we’re saying’.

    This is perhaps the biggest change I have tried to administer in my own life and around the sporting environment we create with the Kookaburras. I have lost count of the amount of times I have pulled fellas up on this type of language, something I myself, unfortunately used to be guilty of at times as well.

    And it’s hard. But the feeling of being uncomfortable and uneasy during a difficult conversation quickly subsides when you remember it’s for a great reason.

    I understand there is rarely any intention to be derogatory from my teammates and friends, but it has unfortunately just become second nature for some. Blissfully unaware of the hurt it could cause the gay man, women, boy or girl that overhears it.

    And if I’m honest, I remember one occasion in the last few years where I lost my cool and muttered something I have tried so hard to stamp out. I was severely disappointed but I too still misstep, just like others.

    For whatever reason, sportsmen and women are often pigeonholed into a stereotype that no longer applies in this day and age, and the expectation and pressure of that can be too difficult to bear.

    It’s up to athletes, administrators and organisations around Australia to help create sporting environments that everyone can thrive in, no matter who they are.

    Which is why I am thrilled to see the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) proudly working with the Australian Human Rights Commission and Pride in Diversity to develop and launch the Pride in Sport Index (PSI) in 2017.

    The PSI provides sporting organisations with an opportunity to reflect on their work in the inclusion of LGBTI participants and staff and identify areas they can address to ensure their sport is truly inclusive.

    It’s a fantastic initiative that I encourage Hockey Australia to get involved in, if they aren’t already, to ensure future red-headed Victorian goalkeepers, or ‘fabulous’ skinny midfielders from Maitland don’t suffer the same fate as two of the great mates I have spoken about today.

    Gus said in his video that he fought for over 20 years to build a reputation that others in the hockey community would aspire to. But he built it on what he felt society demanded of him, not on what he thought society could learn from him.

    If you watch his video, I feel like in just over 12 minutes, Gus Johnston showed the world everything a good man looks like. Passionate, honest, brave, vulnerable and proud; proud of who he is and what he stands for. Good on you Gus, you are a true sporting hero.

    International Homophobia in Sport Survey

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