I can’t claim to be a huge AFL football fan. I can’t even claim to be a football fan. The truth is, I’ve never actually seen a game of football in my entire life and I have absolutely no interest in rectifying that. Football? Bleh!
My friend, Jason Ball, on the other hand, is a keen AFL footballer. Jason’s just started a campaign to encourage the AFL to do a whole lot more about combating homophobia in the sport.
I’ve improved my knowledge of football by around 1000 per cent this afternoon by learning there are around 800 players in the top ranks of the AFL.
Estimates of what percentage of the population are gay or bisexual are all over the place, but a conservative, reasonably well accepted figure seems to be around 5 per cent (although it could well be more). Using this figure, Jeff Kennett, chairman of Beyond Blue, estimates that up to 40 of Australia’s top flight AFL players may well be gay.
But, how many of these players are openly gay?
Apparently, none. That’s right. Not one.
Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that gay footballers should be required to make a television commercial to that effect, take out a full page in the Australian or check a pink box on their AFL application form!
While foaming-at-the-mouth homophobe, Bill Muehlenberg, kinkily pictures all gay men wearing pink jack-boots, I’m not for a moment suggesting that gay footballers should be issued with pink footy boots! Not at all!
I absolutely agree that one’s sexuality is no-one else’s business. I’m not calling for a national register of gay players.
But really? Of all these hundreds of high profile footballers (and coaches? team managers?) are there really none who feel comfortable about attending a public event hand in hand with their significant male other?
Are there none who, following a big win, might feel at liberty to say, “And I’d really like to thank my boyfriend for all his incredible support.”
Are there none who, in the course of their numerous interviews might just say, “Actually, I’m gay”?
Apparently not. And I find that really very sad.
I have a confession to make. When I decided to write this blog post to support Jason’s campaign, I felt a wee bit uncomfortable. Actually that’s not true. I felt more than uncomfortable. I felt incredibly awkward writing about – criticising – the AFL when I probably know less about football than Martian geology. But, then I got to thinking, “I don’t know anything about football, but I actually had quite a long sporting ‘career’ myself in the field of competitive horse-riding. I do know something about sport.”
Could I find an analogy? Analogies are good. I like analogies!
I started riding competitively at ten years old, earned my instructor’s certificate at 17 and taught dressage, show-jumping and cross-country at pony club and professionally, until I was 25. Somewhere, buried in the pile of boxes in our garage, are more than 300 fading, moth-eaten felt and satin ribbons and rosettes.
“How lucky,” I thought, “that the equestrian world is so different from the blokey world of football.”
But then, I had something of a revelation. In fact, it struck me like a bolt from the blue.
“Oh.My.God! In the twenty-five years I was involved in the ‘horse’ world, I honestly can’t remember one person who was openly gay. Not one!”
I must have known hundreds of people during that time. Fellow riders, instructors, my own students, judges, parents, farriers, vets, stock food suppliers, tuckshop volunteers, my friends’ families and so on. But as much as I wrack my brain, I cannot remember a single gay person – male or female.
This is impossible, of course. There must have been some; almost certainly there were many. But 25-30 years ago, they were (or at least their sexuality was) completely invisible.
It’s not like I didn’t know what gay ‘was’. During that period I was also heavily involved in the theatre – no avoiding ‘gay’ there! So, why? Why can’t I remember anyone even vaguely associated with my horsey past who was gay?
It’s not like we just turned up at a show, popped over a few jumps and then went home. We socialised! We lived in each others’ pockets! As with any sporting group, we didn’t just talk about our sport. We talked about our hopes, dreams and aspirations. We talked about our crushes – OH so many crushes! We talked about sex. We even snogged with each other from time to time (but strictly boy/girl). (This is a world where ‘a roll in the hay’ is actually a roll in the hay!) We went on camps together. We spent afternoons (after school and, later, after work) riding in the bush. We spent our weekends training or at shows or one day events.
WHERE WERE ALL TEH GAYS???
Looking back, I can only think, with horror, that they were too frightened to ‘come out’. Too frightened of what we’d say. Too frightened that we wouldn’t include them in our silly chit-chat. Too frightened that when it came to picking teams for the Governor’s Cup or the Royal Brisbane Show, they’d be excluded. Too frightened that if we knew they were gay we’d titter about them behind their backs or, worse, call them foul, nasty names. Too frightened, perhaps, that if a judge knew they were gay they might mark them more harshly.
And today, I’m overcome with shame that UNTIL today, IT HAD NEVER EVEN OCCURRED TO ME, that not one of the people I came into contact with during a 15 year sporting career EVER had enough confidence in me to say to me, “Chrys, I’m gay.”
That really makes me feel quite ill.
Of course, that was over 25 years ago. I hope things are better now. I note with some satisfaction that Carl Hester, the gold medal winner in the Olympic dressage this year is openly gay. But I also note that only 23 of the 10,000 Olympians who competed in London in 2012 are ‘out’. That suggests something is very wrong, not just within the AFL sporting culture, but within the sporting world, generally.
So, whether or not you like football, I ask you to support Jason Ball’s campaign to end homophobia in that sport. Please, sign Jason’s petition, join the “I support gay AFL players” and/or “Ending homophobia in the AFL” Facebook groups, and, if you are an AFL supporter, consider dropping a line to the management of the team you support – or even to AFL CEO, Andrew Demetriou – to encourage them to implement Jason’s suggestions:
- show the No to Homophobia ad on the big screen at the Grand Final; ,
- add it to the footy record;
- commit to a Pride Round, just like they have done with the Multicultural and Indigenous Rounds;
- and take whatever other action is needed to make AFL a more welcoming place for homosexuals.
More broadly, though, if AFL isn’t your ‘thing’, stop and have a think about your own sport.
How many gay people are ‘out’ in your cricket or netball team, orienteering group, skirmish team, pony club, bowls club, swimming squad, athletics club or similar? Not into sport? What about your craft group, book club, church?
How comfortable would it be for someone to be openly gay in your sporting or leisure-time milieu and what action has been taken to let gay members of your group know that, whatever their sexual preference, it’s not something that will effect their friendships, reputation or perceived value?
Think about it. Perhaps, like me, you’d actually never even given it a thought.
So, yes. The AFL should certainly be doing more to stop homophobia. But really, shouldn’t we all be doing more to end homophobia, everywhere, once and for all?
Please sign Jason’s petition and share it with your own networks. Let’s make this go viral.
Contact Andrew Demetriou, CEO of the AFL (be polite please!): firstname.lastname@example.org
And if you’re tweeting, use the hashtag #AFLPride – let’s get it trending.
Oh, and if you think there’s NOT a problem in the AFL culture, here’s a (now deleted) tweet from Jason Akermanis about Jason Ball’s campaign: