Sport

While many sporting bodies have begun actively promoting LGBTQIA+ inclusion, queer youth are still dropping out of sport at a higher rate than their straight peers and openly out male elite athletes remain a rarity. By Daniel Herborn.

Gay pride and prejudice

Kelsey Griffin of the University of Canberra Capitals kisses her wife, Erin, after winning a WNBL finals match against the Southside Flyers at AIS Arena in March.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

If one of the glories of sport is its ability to produce perfectly unscripted moments, then the Sydney Sixers Pride Party earlier this year was as unexpectedly memorable as they come. Rain may have stalled the cricket match, but it set the stage for a crowd awash with vivid rainbow colours to dance defiantly and joyfully in the downpour.

The sense of elation felt fitting. As a statement of LGBTQIA+ inclusivity in a domain that had previously been resistant, it was a vibrant reminder of how far the sporting realm had come from a time when the only notable presence of gay life were the homophobic epithets tossed around by competitors and spectators alike.

For LGBTQIA+ rights activist Jason Ball, a former Australian rules player with Yarra Glen, the tides of change feel both welcome and profound. “When I was playing growing up, homophobic language felt like it was part of the game,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “Words like ‘faggot’, ‘poofter’ and ‘homo’. It made me feel like that was one environment where I would never be able to come out.”

After a time of concealing his sexuality, Ball came out to a supportive response from his teammates. The team went on to stage a Pride Cup to show its support. “To see players these days pulling on the rainbow as a sign of solidarity with the LGBT community… it’s been a massive turnaround,” he says.

Australia’s other top-rating football code, rugby league, has also made gestures of inclusivity. Most notably, rapper Macklemore and his gay rights anthem “Same Love” featured at the 2017 NRL grand final. The performance predated same-sex marriage becoming legal in Australia, signalling a sporting code firmly planting its flag on the side of inclusivity at a time when the federal government was doing no such thing.

For all the visible progress, however, openly out male athletes, especially in team sports, remain rare. The AFL has a yearly Pride Round, but no openly gay players; the NRL has had four floats in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, but only one openly gay player.

For these sports, so deeply enmeshed in the 24/7 news cycle, an openly gay player would be a sensation. “A player coming out would attract media interest, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” says Ball. “The visibility would go a long way to giving hope to young LGBT people.”

Several out athletes have noted the immense mental toll not being able to live as their authentic selves took. Yet a very public coming out also requires a particular brand of resilience. “The reality is the first or second player to do it will create a big splash and will be remembered as that trailblazer,” Ball says of the AFL. “Not everyone is born to be a trailblazer.”

One such pioneer is former Newcastle Jets soccer player Andy Brennan, who now plays for Hume City in the National Premier Leagues Victoria. Last year, he became the first current or former A-League player to come out as gay, at the same time revealing the longstanding burden of hiding his sexuality amid fears about the reaction of those around him.

While the general response from the soccer community has been positive, Brennan understands why gay elite athletes may choose to keep this part of their identity a secret. “Stakes at that level are so high,” he says, “you don’t want to jeopardise everything you’ve built your whole life.”

Dr Ryan Storr, a lecturer in sport development at Western Sydney University and vice-president of LGBTQIA+ inclusion organisation Proud 2 Play, says research shows queer youths have lower participation rates in sport than their straight counterparts. A culture of rampant bullying and unchecked homophobia and transphobia at junior and school levels is a significant driver of this trend.

High dropout rates for LGBTQIA+ youths are not just about a failure to achieve inclusivity. There is now a mountain of evidence linking physical activity to better mental health outcomes, so depriving a cohort of young people with a higher incidence of mental health conditions of a potentially rich source of community and wellbeing seems particularly remiss.

For the WNBL’s Kelsey Griffin, playing basketball has brought immense benefits. “I’m very grateful for sport,” says the University of Canberra Capitals forward. “You might just be chasing around a basketball, but it teaches you so many life lessons,” she says. “You learn to lose gracefully, but also to win gracefully. It lets you be part of the broader community.”

Griffin wed her partner, Erin, in her native Alaska and has found basketball a welcoming space for those in same-sex relationships. “I’ve always felt very supported and included,” she says. “I suppose there was a little bit of growing into [being out] but I don’t think that was the people around me. That was more me and my own insecurities and eventually becoming more confident in who I am as a person.”

Women’s sports, while facing their own myriad challenges, appear to be further down the road towards inclusivity. With a less persistent media spotlight and fans who are less prone to vitriol, the female streams of Australian rules, rugby league and cricket are home to many more openly out athletes at elite levels than their male counterparts.

“They understand more around diversity and inclusion,” says Ryan Storr. “They’re more welcoming and are seen as safe spaces where women can be themselves and connect with others like them.”

Acceptance may be less straightforward for transgender athletes. Transgender woman Hannah Mouncey, also an elite handball player, had her nomination for the AFLW draft rejected in 2018 after a row over her testosterone level, despite the level being below relevant International Olympic Committee guidelines. Some sharply criticised the AFL for its handling of the matter. ABC columnist Richard Hinds, for instance, said the episode “helped to embolden the most hateful and ignorant of the game’s supporters”. Transgender athletes remain underrepresented in elite sports, and their presence there is often hotly disputed. Several sporting codes have developed inclusion policies based on Australian Human Rights Commission guidance, providing at least a road map to equality.

Jason Ball believes there is still serious confusion around transgender inclusion and that while sporting bodies generally have good intentions, they often lack education. “We have so much more to gain in welcoming transgender people into sport rather than excluding them,” he says.

From the explosion of joy at the Sydney Cricket Ground that rain could not extinguish to the formation of LGBTQIA+ supporter groups to the quiet acceptance that some out athletes have found, advocates in this space have often expressed something close to wonder that the sporting world has come this far.

But significant challenges remain. Reminders that progress is rarely uniform nor linear abound, be they the naked, intensely damaging vitriol of Israel Folau and Margaret Court or the thoughtless bumbling of straight cricketer James Faulkner calling his mate his “boyfriend” on Instagram.

“Five or six years ago, if you told me we’d have Pride Rounds and all these wonderful things happening, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Storr reflects. “There has been a lot of change. But this is only the start of the journey.”

This piece was supported by funds from the Google News Initiative.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2020 as "Pride and prejudice".

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Daniel Herborn is a Sydney-based journalist and novelist.