Back in early 2007, I wrote the following column for Sportsfreak. Almost 10 years later, we’ve decided to republish it.
Why? Well, during the Olympics we had a chance to watch British diver Tom Daley compete. And since 2007 we’ve seen Gareth Thomas, Michael Sam, Jason Collins and Ian Thorpe all make similar announcements to the one made by Ian Roberts – but not all of those sportsmen were at the top of their game at the time.
So has much really changed in 10 years?
Coming Out in Sport – March 2007
It seems an eternity now, but it was 1995 that Ian Roberts announced to the world that he was gay, in the process taking the Rugby League world by storm. Well, most of it anyway. There had been all sorts of rumours and innuendo surrounding the International forward, and once an article appeared in American magazine “The Advocate”, the closet door had swung wide open. Not that Roberts was in denial – he was proudly homosexual, telling his family many years earlier.
Many were aware of his sexual preference already, but there was a long-held agreement between the player and the media that the topic did not need to be mentioned. Once the announcement was made, there was genuine hope that Roberts’ decision to come out would provide an opportunity to others in the same boat to do the same. A brave move in the macho world of football, it was going to ease the way for other sports men and women to stand proud, and be who they want to be.
Sadly, it hasn’t worked that way.
Whilst society in general is more tolerant of homosexuality – on the surface anyway – this does not seem to be reflected in the sporting world. Particularly in the testosterone-fuelled arena that is male sport. Female tennis players aside (Navratilova, King, Mauresmo), there are precious few international sports stars that have announced their homosexuality in the way that most hoped after Ian Roberts came out. Is that a reflection of the tolerance of the WTA circuit, or is it the lack of tolerance elsewhere?
Greg Louganis springs to mind, but his decision to announce his homosexuality to the world was made after he was diagnosed with AIDS. The same applies to American Footballer Jerry Smith. So what is stopping others from coming out? When Roberts came out, he was asked to compare what he had been through, with that of David Kopay – an American Footballer, and regarded as the first openly gay American sports person, particularly in relation to the fallout after the announcement:
“He (Kopay) was only a fringe player, his story is just the tip of the iceberg compared with what I’ve been through”. And he is quite right. A few weeks after Ian Roberts announced he was gay, the taunting, ignorance and intolerance that was spewing forth from crowds all over Australia and New Zealand was mind blowing.
Yet New Zealand has openly gay MP’s on both sides of the house, and a recently retired transsexual – a world first. It appears we are more comfortable with having openly gay men and women as our leaders rather than as our sports stars. It is strange stuff. Whilst it would appear that society is getting better at watching a lesbian couple tickling each other’s tonsils on Shortland Street, they just couldn’t stomach the thought of a gay man playing for the All Blacks.
Let’s face it, rugby has traditionally been the cornerstone of core heterosexual values in this country, and despite the close physical contact involved, it remains the last bastion of the good looking straight guy. Adding weight to this theory is the fact that golf, hardly the bastion of macho bravado, has been rampantly heterosexual. So perhaps it is the conservative nature of men’s sport, rather than the perceived macho nature of such competition that has caused this imbalance of homosexuals in the spotlight.
Hypocrisy? Of course it is.
And all that hypocrisy does is reinforce the perception that if you’re gay, life isn’t going to be easy on the football field if you announce your preference to the opposition – or in some cases, your teammates. When an All Black captain lifts the Rugby World Cup and wishes to thank his civil union partner, then we have come a long way as a nation. But don’t hold your breath.
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