It's Hard to be a Gay Athlete in Australia and New Zealand

For a huge number of Australian and New Zealand LGBT athletes, coming out to their teams isn't an option.

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May 25 2015, 5:35am

Illustration by Michael Hili

When Simon Dunn finally revealed his sexuality to his rugby teammates, many told him to quit. He'd hid the fact he was gay because he struggled with the sport's macho culture and boys club attitude.

After being bombarded with abuse over the following few years, it all became too much. "I ended up quitting rugby because of the homophobia," Simon tells VICE. "Some of my teammates questioned whether I should even be on the team after I came out. When you're a teenager questioning who you are and struggling with yourself, you can imagine how hard it is having everyone putting you down week-in, week-out."

Simon eventually found acceptance with the Sydney Convicts, Australia's first gay rugby union team. After relocating to Canada, he developed a passion for a very different sport—he's now the only openly out bobsled athlete in the world.

Simon's early experiences of homophobia in sports are common for gay and bi athletes. Despite the progress made by out athletes like Aussie Rules footballer Jason Ball, NZ rugby player/netballer Louisa Wall, and Australian Olympians Natalie Cook, Matthew Mitcham, and Mathew Helm, a recent report states Australian and New Zealand LGBT athletes are more like to hide their sexuality than many other nations. The Out in the Fields study points to familiar seeds of anxiety and aggression like school PE classes, and our arguably acceptable culture of casual homophobic slurs as catalysts for ongoing homophobia in sport.

Nearly 10,000 people were surveyed for the study, with a cross section of gay, bisexual, and heterosexuals asked about their experiences of homophobia in sport. More than 3,000 Australians and 600 New Zealanders shared their stories from the field and in the stands. "For many people, sporting culture has not seen the same progress as observed in broader society," the report reads. "The study found few positive signs in any country that LGB people are welcome and safe playing team sports."

The report offers insight into the discriminatory sporting culture that leads many LGBT athletes to be too afraid to reveal their sexuality to teammates. Of those surveyed, 87 percent of Australian gay men and 75 percent of lesbian women are completely or partially closeted while playing sport. The numbers are just as dire for New Zealand.

Former footy player Travis Burridge was forced to quit playing when he was 17 over fears of abuse and discrimination because he was gay. "There's so much machoness, it's a boys club," he told VICE. "If you don't fit in that boys club you get ridiculed for it, and unfortunately being gay means you don't fit the boys club sometimes."

Dr. Grant O'Sullivan from Victoria University, who helped review the surveys, tells VICE it's this insular attitude and pressure to fit in that makes participation hard for LGBT players. "Anyone who is different is seen as a threat to that cohesion," he concludes.

The impact of casual homophobic slurs and asides is a recurring theme in the report and personal accounts. The derogatory use of words like "gay" from a very young age, especially in PE class, can have a damaging effect on LGBT players. Nearly half of those surveyed had been personally targeted with words like "faggot" or "dyke," and four out of five Aussies had witnessed or experienced homophobia while playing sport or watching from the stands. "The language, whether it's indirectly or directly homophobic, does have a connection with poorer mental health on those environments," Grant says.

Not surprisingly, for LGBT athletes who do make the decision to come out, there is usually a supportive friend within the team, and an accepting environment free from homophobic slurs—however casual they might be. "People will come out when the environment is safe for them. If you create a safe environment, with good straight allies and policies," Grant notes.

It's also important to have well-known Australian athletes who have come out. There are already a few professional LGBT sports people, including footy player Jason Ball who has been pushing the AFL to tackle homophobia for more than three years, and cricketer Alex Blackwell, who become only the second international player to come out in 2013.

A number of important recommendations are included in the report, such as improving education for young children and their teachers, as well as national sporting bodies adopting and promoting a clear anti-homophobia message. In the wake of the dire findings, many of the major codes in Australia and New Zealand have reaffirmed their commitment to tackle the issue. Over the weekend the AFL Player's Association launched an anti-homophobia campaign with the help of some of the biggest players in the game. The video features the stars denouncing discrimination against LGBT players and the use of homophobic language in the sport.

But as Travis adds, the primary focus is that young LGBT athletes don't feel like they're being forced out of their sports. It's the culture that needs to change, not them. "You're always going to have obstacles, it's how you tackle those obstacles that makes you a better person. If you love sport, and you think you can change it, do it."

Follow Denham on Twitter.

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