Ian Roberts calls out lack of progress on tackling homophobia in sport


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Photos: Supplied, St Kilda Saints/AFL.com.au

Trailblazing gay ex-footballer Ian Roberts has slammed the lack of progress in eliminating harmful homophobic language in Australian sport.

Two new Australian studies published in international journal Sport Management Review reveal high numbers of LGB adolescents hide their sexuality from teammates. Usage of homophobic slurs in male sport also remains stubbornly high.

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Ian Roberts came out 25 years ago, in 1995, because he was tired of “living a lie”. He became rugby league’s first openly gay player.

“Like those who came before me, I hoped telling my story would make things better for others in the future,” he said.

“I was also hopeful that the many sport leaders who congratulated me at the time were serious about protecting LGBT kids from discrimination.

“It has been a quarter century, yet it seems nothing is changing.”

Male and female players experience homophobic slurs and bullying

The first study was by researchers at Monash University. They surveyed 1173 lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents aged 15-21 across Australia, New Zealand, the US, UK, Canada and Ireland.

Of them, 82% of males and 77% of females tried to hide their sexuality from at least some of their teammates.

Only 15% of Australian LGB youth were out to everyone on their team.

Overall, 52% of male athletes and 36% of females had experienced homophobic slurs or bullying.

Those who came out, even to just some of their teammates, were significantly more likely to report those experiences.

Roberts said the new findings “devastated” him.

“This is exactly that opposite of what should be happening and what I expected,” he said.

“I’m very proud of these kids for having the courage to come out at such a young age.

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“And [I’m] very disappointed that the adults around them don’t seem to have the courage to ensure these kids are safe.”

Ian Roberts said whether the players using the slurs had homophobic intent or not “this behaviour needs to stop.”

“I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it, kids are literally killing themselves in the suburbs because they hear this language,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter whether you think you are homophobic or not, you need to stop using words like ‘fag’ and ‘gay’ to refer to anything that’s weak.

“We have very solid evidence that kids who are exposed to this language are more likely to self-harm.”

Homophobic slurs not always driven by prejudice

The second study involved Australian teenage male rugby union players and also Australian Ice Hockey League players.

The researchers surveyed the athletes on their use of homophobic slurs.

More than half the rugby and hockey players (53.8%) self-reported using homophobic slurs in the previous two weeks.

Sixty-nine percent reported hearing their teammates use this language.

However athletes with positive attitudes towards gay people were just as likely to use slurs as those who had negative opinions.

Researcher Erik Denison said the behaviour is “driven by conformity and a desire for social acceptance by teammates.”

“Regardless of their motivation and intent, this language is very harmful to the health of gay people,” he said.

“Sports leaders have a responsibility to stop this behaviour, which is harmful to the health of all LGBTQ children and youth.”

Ian Roberts says we ‘can’t keep ignoring this problem’

Former Wallaby Dan Palmer, who came out as gay in October, said “homophobic language is often used as banter or to get a laugh in team environments”.

“It is important to understand the impact such language can have, especially on younger people trying to find their way,” Palmer said.

“Homophobic language further isolates closeted teammates and signals to aspiring gay athletes that they will not be accepted.

“Most people don’t like homophobic language. It is both uncomfortable to use and to hear. With some effort and focus, I think we can stop this behaviour quickly.”

Ian Roberts said in 2014, all the CEOs of Australia’s major sports signed a formal commitment to eliminate homophobia.

“They received a lot of great media attention but they clearly have not followed-through on their commitments,” he said.

“I’m not sure how to drive this issue forward. We need to find a way to get the guys who lead sport to care about this problem.

“Perhaps it would help if the government and major sponsors put pressure on the governing bodies and leagues. We can’t keep ignoring this problem and hoping it will be fixed by time.”

If you need someone to talk to, help is available from QLife on 1800 184 527 or online at QLife.org.au, Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

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