As the media storm created by Jason Akermanis abates, it is worthwhile examining the evidence around homophobia in sport before we plot our way forward. In his widely publicised article last week, Aker claimed that gay athletes should stay in the closet because: 1) there would be a media frenzy if gay AFL players came out, which could break the fabric of a club; and 2) it’s not the job of the (gay athlete) minority to make the football environment inclusive and safe.
Research on same-sex attracted young people in Australia indicates that many same-sex attracted young people feel good about their sexuality, but large numbers experience regular abuse and discrimination that have adverse consequences for their health and well being. Those who suffer regular verbal and physical abuse fare worse on nearly every indicator of health and well-being. Negative impacts range from stress and anxiety to isolation and depression, with many victims progressing to self-harming behaviours. Many same-sex attracted youth avoid abuse because they keep their identities hidden, but this requires close self-monitoring of public behaviour. This research also indicates that schools and sports are the principal sites of homophobic abuse and harassment.
It is no secret that sport, especially contact sports such as football and rugby, are thought to be bastions of masculinity. The emphasis on strength, power, and aggression as indicators of masculinity can make life difficult for non-athletic males or those who are, or who are perceived to be, feminine or gay. One only has to look at schoolyard bullying to see how it is often non-athletic boys or effeminate looking or acting boys who are harassed and victimised.
“That’s so gay” is commonly used as a negative epithet to ridicule others. In sport, some athletes and coaches employ jocular and derisive put-downs that associate male weakness with being a woman or “poofter”. You do not have to go far into suburban footy to hear a coach admonish a poorly performing team by saying they are “playing like a pack of girls”, or “nannas”. Sexist and homophobic “jokes” have been common fare on television broadcasts such as The Footy Show.
Former Olympic swimmer Daniel Kowalski, who was critical of Aker’s comments, admits that sport, in particular, reinforces the view that being gay is wrong, and that his fear of ridicule and harassment prevented him from coming out during his career. Since recently coming out, after his retirement from sport, he has experienced nothing but support. While it may be heartening for closeted athletes to hear that Daniel has been supported so well, it may not be the case for gay athletes still competing in their sports.
Aker admits that he and other players, at one time, felt uncomfortable about being in the showers with a teammate who was known to be gay. He goes to speak on behalf of other footballers to claim that most of them, these days, would also be uncomfortable. In a society where heterosexual men are thought to have a monopoly on the sexual gaze, it may be uncomfortable for a straight man to think that he might be viewed this way. Aker may have experienced what many women experience on a daily basis: being viewed as sexual objects by men.
This provides some context to make sense of Aker’s comments. What really fuelled the critics, however, was Jason’s comments that “It’s not the job of the minority to make the environment safer”. This statement was taken to mean that gay athletes should not stand up for themselves, and that they should resign themselves to the fact that homophobia in football culture is too entrenched at present for any chance of meaningful change. He appeared to have a cautious, protective, and possibly defeatist mentality.
One strategy to redress homophobic discrimination in sport is to encourage closeted gay athletes to come out “loud and proud” to assert their rights and advocate for changes in perceived hostile environments. To do so requires courage and resilience, especially when coming out may cause a backlash. Moreover, change might come about more readily if more gay (and straight) athletes stood up to challenge homophobia. Another strategy is to encourage mainstream institutions such as sporting clubs to take an honest and hard look for signs of discrimination within their operations. By creating a safe, inclusive and supportive environment for gays and lesbians in sport, it is far more likely they will feel comfortable about coming out.
Aker was suggesting that coming out can be difficult for gay footballers, and that there is more work to be done before AFL can be thought of as a safe and inclusive environment for doing so. His message, however, went astray. He did not acknowledge the positive work of the AFL, the Australian Football League Players’ Association, and other organisations to challenge and eliminate racist, sexist, homophobic and other discriminatory behaviours in sport.
Aker’s comments came on the day VicHealth launched the report Come Out To Play, by Victoria University academic and colleague, Caroline Symons. The report highlighted the harmful effects of homophobia in sport and made recommendations to redress the problems. At this same launch, covered widely by the media, Daniel Kowalski affirmed the report’s recommendations and Western Bulldogs coach Rodney Eade asserted his club’s commitment to equality in football, including sexual orientation.
Aker is on to something. It’s a shame the clumsy presentation of his views obscured his aim to “lessen public bias against homosexuality”, and his hopes that gay athletes will “enjoy their sporting lives without experiencing any prejudice”. His comments however, do provide a bit of a reality check. There is still much work to be done before our hopes and dreams for a sporting world that is free of discrimination are realised. The commotion he has stirred has already led to a productive discussion. The debate has been opened up. We now need to work towards a sporting culture and club environment that protects the dignity of all football players, gay and straight.