Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Australian Football League starts to 'Say No' to homophobia

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BRISBANE -- An Australian football oval has never been a particularly welcoming venue for a gay man but in the past seven days the heterosexual monopoly on "footer" appears to have given way to a more level playing field.

Instead of beery advertisements featuring bikini-clad beauties, a preliminary finals game last Friday night featured the start of a new media campaign to stamp out homophobia.

Australians can be portrayed on the international stage as harbouring all sorts of strange prejudices against a range of minorities. The truth is many of us are sophisticated, progressive, well-travelled folk with an egalitarian outlook effortlessly finding common ground with people from all walks of life.

That said, it's an incontestable fact gay men have found Australia's football culture a challenge. Faggot, pansy, queer, "shirt lifter'' or the slightly less barbed, British-inspired "poofter'' (which in recent years can occasionally be used, between consenting adults, with genuine affection) are epithets that have been tossed around football dressing sheds for more than a century.

Young men engaged in such a physically competitive sport often attempt to demean and diminish one another, sometimes in good-humoured temper, sometimes in a cold, vicious manner.

The self-outing of one of the hard men of rugby league, Ian Roberts, in the 1990s went some way to extinguishing the flames of bigotry and ignorance underwriting such language. But even Roberts admits today there are still commercial issues and management pressures when a footballer is identified as gay.

And it's true that in a wider sense Australia has proven itself far slower than Canada in putting the medieval days of homophobia behind it.

The Federal Parliament, by way of example, is still reluctant to support gay marriage. Just last week, a Conservative Senator Cory Bernardi, during a debate on gay marriage, somehow managed to thread together gay unions with an outbreak of bestiality. It was a long bow, and Bernardi did insist people view his comments in their context, so here they are:

"There are even some creepy people out there who say that it's OK to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals. Will that be a future step?''

The senator was forced to resign from a position as parliamentary secretary by his deeply socially conservative boss, Opposition leader Tony Abbott. But his comments did highlight the spot fires of hysteria still flaring up on the fringes of any discussion on homosexuality in a country where, only a generation ago, some sworn police officers regarded "poofter bashing'' as a legitimate form of recreation.

Fortunately, last Friday night a fresh breeze began blowing through the old, sweat-stained locker-room of 20th-century machismo when an Australian Football League preliminary finals match between Sydney and Melbourne was preceded by the Say No to Homophobia' campaign.

It was less than a month ago that gay footballer Jason Ball began urging the AFL to use the grand final season as a springboard for an anti-homophobia protest. Ball's urgings followed, though were not necessarily inspired by, an incident a few weeks earlier when a Melbourne player called an opponent a " homo.''

Up to 26,000 people signed a petition launched by Ball through social media and soon AFL boss Andrew Demetriou saw the 24-year-old was on to something, and green-lighted the advertisements.

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Ball even received an encouraging email from one of Australia's greatest legal minds, Justice Michael Kirby, a former High Court judge who came out as a gay in 1999.

Now Demetriou says the AFL, which has already run hugely successful programs to reduce racism in the code, may go a step further in fighting homophobia with a gay pride game.

"A pride game is one of the options we're looking at,'' he told the Australian newspaper.

"If it's something that we think we can help raise awareness and shift attitudes, than we would support it.''


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press Australia correspondent. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2012 A13


Updated on Friday, September 28, 2012 at 5:13 PM CDT: Tweaks headline

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