Homophobia: when sport is not a level playing field

Posted on January 30, 2014

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Dr Fletcher: many sports clubs are not inherently inclusive.

With Australians’ love of all things sport, it’s an activity that can be a great leveller or agent for social change.

But this is not always how things play out. Sexism, racism and bullying can occur in any number of sporting codes and change rooms.

One area of discrimination that tends to receive less attention is the experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual sports people.

La Trobe University Researcher Dr Gillian Fletcher, from the Australian Centre for Sex, Health and Society, is attempting to redress this.

Sport and inclusion

Her study focus is sport and inclusion, whatever a participant’s sexual orientation.

Working with VicHealth, Dr Fletcher is looking at whether sport should be promoting programs that encourage participation and inclusion of people of all sexualities, and asking the question: do gay, lesbian and bisexual people pay a price for participating in mainstream sports clubs?

Her research says yes. ‘Many sports clubs are not inherently inclusive, regardless of whether someone is straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual,’ she says.

Dr Fletcher is also lead evaluator for the Victorian Equal Opportunities and Human Rights Commission’s Fair go, sport! project supported by out gay Australian Rules footballer Jason Ball.  A big contingent of sports players are expected to turn out in support of Fair go, Sport! at the Midsumma Pride March, this Sunday (February 2, 2014).

Popular image challenged

Dr Fletcher argues while there is a popular image of sport as an activity where everyone is equal – her data uncovers the opposite attitude.

Handballed into the 'too hard' basket: 'if it goes further than this, then come back and see us...'

Handballed into the ‘too hard’ basket: ‘if it goes further than this, then come back and see us…’

‘It shows that for gay, lesbian and bisexual people, sport is complicated by widespread assumptions of heterosexuality in mainstream clubs.

‘Gay male interviewees who conformed to a “normative” presentation of masculinity found a type of acceptance, but it was mainly dependent on not making waves,’ she says.

The research shows that for gay, lesbian and bisexual people in mainstream sport there are often strings attached.

Many fear disharmony and rocking the boat by ‘coming out’. For those who do – like ‘Ben’, a 25-year-old Rugby Union player interviewed by Dr Fletcher for her research – the fallout can be complicated.

Just ignore it?

While most of Ben’s team mates accept him and see his sexuality as just part of who he is, he says, there is one who persists in abusing him during training, making comments under his breath.

‘(Comments) along the lines of you’re a faggot or poof or whatever,’ Ben says. ‘I have brought it up with a couple of other people at the club and they’ve sort of said not to worry about it, he’s just got a chip on his shoulder … there’s eighteen other people here, if you have any other problems or anything, if it goes further than this, then come back and see us. But at this point we’ll keep an eye out and just, and try to, you know, ignore it and just do your own thing.’

Ben does so. However, he admitted that, at training, this same team mate ‘likes to try and knock me round a little bit … like when we’ve got the tackling pads … he’ll hold the pad for everyone but when I come, every now and then he likes to drop the pad and put his elbow out.’

Progress to genuine inclusion

Gillian Fletcher is hoping to make inroads into genuine sport inclusion and education around the issue.

She leads a steering committee that brings together representatives from VicHealth, VicSport, Sport and Recreation Victoria, the AFL, Hockey Victoria and the Victorian Equal Opportunities and Human Rights Commission.

Former elite field hockey goalkeeper Gus Johnston shares his experiences on the ‘Fair go, sport!’ website – and explains the ‘harsh reality and consequence of sport’s ingrained passiveness, and at times active, discriminative homophobic behaviour’.

The group will use her research findings to try to make inclusive changes and offer better education at both a sports playing level, through to sports managers, administrators and club presidents.

The last word to Dr Fletcher: ‘What this shows is that a love of sport is not enough to make a team, or club, inclusive.

‘More work needs to be done on people’s attitudes to difference – difference in terms of sexuality, but also in terms of ability, race, religion – and to promoting the reality that diversity within a club is a strength not a threat.’ – Catherine Garrett

Watch Gus Johnston on ‘The reality of homophobia in sport’