Tom Taylor

Tackling homophobia in sport: It’s no time for non-contact

homophobia in sport
Image: AAP/Daniel Munoz

Two weeks ago, five of the most important men in Australian sport gathered together on a stage in Sydney and committed to combating homophobia in sport.

The men, who represented “Australia’s major sporting codes”, promised to tackle homophobia in their respective sports and ensure that the standards were aligned with the “Anti-Homophobia and Inclusion Framework”. The initiative is remarkable, important and, for the potential many thousands who are conflicted about their place in sport because of their own sexual identity, an important step toward to inclusion.

Yet watching these five men standing around on stage – representing Rugby, Cricket, AFL, NRL and Soccer –something was missing.

A woman, and any mention of similar homophobia in women’s sport.

Certainly homophobia manifests in different ways in different scenarios, and I don’t pretend to understand the nuances of these circumstances, but I do know that women in sport are not immune to discrimination on the basis of their sexual identity.

According to The Bureau of Statistics, there are more women that play netball in Australia than there are men in any of the “major sporting codes”. The ANZ Trans Tasman Netball League has elevated the sport to one of the preeminent sporting competitions in the country, with legions of fans all over Australia (and into New Zealand). Indeed, tickets to the final of the 2010 championship sold out in just 12 minutes. The attitudes and public commitments of athletes at the highest level of Australia’s largest sport can and will have a significant impact on the attitudes of its competitors at all levels, and particularly young people in the sport.

So where was Netball Australia when the men took to the stage, and why aren’t we talking about homophobia across the entire sporting board?

It’s hard to understand the causes of this omission. Perhaps it is borne of the misconception that women in sports have a greater freedom to express their sexuality than their male counterparts. Some of the greatest athletes of the past few decades are “out” lesbians – Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Sheryl Swoopes – and yet the emergence of out athletes is not the same across all codes, nor does it necessarily stamp out homophobia.

Contrary to popular belief, the prominence of out athletes in a particular sport may not lay the grounds for acceptance, but instead lead to the propagation of homophobic stereotypes that have myriad and destructive impacts. Perhaps it comes from Netball Australia themselves, who signed up to the “No to Homophobia” campaign in 2012 alongside the AFL, but now willingly believe that homophobia in netball has somehow disappeared.

The exclusion, consciously or not, feeds into sexist notions that women’s sport doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. This thinking allows for the sexualisation of women in sports, in which they are framed as objects of men’s desires (and therefore inherently straight).

Many will insist that this is just the beginning of an important change in how we think about homophobia in sports or that homophobia is particularly prevalent in men’s sport. Indeed, all sports carry different reputations, cultures and stereotypes and so the point is not a single approach to address homophobia, but rather a consciousness at the highest levels of the major sports bodies in the country about the manifestations of homophobia in their respective sporting code. Netball and women in sport must be part of this discussion, because they are not immune from the scourge of homophobia. A change in the commitment, to ensure that the nation’s best netballers stand visibly and publicly alongside the nation’s best cricketers and footballers to address homophobia in their code is essential.

This initiative is a commendable and significant step forward, but until it incorporates the largest participatory team-sport in the country, then the work is only half done.

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  • Rebecca P

    Ok really good points I have to mention the lesbian in my softball team that I played with from 2001 onwards was not bullied but the rest of the women certainly made jokes at her expense. I think this was because of the misconception that sporting women are tomboys and maybe they wanted to prove their hetrosexuality?

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