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International Day against Homophobia

Speaking about Silence - Homophobia in the Sports World

 - Kylie O’Connell, Acting Commissioner for Equal Opportunity

On this International Day against Homophobia, I have been in a somewhat reflective mood. I am reminded that it is only in my lifetime, in the 1970s, that homosexuality ceased to be considered a crime. It was only in the 1980s that it ceased to be considered a mental illness. Only for the last 25 years has our law protected homosexual people from discrimination in public life. Only for the last 3 years has it legally recognised same-sex couples equally with other couples (but only then if they co-habited). Law reform has been hard fought and won.

While the law has made great strides in delivering equality for us. The bad news, of course, is that - as we know - changing the law does not automatically change attitudes. Despite the law’s best efforts, we still live in a society in which gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered and intersexed individuals encounter hostility, abuse and sometimes violence.

A 2003 New South Wales study, for instance, surveyed 600 gay and lesbian people and found that 85% of them had experienced some form of harassment over their sexuality. A 1998 study of 750 young Australians found that 1 in 3 had experienced discrimination because of their sexuality and 1 in 6 had experienced physical abuse.

School and sport were identified as the two sites where this was most likely to happen. A follow-up study in 2004 showed little improvement in these figures - indeed, reports of discrimination actually increased. Moreover, young people who reported discrimination and abuse fared worse on every indicator of health and well being than their peers.

It is particularly ironic that homophobia occurs in sport. The overriding value that is supposed to be embodied in sport is fairness. Sport is meant to be an equalizer. It’s meant to be the one area of life where you are judged not on who you are but on what you can do. You would think, then, that even when prejudice might prevail in other areas of life, sport would be the one arena where merit is all that matters.

But it seems it doesn’t work like that. So far, our society falls far short of extending equal opportunity in sport to homosexual people. Research, as well as experience, tells us that many homosexual participants in sport experience abuse and intimidation. For instance, preliminary results of the Victorian Come Out To Play study, looking at the experiences of almost 300 gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered and intersexed participants, found that nearly half - 42% - had encountered homophobic talk in their sports club.

We should be a society in which sport is open equally to everyone. As well as promoting good health, sport is an important means of belonging to your community, as anyone who has ever moved to a country town knows. No-one should have to feel excluded from sport because of their sexuality. All of us have a responsibility to make our sporting clubs and teams welcoming, inclusive places where everyone’s contribution is valued. It is about having and giving a ‘fair go’.

Attitudes can catch up with the law. It is up to all of us to speak out and to draw public attention to this issue with events like this one.

I would like to be able to say to you that on this International Day against Homophobia where we are focusing, in particular, on sport – that I have been reminiscing about my own sporting achievements. Unfortunately I cannot say this. Instead I have been reflecting on the marvellous woman who is Martina Navratilova. I, along with many of my friends – particularly my girlfriends - would stay up late into the night watching her beat and occasionally be beaten by Chris Evatt Lloyd.

Martina inspired many a woman tennis player – but she also inspired many gay men and in particular lesbian women to be OUT, Proud and enormously successful.

Role models such as Martina and our own Daniel Kowalski, Mathew Mitcham and Ian Roberts are culturally important icons who stand against homophobia and instead invite us to celebrate difference. And I for one – want to play on their team!