2 May 2019

Homophobia difficult to tackle in sport - researcher

10:18 am on 2 May 2019

People being gay or bisexual is not something to fear, but it's something sports organisations in New Zealand are finding difficult to address, a researcher says.

rugby ball

Photo: 123RF

University of Otago researcher Sally Shaw's recent research shows there's still a long way to go in including sexuality in conversations about diversity in sport.

It comes as Wallabies rugby star Israel Folau was stood down after posting anti-gay comments based on Old Testament teachings.

Dr Shaw spoke to managers from national organisations for rugby, netball, hockey, league, football and cricket and says they all made it clear that they were only at the early stages of working out what to do about the problem.

Her research comes after a recent study from Monash University in Melbourne, which showed that homophobic language is common in rugby.

She said sports organisations needed to step up and look within their own ranks as they worked to remove any stigma associated with being gay in the sports arena.

"Lots of people would say 'well, I'm not homophobic, I support gay rights', but we still can't quite seem to have those conversations within sport, and that hasn't changed for a long time."

However, she said progress was being made.

"I think we just need to be a little bit braver at the policy and governance level about really stepping up and saying that sexuality is just one part of somebody's identity, it's not something to fear.

"It's just like having brown hair or blue eyes, it's not something to be afraid of."

Organisations could look to people within their own organisations, some of whom were bound to be gay, to see how they could help open up the conversations.

New Zealand Falcons rugby team member Carl Whilshire agreed sexuality was hard to talk about.

The Falcons are a gay and inclusive men's rugby team in Auckland.

Mr Whilshire said a common thread between him and his team mates was feeling isolated within sport because of their sexuality before they joined the team.

Things were getting better, he said, but there needed to be a huge cultural change before there was even acknowledgement there was an issue.

"The people who need to step up and say that this isn't okay are the teams ... the coaches.

"I think if the responsibility solely falls on the LGBTQI community to be speaking on this, then we're just going to be a voice that's shouting and not really being heard."

He said he did not think sports teams liked to embrace uncomfortable issues.

"There is also this idea of like 'why do we need to care about this issue - at the end of the day doesn't just sport matter?'.

"It's hard to talk about because people don't understand that being inclusive affects certain people who may struggle to talk about their sexuality themselves."

Mr Whilshire said the issue was swept under the rug, or not treated as important to sport - but he and his team, and others, were trying to change that.

The people who were affected often struggled to speak up because they were afraid, he said.

Rugby New Zealand says it's working on being more inclusive

Rugby New Zealand has been highlighted as one organisation that is trying to be more inclusive.

Chief operating officer Nicki Nicol said as the country's largest sport, rugby had a position of privilege, and had been working to make the sport more inclusive.

She said the entire organisation was involved - and had gained a rainbow tick.

"That's an independent assessment, we're the first national sporting organisation to get the rainbow tick.

"That really involves a number of things, it really looks at your internal policies around inclusion, and what that really means. There was a number of education courses that we rolled out for all of our staff."

Ms Nicol said New Zealanders needed to be on board, too.

"I would hope within the rugby community people would feel comfortable, but it's the extra step within that wider social acceptability.

"I suppose that will be the litmus test that when people feel comfortable that New Zealand society has moved far enough along that spectrum that it's safe for someone, particularly in the men's game, to take that position.

She said it was about leadership, and that respect and inclusion had become a strategic priority for the organisation.

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