Matt Hall: “I doubted myself, and I believed that I couldn’t go on.”

The Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 marked the first time that a Pride House was organised in conjunction with an international multi-sport event.

Since then, it has become a regular part of major sporting events, with Pride Houses in place at the London Olympics in 2012, football’s World Cup in Brazil in 2014, and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow 2014.

The momentum gained in the early part of last decade was met with some challenges – with an unsuccessful attempt to set one up in Sochi in 2014 – but by the time the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games came around four years later things were ready to move to the next level.

The financial backing was more than double that of Glasgow thanks to sponsors, allowing for exhibitions on top of the everyday activities on LGBT+ human rights throughout the Commonwealth and Australian LGBT+ sporting trailblazers.

One of the people featured in the latter was also involved in setting up the Pride House in Queensland – Matt Hall.

Matt Hall was himself featured in one of the exhibitions in Pride House on the Gold Coast in 2018.

In 2002, Hall became the first Australian Rules football player to ever come out as gay in an interview with Blue Magazine.

Historically, Aussie Rules is considered one of most homophobic sports in Australia, meaning that when Hall made the decision to go public he fully expected that to be the end of his playing career.

“They actually did surveys and Australian Rules came in as the lowest for equality and inclusiveness,” Hall recalled.

“It’s seen as a very homophobic environment – calling someone gay or a sissy was a term that tried to put someone down, that tried to diminish them as a person. It was saying that they’re not manly enough to play the game, and it was common for homophobic slurs to be used within the sport.

“Racism was acceptable in Aussie Rules football until not long ago. We had an indigenous player who was racially abused in an Aussie Rules match, and he pulled his shirt up and pointed to the colour of his skin and announced he was proud to be black – and that wasn’t many years ago.

“The sport is behind the majority of the population, it’s seen as such a masculine and tough environment. There’s a certain code of conduct, or level of behaviour, that they find acceptable, and racism and homophobia have been big parts of that story in the sport for many years.

“Those were the historically ideas that they held on to – and I would have been seen as one of the most masculine, blokey participants in my team. There was never a situation where there was a fight on the field that I wouldn’t have been the first one involved.

“I was concerned about how my teammates were going to react to my public coming out, and I thought I wouldn’t play again, but I did and I had the majority support of most of my teammates.

“There were some people in the team that refused to shower with me, or didn’t want me to be in the changing rooms. I was very fortunate that I had the wife of the captain who actually said to the captain and a couple of other players that they had played with me for 10 years playing Aussie Rules football, and in that 10 years had I ever once made them feel uncomfortable?

“Most of my teammates were fairly okay with supporting it, they didn’t have a problem with it, and the few that did came around after a talking to from the wife of the captain. That put them in a place of acceptance.”

Hall first came out as gay in Blue magazine in 2002, becoming the first ever Aussie Rules player to do so.

While Hall had the help of his captain’s wife to move past coming out, it took a nudge from someone else to get him to do the interview in the first place.

In 1995, Ian Roberts became the first rugby league player in the world to come out, defying the stereotype of what a gay man was in that place and time.

He did so in the same magazine Hall would eventually tell his story to, and actually helped set up the call. If not for Roberts actions and words, Hall may not have come out at all after struggling with his sexuality for most of his life.

“It was a massive struggle,” Hall explained.

“I had huge denial over my own personal feelings. I knew from the age of five or six that I was gay, but as a teenager I refused to act on those feelings, and refused to acknowledge that it was possible that I was gay. I was determined to live a life where I would get married and have children, have a family life, and that was the ideal outcome for me.

“Coming to terms with accepting my sexuality was a huge deal for me. It played on my emotional state of mind significantly, I felt that I couldn’t live as a gay male.

“I was fortunate enough that before I did my interview I met an Australian rugby league player by the name of Ian Roberts. Ian played at the highest level, he was the toughest guy in rugby league in Australia, and he had publicly come out long before I did.

“He organised for the same magazine – Blue Magazine – to interview me, because he stressed the importance of having macho, masculine guys who publicly came out.

“Ian was about 6’4, he was built like a huge house, and he was known for his aggressiveness and masculinity on the field, and it was okay for Ian to come out as a gay sportsman. He encouraged me to do the same for Australian Rules football, because nobody else previously had, and he saw the importance of being a role model for those that were younger and might follow in my footsteps.”

Coming out was not the first time Hall had been thrust into the public eye.

Four years earlier, in 1998, he was at the centre of a precedent-setting court case to fight for his right to play sport as a HIV-positive man with a number of Australia’s top experts arguing his case.

Again, that was something Hall was fairly hesitant about doing at first, knowing full well how much media attention would be likely to come his way, but after talking to his doctor he decided to fight to play so that others would not have to go through the same battle afterwards.

Matt Hall went to court to make sure he could play sport after being diagnosed with HIV.

“The situation in Australia was interesting, because I was diagnosed in 1995, and at the time we were told it was a death sentence,” he said.

“I was told I had five or 10 years to live to get my affairs in order, it wasn’t a particularly bright outlook. In 1997, anti-retro-viral medication was introduced to suppress the virus, so people who had HIV could reach an undetectable viral level where they still had the virus in their system, but it wasn’t infectious to other people.

“My doctor at the time encouraged me to go back and play Aussie Rules, and I openly stood up and told my teammates my status when I went back to playing – some of them already knew anyway because they were my friends.

“I told the team that if there were any problems, I would have my doctor come down and speak to them, which he did, and there didn’t seem to be any issues. On my registration and insurance form with the association, it was noted that I was HIV positive, so it was the insurer for the association that refused to insure me to play.

“I was banned from playing Aussie Rules in 1998, and I would probably have been happy to let it go but my doctor assured me that I had the legal and ethical right to participate in Aussie Rules football, and that I would be doing a disservice to other people if I allowed the association to ban me without fighting for it.

“It was a really strong line-up providing evidence that I wasn’t a risk to other participants by taking part in Aussie Rules football, and the ban was overturned by a unanimous decision.

“I went out and played football, and the opposition didn’t seem to treat me any differently. The very first match I played in after being reinstated, I had a scratch on my face that bled, so we just covered it in some bandages to stop the bleeding, and I sustained a fractured rib, so I don’t think they took it easy on me.

“Honestly it was forging that pathway for others that convinced me to fight it. At the time I would have been quite happy to remain anonymous. I knew I would have the public spotlight shined on my case and I was quite happy to go along with the insurer.

“I spoke with my doctor, who I admired greatly, and I appreciated his insight and knowledge. He told me I had an obligation to the community worldwide to stand up against this unfair decision. It was a sense of moral justice that probably persuaded me to persevere with the case.

“HIV in the 1980s and 90s was primarily seen as a gay man’s disease, yet I was still identifying as heterosexual at the time. That probably made things a little bit more difficult, but I still managed to continue on with the lie to myself for a few more years.”

After a court battle and a history-making interview, Hall’s profile was higher than he would have liked.

He struggled to deal with the newfound attention, and there was a sense of regret that he had kept his homosexuality hidden during the fight to play Aussie Rules. Coupled with years of flat out denial over his sexuality, Hall was in a dark place soon after coming out publicly.

“I do public speaking for Beyond Blue, and I openly admit that in 2003 – the year after I came out – I was suicidal,” Hall said.

Hall initially struggled with the spotlight after coming out publicly.

“I made a suicide attempt that was very close to being successful. I called a friend to tell him the door was unlocked, and when he arrived I had to get put into an induced coma for three or four days. When I came out of it, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I didn’t know that I had depression at that time in my life, I just thought it was me refusing to accept my sexuality.

“We’re born the way we are, and although I had publicly come out in gay, in early 2003 I regretted the decision to be so public about it and be so prominent in the media.

“I doubted myself, and I believed that I couldn’t go on. I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel from living as a gay male, which I’m happy to say has completely changed now.

“In hindsight, I wish I had come out about my sexuality much earlier, when I was aware as a teenager. I was aware of how I felt and how I was born, and what I wanted and was attracted to. I just didn’t have the courage or the confidence as a teenager or in my early-20s to do that.

“It was something that came later in life when I realised that I couldn’t go on living a lie. I felt that I had lied to the general public about my sexuality when I was fighting to play football in the 1990s, and it built up to such a point that i couldn’t deny it any longer. I needed to say what the facts were – that I was gay, and it was okay.”

After his suicide attempt, Hall stepped away from advocacy and participating in sport, choosing to focus on his well-being and career instead.

He completed a masters in business, having previously studies sport and event management, and he did not totally separate himself from sport as he worked for major sporting associations – including Formula One on the Australian Grand Prix.

Eventually, he returned to volunteering for causes close to his heart through mental health charities Lifeline and Beyond Blue, as well as sitting on the board of Queensland Positive People, which supports people who have tested positive for HIV in the region.

Coming across a chance advert on Facebook looking for a project manager to spearhead the Gold Coast’s Pride House in 2018 piqued his interest, and with his sports and event management background he took on the role.

Extensive work went into securing financial backing for what Hall wanted to accomplish, which was focused on fully representing the LGBT+ community in a place where there were not many dedicated spaces for them in everyday life.

“It was all about having daily events that represented the LGBTIQ+ community and exhibitions that represented the community as well,” he enthused.

“We paid for advertising, promotions and marketing, we had really good ambassadors like Matthew Mitcham, an Olympic gold medallist in diving who has come out as gay, we had Natalie Cook who was an Olympic gold medallist in beach volleyball who came out as a lesbian.

Matthew Mitcham, the first ever openly gay athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, was a Pride House ambassador in 2018.

“We had really good ambassadors on board that helped us promote the project, and that helped us get a significant amount of media coverage – much greater than what we expected, on both social media and traditional media.

“It was the first Pride House ever held in the southern hemisphere. We had the founder of the inaugural Pride House attend, and he was blown away by the scope of what we were able to achieve and how professionally it was done.

“It was a very special project and one that I’m very happy to have on my CV. It was a really good few weeks at the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast in 2018. It was a time of jubilation I think for the LGBTIQ+ community on the Gold Coast, because there in Queensland doesn’t actually have any prominent LGBTIQ+ venues or events, any Pride or Mardi Gras-style events at all.

“Having a Pride House for two weeks during a Commonwealth Games where people from the LGBTIQ+ community could go and watch sport in a safe and inclusive environment was a very rewarding experience.”

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