A common idea when discussing progress for the LGBTQIA+ community is that things are changing generation by generation.
There is definitely evidence to suggest young people are more likely to identify as LGBTQIA+ than before, despite the also increasing levels of anti-trans sentiment in particular across various different outlets. That is a sign of the developments that have come over the last few decades, with some issues that were prevalent in the 1980s and 90s seemingly consigned to the past.
Considering even now it is rare to see LGBTQIA+ representation in men’s team sports, though, it would be easy to assume that the culture in that environment during those years was also far worse than it may be today. Still, there were people who came out – like Matt Hall.
Hall was the first Aussie Rules player to come out, and made history in another sense too by taking the governing body to court to argue that he should still be allowed to compete as a HIV+ man – a case he won.
When he first came out, Hall anticipated that the revelation would end his playing career. Thankfully that was not the case, but in his time since then working in projects like Pride House and as a volunteer, he believes he is seeing those signs of change first hand.
“The stereotype of a gay male was that they were very effeminate, promiscuous – the way that a gay male was portrayed in the media was that they were always camp,” he recalled.
“They were hairdressers or ballerinas, or flight attendants, but certainly not a rugby league or Australian Rules football player.
“I believe it is changing. It’s a very slow change, we are yet to have an Australian Rules footballer at the most elite level publicly come out as gay. I believe there have previously been Aussie Rules footballers at the most elite level that have identified as gay, but they haven’t been public about it.
“I think things are improving generally for the LGBTIQ+ community with inclusion and acceptance, and there are more role models from general sports, or other celebrities, people with public social media accounts that are considered influencers identifying with LGBTIQ+. I think the younger generation generally is more accepting, they seem more open to the idea of one of their friends or family identifying as LGBTIQ+.
“There’s still more work to be done though. Mental health issues in the LGBTIQ+ community has been shown to be higher than the general public, and that’s a concern. Specifically, I think trans people have been shown to have a 40% higher suicide rate than the rest of the community.
“There are still battles to be fought and areas to win with the inclusiveness and equality for the LGBTIQ+ community, but it is improving. I think the younger generation have a better grasp of what’s in the best interests of their community, they’re much more understanding and empathetic to various different backgrounds than traditionally have been in sport and Australian society.
“I don’t know what it would have been like (if I had come out younger) because every generation has a different approach to it. I would hope that I would have still had the support that I received when I did come out, but it was a very homophobic environment in the 1990s. I don’t know how it would have been received publicly if I had come out as gay any earlier.”
One of those younger athletes who have come out, and been all the better for it, is hurdler Ethan Akanni.
As a founding member of the Athletics Pride Network, Akanni’s confidence went from strength to strength as a valued voice in his community, as well as having the chance to hear and learn from other people’s experiences.
His own includes clear evidence of the progress that has been made from his schooldays, where even he could see that more people felt comfortable coming out in the younger years.
“Everything is developing and changing very quickly,” Akanni reasoned.
“That is a good thing in terms of inclusion, and we have equality for a lot of things, but I also think it’s important to look back and see how far we’ve come – a lot of people just want to ignore the history and move forward, but I think it’s important to look back to see where we started, and where we’re going.
“It potentially is a generational thing, because in the years below me when I was still at school there were quite a few queer people. In the year below there was a transgender girl, and she hadn’t fully transitioned but she was able to join the female PE classes, because we usually split it up. She was able to actually be with people that she identified, which was really inspiring, I was really happy with my school for doing that.
“I didn’t realise it until a couple of years ago, because it just seemed normal, which is good. You wouldn’t think something like that would be normal because of the way people think about it or how backwards people can be, but it was quite nice that it just happened with no questions asked.
“Speaking of education in schools, one of my old teachers actually reached out to me a couple of years ago to ask if they could use me and my story as an assembly in their new school. She’s not at my old school anymore, but the fact that she’s sharing my story is still very inspiring, because we didn’t see much of that when I was going through school. I wish that something like that had been shared in an assembly when I was at school, because it would have helped me feel more comfortable.”
Normality is another recurring theme when talking to anyone about their identity – whether that is a wish for how things will continue to progress, something they want to achieve by telling their story or the need to appear “normal” being a reason why they did not feel comfortable with their identity earlier.
Most obviously, because of the distinct lack of representation and the occasional misguided headline drawing full attention to the fact, the sport where being LGBTQIA+ has the furthest to go before really achieving normalisation is men’s football.
Even there, though, there have been examples of people being LGBTQIA+. Former Burton Albion coach Ben Watkiss is one of those, and he believes it is extremely important that being a gay man in football can simply become part of everyday life.
“I think it’s massive – society is moving that way anyway, it’s not like a few years ago where people were still having to fight for equality,” Watkiss said.
“In this country, there’s still a little bit of that, but maybe there always will be – it’s still nowhere near at the levels it has been at in the past. I know in different countries it can be a completely different story, but I think football is going the same way. Maybe it’s a little bit behind where society is now, but I think it’s just a matter of time until it gets to the same position.
“Until we get there, stuff like Rainbow Laces and Football v Homophobia that happens in February is massive, just because it’s something that helps people accept themselves if they are struggling. It allows them to see that just because you’re gay, it doesn’t mean you can’t be involved in football. I know that’s a worry for a lot of people, and it was for me.
“As soon as it gets to that level, all of these campaigns can stop. The aim is that we get to a level where we don’t need campaigns like that because we’re at a point where there’s no longer an issue with LGBT+ people being in football.
“That’s obviously the vision, that we get to a point where it’s not needed. To get there I think we just have to keep doing what we’re doing at the moment.
“I think it has been the last six years or so that the Rainbow Laces campaign has been going on, there are other campaigns as well, and I think that stuff like that always drives you forward. Football is going to be a lot more accepting now, six or seven years in, compared to what it was when the campaign first started. Those campaigns work, they help. People often say that they think it needs more than a set of Rainbow Laces getting worn for two weeks, and I don’t disagree, but it’s a good place to start and it plays a role.
“There are obviously a few people around – Thomas Hitzlesperger came out after he retired, Robbie Rogers played here then went back to America, Colin Martin plays in America, and then in the lower leagues in this country you’ve got the likes of Luke Tuffts managing and Martin Morton.
“If people like that keep coming out, it normalises it. The more people that speak up, the more it normalises it.
“Robbie Rogers left this country very shortly after coming out, Thomas Hitzlesperger felt like he couldn’t come out until after he retired, and it’s a shame that they didn’t feel like they could do it while playing in this country, but it’s a start. It’s a stepping stone, and it gives us somewhere to go from here. I definitely think that there are things in place at the moment to make football more accepting and show how much more accepting it is than people would expect.
“If we keep on doing what we’re doing at the moment, it would definitely help. It maybe doesn’t help completely to get us to that level, we might need something else, but it’s definitely helping.”
There was a significant step forward in men’s football last year when Josh Cavallo became the only professional top flight player in the world to come out as a gay man.
That moment certainly resonated with a lot of people, and drew praise from people inside the LGBTQIA+ community and out, and will hopefully help to continue the progress that has been made.
Cavallo will not have to wonder “what if” when it comes to being an out athlete in Australia, like Hall did. Equally, though, someone in the early stages of their career like Cavallo or Akanni cannot know how things would have gone had they not come out relatively young.
“It’s difficult to say, because you can never really know,” Akanni added.
“I would like to think that I would follow in the footsteps of someone like Tom Bosworth, he came out with a massive spotlight on him.
“It’s different for different people, because not everyone can come out on a massive stage, but obviously some people prefer to do that because you’re addressing everyone at the same time and you don’t have to do it over and over again.
“It’s that one massive release that some people need, but for me it was very much a case of wanting to come out to small groups of people, have that support network behind me and using that to build up to coming out to other people.
“All my friends were a massive part of me coming out to my family – if it wasn’t for them, I don’t even know if I would be out right now. Already being out, it’s definitely like a weight off my shoulders, because I don’t have to worry about it anymore. It’s not holding me back, I can just go out and be me on and off the track, which is very nice.”