Playing with Pride31 October 2012
Footballer Tom Wilson reflects on the realities of sexuality in sport, and the importance of an inclusive AFL culture.
I sit in my room, door closed, and watch Gus Johnston’s video again. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it on Youtube, more than 20 perhaps.
Gus played hockey for most of his life at the same club as two of my good friends. Whenever we spoke about the club they always talked about Gus. In my mind he was the mystical, heroic goal keeper and all-round good guy. A good club man. The best bloke ever. A champion. All the things a man is supposed to be.
A year after he retired at the end of 2010, Gus made this video. He sat and stared at the camera and introduced himself as a writer, art director, filmmaker, hockey goal keeper, and a gay man. This is something he had concealed his whole life—for 32 years. I watch him again as he says this. His hands scratch nervously and shake, his shoulders shift uneasily.
When I first watched it I wondered if there were people like Gus at my footy club. What their experience was like. How they do it with so much bullshit being said about gays, fags, homos, queers, fudgers… you name it, it’s been said. It’s ingrained in the culture of footy in some weird way. I’ve heard things, but at times I’ve stayed silent and left those comments unchecked.
On a Tuesday night the slap of the footy on leather boots punctuates the ringing of voices in the distance. Blokes shouting out other blokes’ names like foghorns. The coach’s whistle pierces the air and the players come storming in to the centre of the ground. Once huddled, guys put their arms around one another, pat each other on the arse and listen intently to the coach. Nothing is thought of it.
The huddle breaks up. I can hear the end of a conversation off to my left. It changes from quiet talking to yelling across the growing void between the two players as they jog to different sections of the ground. One player shouts something like “Yeah rumour is he’s a fag.” The other one shouts back “Oh yeah? I know he’s a poof. And Dave fucken loves cock ’cos he’s a gay cunt, but I didn’t know about him. There you go, hey!”
In his video, Gus admits that he never stood up to anyone who made gay slurs like this and feels in some way complicit in the situation and the cycle of homophobic abuse. We’re all in it together, he says. It burns to think that someone who is a victim of that treatment feels part of the problem because they fear standing up to their oppressors.
The weird thing is there are a lot of people who make gay slurs that they don’t believe. It’s as if it makes you more of a man to pay out on gays because they apparently don’t fit in to some incredibly narrow and misguided stereotype of masculinity.
Sitting in my room I scroll down and read some of the comments on Gus’ video. There is one that still haunts me every time I read it. But it has come to represent something special in my life. The writer, a 17 year old called Munfarid, says to Gus:
“Friday afternoon I told my best friend I was gay after we finished a game of soccer. He told me it was disgusting that a fag was pretending to be a man by playing sports. It killed me. I found this video a day after I had planned out how I would take my life. It’s almost funny—as you spoke, I saw bits of myself in you. If you survived through this nightmare, maybe I will too. I don’t even care if you’re right, just the hope you might be is enough. Thank you Mr. Johnston.”
I remember reading that for the first time, the words of someone who was about to take their own life. Or was at least considering it in earnest. It shook me; I couldn’t sleep. I just wanted to let him know that it was going to be okay and beg him to not do anything stupid, to hang in there. So I did.
In his emails, Munfarid described the moment he told his best friend he was gay after a soccer game. “He thought I was joking. When it finally registered in his mind, his face contorted into an expression of disgust. He told me how pathetic it was that I was trying to make up for being a fag, not being a real man by playing sports.”
His world was caving in on itself. His best friend and parents had rejected him for being gay. He told me that with every passing day the options he had were narrowing until there simply wasn’t any other choice than taking his own life.
In his video, Gus speaks about the opportunity for the broader sporting community to rise above these attitudes, and the idea that sport can transcend those societal norms. When he started playing hockey he transformed from being Angus, the red headed kid at school that people teased, to being Gus the goalkeeper.
Munfarid experienced something similar: “I didn’t want to have thoughts of any kind, just complete silence. When I play soccer, I stop thinking of everything else in life and just focus on the game. I want nothing more than that sometimes.”
It’s amazing how small actions can yield profound outcomes. Before I wrote this piece, I read over the messages that have flown between Munfarid and I over the last few months. I still get emotional.
“Every word that you’ve said to me has filled me with a little more of that hope. I can’t even begin to tell you what this means to me. I’ve never had someone talk to me with such acceptance and even promotion of being gay before. Being able to tell someone about what I’ve gone through and hearing your kind words may have just saved me, as strange as that may sound.”
I believe that silence can be deafening. It is a choice, an action in itself. What people perceive to be harmless really hurts and it contributed to a huge amount of pain and hardship in Gus’ life. It is clear that this is a consistent experience for so many in the LGBTI community, including my own twin brother.
When I even think of people giving him shit about being gay, I can feel my muscles tense and my fists clench. It scares me to think what I would do if it happened. He’s told me a few stories and I struggle to contain myself. Every now and then when I think of him, I think of that. I get protective and the anger builds.
Addressing these homophobic attitudes in sport, as in society, can seem insurmountable. Particularly in something as dominated by masculine ideals as AFL footy. It can be whittled down to a choice. Staying silent and not challenging those comments and attitudes is a choice. Damage is caused by both saying hurtful things and ignoring them. Both create a cycle that does not need to exist. I know that sometimes in my silence I am part of that cycle.
Supporting a gay teammate and letting them know you are on their side can make a difference. Making the choice to show leadership by standing up to someone who makes unacceptable comments makes a difference—whether you know one of your teammates is gay or not. It has the potential to create much more inclusive AFL culture rather than one which excludes so many of its own.