17 May marked IDAHOBIT Day, the annual International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia.
Our guest speaker at assembly this week was Australian actor and former professional rugby league footballer, Mr Ian Roberts. In the mid-1990s, Ian was the first rugby league player in the world to publicly come out as gay.
Ian openly shared his story of courage and care. A child of working-class English migrant parents, and growing up in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, he was aware from the age of seven that he was gay but felt unable to tell his parents.
Making his 1st grade debut with the South Sydney Rabbitohs in 1986, Ian had a distinguished rugby league career in the 1980s-90s. During the 1980s he felt terrified about revealing his sexuality, and explained that he couldn’t come out while playing with the Rabbitohs. He shared with Waverley how different society was at that time and its extreme homophobia.
Ian shared the importance of role models, citing his deep admiration of English footballer Justin Fashanu, who in 1990 was the first man internationally to declare publicly that he was gay, whilst still playing. Ian explained that at the time, this act was very important to LGBTQIA+ people, but unfortunately was not welcomed by the media and fans.
By 1990, Ian had just been signed to play rugby league with Manly. Ian too was ready to tell the world about his sexuality, but after seeing what happened to Justin Fashanu, didn’t feel he could do it. It took another four years until Ian was ready to tell the world. When he came out publicly at 24, he experienced verbal attacks, particularly that he was setting a bad example for kids. Despite these bigoted opinions, the rugby league community and the general public embraced him, and by 1996 he was made captain of the North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville. He said that having a gay man captaining a club was very progressive in the 1990s as homophobia in society was still massive.
Ian acknowledged that things have changed a lot, citing marriage equality and reduced discrimination as positives. But he acknowledged that there are still issues in Australian private/religious schools with transgender student enrolment.
He stressed to Waverley the importance of people having the right to be respected for who they are, and he illuminated the roles of ‘bystanders’ who stand by and watch, and ‘upstanders’ who take the harder, braver choice and won’t let other people treat others as less. “What you’re willing to walk by is what you’re willing to accept”, Ian said.
Ian’s views on masculinity and male stereotypes also struck a chord. He unpacked the word ‘masculinity’, saying that masculinity itself is not toxic, but that it becomes toxic when men don’t know how to ask for help. He believes that society teaches toxic masculinity and does much to discourage men from showing affection and gentleness. He reminded Waverley that it is okay for students to care for their mates and show love to their mates – and that this doesn’t mean they’re “in love” with their mates.
Everyone deserves time to discover and maintain control of their own journey in understanding their sexual identity, and Ian suggested that ‘allies’ are part of positive masculinity. Students will know their allies, because these are the people who are curious, interested, and will listen when they are ready to talk. Allies will help students feel accepted, included and respected. An ally will call out homophobia. He reminded students that, “It takes courage to care.”
Ian generously offered students the opportunity of a Q&A after his talk and there were eager questions. Ian reminded us that it was healthy to keep conversations about sexual identity going in a context where others respect privacy and don’t make their own assumptions. Sharing a poignant example from his childhood, he cautioned that derogatory ‘casual language’ can be so devastating to LGBTIQ+ people.
Waverley sincerely thanks Ian Roberts for being a role model of bravery, openness gentleness and humility.