Australians will often tell overseas visitors that Aussie Rules Football, or simply â€˜footy,’ is like a religion. It’s rare to find an Aussie who doesn’t passionately support an AFL (Australian Football League) team and team rivalries are deeply entrenched in family and footy culture alike. As with most sports, the professional teams are all male and reflect and reinforce traditional male gender roles.
When I read that an Aussie Rules Football player â€“ Jason Ball â€“ had come out publicly as gay (the first ever to do so), I was thrilled to see how it would affect change in this traditional institution. Not only has he come out, he’s also become a passionate spokesperson for eliminating homophobia in the AFL.
Jason started a petition on change.org â€“ which now has over 27,000 signatures â€“ to get the AFL to run anti-homophobia ads during the Grand Final (which, for our non-Aussie readers, is like the Superbowl for Aussie Rules football). It successfully ran on the big screens during the game (and later on national television) and catalyzed a great deal of discussion and attention to the cause.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Jason in person and I was delighted that he agreed to be interviewed for MSP.
Kate: What made you decide to come out to your team and the broader community? Was there something in particular that inspired you?
Jason: I think I did it for kids like myself five years ago. I was really struggling with being gay and involved in a footy community. If I had known that there were other gay footy players, or that you could come out to your team and they would be totally cool with it, it would have completely transformed my outlook
One of the biggest pieces of inspiration for me was Gus Johnston’s coming out video. I could relate to every single thing he said in it and I wanted more people to hear stories like his.
K: What was it like in your football club before you came out?
J: For me it was a case of always second guessing everything that I said or did out of fear that the boys would figure out that I was gay. The footy culture is a blokey one and homophobic slurs are a regular part of games and training. Hearing words like faggot and poofter all the time really make you feel like you’re not going to be welcome there if you come out.
K: What changes do you hope to see in AFL culture?
J: I’m hoping that the AFL will take a leadership role in combatting homophobia, like they have on other issues such as racism and attitudes towards women. I think if the AFL came out strongly against homophobia, rolled out some training and education initiatives at all levels of the game, it would go a long way towards creating a more inclusive and welcoming space for GLBTI players and supporters.
K: Change can be difficult and slow for institutions, especially ones with deeply entrenched gender roles like sports. Have you experienced much resistance to your advocacy for reducing homophobia in the AFL?
J: I think there has been resistance in the past, but what has been different this time is that the campaign has come from a personal angle. By sharing my story and my experiences, I think that’s really helped put the issue into perspective for a lot of people, and to the AFL they can really see me as one of their own.
What has been disappointing so far is that no current AFL players have acknowledged the campaign in any capacity. Having straight allies is a really powerful tool for change – I’ve found that with my own teammates. It would be great if more current AFL players had the courage to speak up on behalf of gay players and supporters.
K: For sports in general, what do you see as the greatest barriers to eliminating homophobia?
J: I think it’s probably the older generations who are the barriers. I think young people get it, because we’ve been brought up in a society where GLBTI people are much more visible, we are more tolerant and accepting, and it’s just not a big deal to us. Older generations on the other hand are harder to crack. It’s hard to change people’s long held views, and homosexuality has been viewed as an illness or a lifestyle choice for a very long time. Education and consciousness raising is the only way to break that down.
K: How can our readers learn more about the work you’re doing?
J: You can read & sign the petition that started it all at http://change.org/afl and you can have a look at the anti-homophobia ad that ran during the Grand Final here:
Follow Jason on Twitter @jasonball88 or follow Kate, the interviewer, @katecom