The Twittersphere was in uproar on Thursday after footballer Jason Akermanis told gay AFL players to stay in the closet. It wasn’t long before Jack Marx replied on Crikey, brilliantly rebutting Akermanis’ article sentence by sentence. Almost overwhelmingly, public opinion seems united under one umbrella sentiment: Jason Akermanis is a homophobic retard.
To be fair, I can understand Jason’s point – AFL has a strong ‘macho’ culture and players are renowned for their juvenile antics. Do a Google News search for Brendan Fevola, Wayne Carey or Ben Cousins for just a few examples. And coming out can be an immensely difficult time. You’re telling your friends that you’re not who they thought you were (although chances are they’ve had suspicions). And for a footballer in the public eye, you’re subjecting yourself to even more attention that you probably wouldn’t appreciate. And you become an ambassador and role model for the gay community.
So I can definitely understand why gay sportspeople can be reluctant to come out. It’s not surprising that athletes like Daniel Kowalski wait until after retirement to announce their sexuality. But I wish they wouldn’t. As with all cultural change we need high profile campaigners, ambassadors and – unfortunately – sometimes martyrs. Would we have had civil rights in America without Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X? Yes, eventually. Would we have had equal rights for women without Germaine Greer or Gloria Steinem? Yes, eventually. Those influential pioneers accelerated the acceptance of their causes. Cultural change still would have happened, but it may have been twenty, thirty or even more years later.
Gay athletes now have a huge opportunity not just to be pioneers of acceptance, but more importantly role models for young people. Akermanis is right when he points out that same-sex attracted teens are at significantly higher risk of suicide. But that’s not a reason to stay in the closet – that’s a reason to come out, celebrate who you are and be a positive role-model. Gay celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris have been inspiration for thousands of people struggling with their sexuality. It’s time footballers were positive role models for a change.