Ian Roberts: Finding Out
By Paul Freeman
Random House, 1997, 325 pp.,
Review by Phil Shannon
"AIDS will finish you in hell. SODOMIST. An arsehole bandit. You are pure filth and will die SOON!". Thus ran one of the letters to Ian Roberts — Souths, Manly and Australian Rugby League star — after his coming out as gay in 1996.
The right-wing Christian bigots ("pro-life", no doubt) were fond of the capital letters and invocations of death in their outrage at Roberts but, as Paul Freeman shows in his biography of Roberts, their prejudice and hate were heavily outweighed by the praise Roberts received from gays and non-gays.
It hadn't been easy for Roberts to make his homosexuality public. From the first burst of puberty in the early '70s in the working-class seaside suburb of South Coogee, when the lead singer of the Bay City Rollers was the unlikely object of Roberts' first desires, to his posing nude for the magazine Blue in 1995, Roberts had had to hide his sexuality or to skirt delicately around the rumours by referring to his "different lifestyle".
His youth passed in "a confusion of unformed and unanswered questions about self-worth, self-respect and masculinity". He had thought of quitting rugby league in 1985, unwilling to either sneak around with his secret or to risk damage to his sporting career by coming out, but he stubbornly persevered even in the face of other gay footballers who dodged the issue with secrecy, denial or concealment in heterosexual marriage.
The going was a little easier from 1986 when, as a Souths senior side regular, he found that players from an Aboriginal, ethnic or poor background, targets of prejudice themselves, would more readily empathise with him, "even if it meant challenging the rules of manhood". He was also fortunate in being able to win tolerance and respect because of his exceptional sporting ability.
This was always short of unconditional acceptance of his sexuality, however. When Roberts left Souths for Manly in 1990, the triple fracture of his cheek, the fractured jaw and other facial injuries he received at the hands of his former team mates as "Redfern rough justice" turned out to be not as damaging as the wave of homophobia that was unleashed against him.
As Roberts became more visible at gay nightclubs and events such as the Mardi Gras, opposition players would use homophobic taunts against him, spectators would punch him in the head as he was leaving the field or signing autographs, and abuse and punches were thrown in equal measure against Roberts and his boyfriends in the streets of Sydney.
Driven to near breakdown in 1991, Roberts decided to stop being a punching bag and to prise open the closet. He invited his partner to attend Manly training sessions, as heterosexual players' wives could do, and the players accepted his boyfriend, soon allowing him to wear the Sea Eagle mascot suit.
Rugby league stars who got to know Roberts supported and defended him; international reps such as Terry Hill, Glen Lazarus and Alfie Langer made him feel comfortable and accepted his gay friends in England during the Australian tour to England.
With his move to Superleague in 1997, Roberts became the first open gay ever to captain a rugby league team — the North Queensland Cowboys, inauspiciously located in redneck Townsville.
As an out gay in the community and on the footy field, Roberts had finally found self-acceptance and self-confidence. The doubt, the secrecy, the fear were vanquished. Where Roberts went, many gays took heart to follow.
The social problem of homophobia, as Freeman shows, still remains, of course. Gay youth are made homeless by being thrown out by intolerant parents; gays are victims of hate crimes, verbal harassment and the assault of images of heterosexuality as "normal". All this drives some gay youth to suicide attempts.
And the climate was heated by an election in 1996 which returned a prime minister who, by preaching against the evil of "political correctness", gives the thumbs up that it is "OK to be loudly hateful, divisive and narrow-minded because that's 'freedom of speech'".
Roberts' decision to come out is a courageous act against this trend, though not enough on its own. Nor is the politics of tolerance advocated by the book.
To challenge gay oppression, the power structures that keep gays oppressed have to be fought by gays demanding equality, a process which opens up deeper theoretical and political issues of the function that gay oppression serves in the ideological defence of the family and the function of the family in capitalist society.
Freeman dips his toes in these waters, but his resolutely liberal politics and his predilection for the theory of the genetic cause of homosexuality prevent him from taking the plunge.
Ian Roberts' story is a positive challenge to the stereotypes, ignorance and fear that feed homophobia. The big-hitting prop forward also challenges the stereotypes of masculinity with his sensitivity, gentleness and compassion.
When the fortress of homophobic, heterosexual, masculinist rugby league starts cracking, the time when a person's sexuality won't matter a jot is just that much more visible.