Pride beats prejudice

Rugby world cup poster for a Parisian game, 2008. When the AFL (or any other football code) is more progressive than the governm

In the seemingly endless wave of disgusting prejudice that flows out of the sewer pipe that is the mainstream media, sometimes it can be pleasantly surprising how things turn out.

On May 20, Australian Football League (AFL) star Jason Akermanis said in a Herald Sun column that the football world was not ready for openly gay players, and that those thinking about outing themselves should stay in the closet.

On the same day, David Campbell resigned as NSW minister for transport after being outed by Channel 7 News, who filmed him exiting an all-male sex club.

These two examples of homophobia are nothing uncommon. But the reaction to these events has provided an interesting and encouraging snapshot of the changing attitudes to homophobia in Australia. Akermanis and 7 News have been slammed by the public and media alike.

The two events played to prejudice in different ways. Akermanis recognised that “locker room nudity and homoerotic activities are normal inside footy clubs”. But he argued that the presence of openly gay people would spoil this situation by making other players “uncomfortable” and “could break the fabric of a club”.

He said coming out was unnecessary for any player as it would be “too big a burden” on them, and that anyone thinking about it should “forget it”.

Akermanis’ comments were dismissed by his coach, his club, fellow players and the AFL administration as wrong and out of date. He has been widely criticised by media commentators and the queer community, and potentially faces legal action. Eggs were thrown at his house and car on May 25.

“If it had been written in 1943 or something like that, you could have been forgiven. But in 2010, to hear something like that is just bizarre”, Sydney Swans coach Paul Roos told the Australian on May 21, summing up the sentiment.

The outing of Campbell was an exercise in sleazy tabloid journalism, which backfired badly on Channel 7. The expected moral outrage never came.

Instead, 7 News was lambasted for intruding on Campbell’s personal life. Most have expressed sympathy with Campbell for having to hide this aspect of himself for decades.

The newsworthiness of the story was also questioned, given the much more important stories about Campbell that could have been investigated, such as his incompetence as minister or his involvement in allegedly corrupt regimes at state and local government level.

Sydney Morning Herald columnist John Birmingham said on May 25: “Campbell was not a good minister. New South Wales does not have a good government. The duty of the press is to hold them accountable for this, not to follow them into their bedrooms and wait for a juicy pants down moment before leaping out screaming, ‘Gotcha!’.”

What has happened to cause this shift in public opinion? Certainly, the Australian public has not spontaneously become more progressive or accepting of minorities. The recent public response toward refugees attests to this.

The difference between these two minority groups is that queers have benefited from a growing, mass movement for the past five years, focused on campaigning for equal marriage rights.

By contrast, the campaign for refugee rights, having successfully shifted public opinion during the later years of conservative PM John Howard, went quiet after the election of Labor PM Kevin Rudd. It has only recently begun to revive.

In 2004, gay marriage was supported by only 38% of people in Australia. A 2009 survey commissioned by Australian Marriage Equality showed this had risen to 60%.

A mass campaign can win people to a progressive viewpoint on a particular issue. However, in the absence of a movement, people will tend to revert by default to the reactionary outlook encouraged by the media and other institutions.

The fact that a conservative institution like the AFL has felt the need to publicly condemn homophobia is an achievement of the queer rights movement. The AFL does not have to take a position on players’ sexuality, and for most of its history has not. Now, however, the AFL has judged that it must take a proactive stance by running an anti-homophobia campaign to improve the image of its sporting brand and avoid being viewed as behind the times.

These signs are encouraging, but it certainly does not mean the end of homophobia. The high suicide rate of queer people highlights the intense social pressure many feel and the ongoing homophobia in sections of society. However, a victory against formal discrimination is within sight.

When the AFL is more progressive than the government, it is a sign that the tide has turned in favour of change. Ending marriage inequality and other forms of formal discrimination are seen as no-brainers by an increasing section of the population.

It is up to the campaigners across the country to maintain the pressure to make it politically costly for any government to discriminate against queers.