Kicking Homophobia Out
A few weeks ago, AFL footballer Brock McLean contacted Sunday Age writer Jill Stark and said he wanted do something about homophobia in the AFL. The Age ran the story, it went viral and even saw overseas media outlets pick it up, because still, in 2013, it is big news that a straight sportsman would dare to stand-up to ‘the boys club’. Rachel Cook spoke to Brock McLean about why he’s determined to stamp out homophobia in sport.
People in the media have been waiting for a long time for an AFL player to come out. There have been rumours over the years, but nothing has ever come to fruition. Some people might see it as no big deal. Who really cares if an AFL player comes out or not? But for many the thought that a young, male footballer felt strong enough to declare he was gay would signify change was on the horizon for Australia’s biggest sporting code.
Let’s not forget, rightly or wrongly, AFL players are heroes to a significant amount of the population and as heroes do, they have a lot of influence. We know that and so does one savvy hero, who in this case just happens to be a major player in a major club in the Australian Football League: Carlton’s Brock McLean.
While no AFL player has come out as gay yet, McLean hopes that his going public about the issue of homophobia within the AFL will be the start of a new supportive environment where coming out could be a possibility.
“I saw a Jill Stark tweet about how good it would be if a footballer came out and spoke up about homophobia,” McLean says. “I sent Jill a tweet and said I’m onboard, where do I sign up?”
McLean’s passion to address the issue is impressive. He went into this fully aware of the backlash he would receive, which he has via Twitter, but he maintains that this is just the beginning for him and his campaign to end discrimination in the League.
“People pretend the issue is not there and if you don’t talk about it, it will go away. But clearly it won’t.
“Statistically they say about 10 per cent of the population are gay and there are 700 AFL players and a lot more in the whole realm of the sport and you don’t see, especially in the male arena, openly gay players.
“This conversation has to start somewhere and it’s good to see how much exposure it’s getting and that more people are talking about it.”
McLean’s sister came out to him four years ago. She had held off telling him for fear that it might cause problems for him on the field. McLean said it was worrying that even someone outside the football world was aware of the existent high levels of homophobia, where even having a lesbian sister could result in you being the target for homophobic abuse.
“She was very hesitant in telling me as she was worried about how I would be accepted among my teammates,” McLean says.
“That’s from someone who’s not even in the change rooms, so can you imagine for someone who’s in the change rooms and who’s gay – how daunting that would be. He’d have huge reservations about coming out and he’d feel like he wouldn’t be accepted, by his teammates and the wider AFL community.
“Especially being the first AFL player to come out. The pressure that would come with it and the publicity; it’s all about the unknown really.”
Last year, Collingwood’s Harry O’Brien was on the receiving end of a homophobic jibe from St Kilda’s Stephen Milne. O’Brien claimed Milne called him a “fucking homo”. The AFL found Milne in breach of the Leagues Code of Conduct, forced Milne to apologise, fined him $3,000 and ordered him to attend an AFL education program. In this instance the AFL took action; however, McLean says it’s not enough.
“On the field you’ll hear things like, “you weak faggot” or “you weak poof” when someone doesn’t go in hard enough and that’s a massive stereotype that needs to be addressed,” McLean says.
“The fact that we are still talking about this as a problem means we are still living in the dark days a little bit.
“The AFL has done some great stuff if we are talking about responsibility towards women and issues around racism – there was a dark period in the league where there was some really ugly issues around racism and they’ve addressed that, now the next step for them has to be homophobia.
“We need to talk to the AFL about how we can educate players and fans and how we can stamp out homophobia and that’s about adopting a zero tolerance policy.”
McLean marched alongside openly gay Yarra Glen football club player Jason Ball at this year’s Pride March. The response from the crowd demonstrated the magnitude of the effect McLean’s stance and Ball’s outing has had on the queer community, however McLean thinks there is much more that can be done with Ball’s story.
“We need to tap into Jason Ball and his experience,” McLean says. “It’s one thing to have someone like me talk about homophobia, but people might think, ‘What does he know? He’s never been through it.’ But for someone like Jason Ball who can talk about how he felt before coming out and afterwards, I think that can really change people’s thinking. I think people need to hear those real life experiences.”
The effect on the broader community has been interesting too. Football fans and general members of the public have approached McLean to congratulate him and share their own stories. They talk about football’s culture of homophobia and how they, and their gay brother or sister or friend, are pleased to know someone has the guts to challenge the status quo.
Modestly, McLean says he’s not doing much at all. “I’m not going out of my way to do anything above and beyond, I’m just standing up for something I feel so strongly about.
“There’s just a real opportunity here to lead the way and we could be the teachers for that older generation. And really, we shouldn’t be leaving it up to people in the spotlight to be talking about these issues – everyone should be doing something about this and taking control of it.
“Whether it’s talking to your friends, or strangers, or when you’re sitting at the footy, or anywhere, and if you hear someone saying homophobic remarks, have the courage to stand up and say something. The more people stand up for what’s right, then those people who think in that old school way will start to feel as if they are in the minority and maybe it could make them think about changing their attitudes.”
McLean has joined Athlete Ally, a sports resource encouraging all individuals involved in sports to respect every member of their communities, regardless of perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. But as he says, this is just the beginning for him, he knows there may be a long road ahead.
“I am 100 per cent positive that I am not the only one who feels this way and by me coming out and standing up for something I really believe in, hopefully this will give players who feel the same way as me the green light to talk about it.
“I need to keep talking about and I need to keep promoting anti-homophobia in sport. It’s important to keep the momentum up.
“It’s about something bigger, but it’s also about family and friends. I have a couple of really close mates who are gay and they have said how proud of me they are, and that means a lot to me. That can’t help but make you feel good.”