The most common question Morgan Trainer gets asked when he proudly tells people he plays for the Sydney Convicts is: “Why would you play for a gay rugby club?”
For Trainer, the answer is simple. “Why wouldn’t I play for a gay team?” he says. “What’s one reason why I shouldn’t play for those guys? They’re nice guys and they’re good sportsmen.”
Although he is straight, Trainer feels a connection to the gay community, having been raised by gay parents, and after giving away competitive boxing due to an injury he saw an opportunity to rediscover his love of sport.
“It was a really good opportunity for me to not only learn a new sport, but because they are a gay inclusive team it gave me an opportunity to give back to the gay community,” he says.
“It gave me a chance to do something more meaningful. Being a young straight guy, playing in a gay team gives me the chance to challenge those norms and stereotypes. I think that is one of the most powerful things that young straight guys can do.”
Jeremy Schmitz, a straight man who plays for the world’s first gay-inclusive rugby club, London’s Kings Cross Steelers, feels the same way.
“When I was around 16, I’d just started playing men’s rugby and a guy at my rugby club had come out and this was a pretty big thing,” he says. “And the guys reacted in a way that I just didn’t expect and I didn’t like, there were comments whenever he appeared, it was ‘Oh quick lads, Johnny’s here, backs to the wall!’ That kind of homophobic slur manifested itself throughout the rugby club.”
Schmitz found the culture so unbearable that he quit rugby in his university years and did not return until a friend took him along to a Steelers training session. “I didn’t know that it was a gay rugby club when I turned up,” he says. “But I got the sense that this was a bit different and I really liked the vibe.”
Both men are adamant that these attitudes need to be addressed from a very young age before they become ingrained.
“Already to my six-year-old son, things that are not good are ‘gay’,” Trainer says. “That’s just the word they use. At that age, they don’t even know what they’re saying and it’s hard to correct a child and try to explain to him why calling something he doesn’t like gay is not appropriate, because he hasn’t even learnt the word.
“But those words are permeating down the ranks of either family members, or sporting teams, or the classroom and already ending up in kindergarten as negative terminology and that really worries me.”
Schmitz, a schoolteacher in a London primary school, agrees with this assessment. “There’s a child that I teach, who has very conservative values and thinks things like boys can’t wear pink,” he says. “I wear random colours and I just say, ‘I wear whatever I want’.
“That challenges her opinion and slowly she’s started to come around to the idea that maybe those stereotypes aren’t quite what life is like. I think systemically there needs to be a change and if we are going to do something, it needs to start with children.”
New research released this week shows Trainer and Schmitz are not alone in their desire to rid traditional male sporting environments from homophobic language. A research team found the use of homophobic slurs is not always indicative of homophobic attitudes. In fact, the majority of young men using the language regularly want it to stop, but do not realise everyone around them feels the same way.
There is no question that this kind of language causes harm, but what lead researcher Erik Denison of Monash University and his team have been most interested in is finding solutions. He is quick to highlight that the current way the issues are being addressed is not effective.
“One thing that absolutely does not work is manuals, guides, education programs – there is literally a graveyard of these resources that no one will ever use because they’re written by people who seem to have never spent any time in sport,” Denison said.
“We’re not at the level where people are going to go home and read a 20-page manual on how to be LGBT inclusive. We need to stop wasting taxpayer and charity money on these. It makes the problem worse because we’re not spending money on actual solutions.”
What Denison’s team has found to be much more meaningful is engaging influential youth leaders and empowering them to make change at a team and club level through personalised training session. The other tactic that works surprisingly well in community sport is holding pride games. Denison believes it is because of the opportunities these games present to start conversations.
“The power of these events come from the group who’s playing in them,” he said. “It’s about stimulating these conversations that need to happen and for everyone to realise they’re actually in the majority, that the ‘dickheads’ are in the minority.”
For Trainer, the key is to continue to challenge the traditional understandings of masculinity.
“I think about being masculine and being a homosexual man, they never dovetail. And I think that those two notions are so strongly and intrinsically tied together that trying to break the chain is difficult,” he says.
“But we need people to be stepping up on all fronts. It’s not going to be done by just the straight community, just the gay community, just the sporting community, just the educational institutions. We just have to keep shifting towards a space where everyone feels safe to be themselves. But it’s not going to happen overnight.”