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A week that began celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) ended with closet ‘scandals’ in sport and politics. Only days after the IDAHO and the GLORIA awards for homophobic comments made in public, AFL player Jason Akermanis announced that the ‘AFL is not ready’ for openly gay players and the former NSW Minister for Transport, David Campbell, was ‘outed’ leaving a sex on premises venue for men. While one controversy suggested the value of silence surrounding one’s (non-heterosexual) sexuality, another emerged hours later highlighting the consequences of managing sexual visibility. Akermanis suggested that players should remain silent about their sexuality sending out a troubling social message that being gay is not only disturbing but also something to keep hidden in sport.

Starting with Akermanis, his comments to the media were particularly troubling because of the implicit acceptance that homophobia is a part of football culture (and its ‘rich’ history), and therefore such spaces should remain unchallenged. Couched in sympathetic terms, Akermanis distanced himself from the label of homophobic, by noting that while he thought there was nothing wrong with ‘it’, "Some footballers think there's something wrong with [gay] people, they have some kind of disease." His solution to this issue was that players remain silent about their sexuality to avoid being seen as deranged or being the constant source of speculation in the locker room (or ‘gay hunting’ as it is colloquially referred to).

By placing non-heterosexual identity as a burden for the queer body, sexuality becomes visible only as something to be managed by the (hidden) gay AFL player. This was counterposed in the responses to David Campbell’s silence, ‘leading a double life’, a silence which is publicly shamed, as something indicative of a lack of honesty or (moral) character. For his ‘poor choices’, Campbell resigned.

In a society that still demands people’s sexual identity be placed on the table if they are not heterosexual, coming out has become a double bind. Either a person must be public about their sexuality (in order to be honest) and risk social marginalisation, or as in Akermanis' comments, shamed or coerced into remaining silent in order to 'fit' with a particular sporting culture. If the situation surrounding Campbell and Akermanis is indicative of the anxieties associated with being publically ‘gay’, we need to ask, why is there so much political, social and cultural capital invested in the ‘closet’?

Part of the reason for these anxieties, particularly in sports, is bound up in the idea that AFL is a masculine sport, and masculinity is expressly aligned to heterosexuality. If you are openly gay, then you are not only risking exclusion because of your lack of heterosexuality, but being gay undermines the legitimacy of masculinity in AFL, especially when it involves a ‘slap on the bum’. What is peculiar in Akermanis’ commentary is the discussion of ‘homoerotic activities’ being common practice in (heterosexual) male socialising. While a ‘bit of slap and tickle’, that is, intimate touching and frivolity is OK in when sexuality is unspoken, once there is a ‘gay’ body present, the environment suddenly shifts into one of uncomfortability. Are we meant to assume that all gay men can’t resist nude bodies? Are we (I write this indentifying as a gay man) just so promiscuous and insatiable that the mere presence of nude male physicality turns us into threatening or sexually aggressive persons?

It is hardly surprising with the rhetoric that articulates public homosexuality as a threatening presence, that the ‘homosexual advance defence’ (i.e. I felt threatened by his aggressive sexuality so I was provoked) is still a valid criminal defence in NSW. Moreover, the fact that the public debate on sport and sexuality seems so preoccupied with questions of whether one should or should not be in the closet, reveals the existing (homo)social/phobic anxieties in some male dominated sports around locker room behaviour and what it means if sexuality suddenly becomes spoken, or a body becomes ‘uncloseted’.

Akermanis goes on to suggest that ‘coming out’ could ‘break the fabric of the club’. Such rhetoric around gays posing a threat to social cohesion and discipline should be familiar, as it echoes the much publicised US debate surrounding gays serving openly in the military. Akermanis’ insistence of keepings things ‘private’ is strikingly similar to the US ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy that has been widely criticised for suggesting that being publically gay undermines one’s ability to serve or be professional.

So where does this leave us? While it sounds clichéd, education and promotion of LGBT or sexuality diversity in any sporting field, and the workplace more broadly (see ACON’s This is Oz campaign), should be common practice. If the counterposing uses of the ‘closet’ in politics and sport in the last few days are anything to go by, perhaps we need to interrogate the reasons why sexual visibility still needs to be managed in some spaces (whether a locker room or the NSW parliament). Respect, for one’s private choices and how a person chooses to express sexuality or desire (whether in public or private), not oscillating in or out of closets, seems the ethical way to deal with homophobia.

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This is the blog for thinking and talking about culture, Cultural Studies and cultural analysis at the University of Sydney.
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