A recent study from Monash University sought to “test the effect of an education program designed to stop boys from using homophobic language.” The study was conducted by researcher Erik Denison and consisted of a survey distributed to 337 boys aged 16-20 and 45 adult rugby players. Overall, 23 different rugby teams throughout Victoria and South Australia took the survey. Including the Melbourne Rebels, the highest profile, professional rugby team to participate in the project. They were also supported by World Rugby as well as local teams the Woollhara Colleagues and the local LGBT inclusive team, the Sydney Convicts.

During the data collection process, Denison faced apprehension from some subjects who questioned if homophobia even existed in rugby. One young player was quoted…

I was happy to fill out your survey, mate, but I hate to tell you, I don’t think you’ll find much discrimination in rugby; I think you may need to study a different sport,” he said. “Rugby is very inclusive of everyone. Think about it – what sport has gay teams? Did you know we even have a gay world cup? Mate, gay people are very welcome in rugby.”

Instead of being deterred, Denison was impressed that the young player was aware of the presence of gay teams in Rugby along with the biennial Bingham Cup. However, the preliminary results of Denison’s study tell a different story. The preliminary results were shared with Rugby Australia and Rugby Victoria which were Denison’s main research partners. In his article on the Monash University website, Denison laid it out…

Our initial analysis revealed a yawning disconnect between the positive attitudes about gay people playing rugby, which were expressed by players, and the ongoing use of words such as ‘fag’ and ‘poof’ – and importantly, hearing others do the same.

For example, 81 per cent of players said they were confident they would stop others from bullying a gay teammate, and 83 per cent of players believed a gay player would feel welcome on their team. These attitudes seem completely at odds with the finding that 78 per cent of players heard teammates using words such as ‘fag’ and ‘poof’ in the past two weeks, while 59 per cent of players used these slurs themselves (these findings on the use of language are consistent with previous research conducted over the past 10 years.

Hearing this language would clearly make a young gay person feel unwelcome. Indeed, in our study only one boy, out of 329 players, identified as gay. Other recent research has found gay and bisexual boys participate in team sport at about half the rate of straight boys, while our own research has found many boys cite fears of discrimination as the reason for avoiding the footy field.Citing the example of the young player mentioned above, Denison goes on to explain that there is a gap between perception and action. That a disconnect exists between what people say about people, and what people do to people. In one of the first studies examining this construct, Denison cited a study by Richard LaPiere in 1934 that examined hotels and restaurants who would say that they “would not serve Chinese people” despite LaPiere having already visited the establishments with Chinese friends without any issues. The study reported that despite participants expressing discriminative attitudes, their actions contradicted them. Denison’s study is slightly different in that it examines participants expressing inclusive attitudes towards gay athlete but noting that their actions and behavior contradict them. Denison believes that the construct is the same idea but with the opposite result in sport.

The preliminary results of the study were released in August 2018 and has garnered worldwide attention to the use of homophobic language in sports.

“These boys are just using this language without any thought and of course it would make gay people feel unwelcome, like I felt,” said Denison.

The study earned Denison the 2019 Vicsport Peter Norman Inclusion Award and is an important first step to recognizing that the construct of homophobic language affects inclusion of gay athletes in sports. While the study hasn’t been fully published yet, it is already influencing athletes and teams to take action

Earlier this month, England Cricket Captain Joe Root drew widespread praise after calling out a West Indies bowler after he used a homophobic slur during a game. He was quoted as replying to the slur…

“Don’t use it as an insult. There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”

The Melbourne Rebels have also stepped up to volunteer their time to speak to their junior layers and help to develop the education intervention program for Denison’s study. Rebels Lock, Sam Jefferies, did not hesitate to share the message of the study

“The point of the program was that even casual homophobia is just the same and that’s putting people who might be homosexual in the exact same position as if you meant it, because it’s making a joke of it,” Jeffries said. “They [junior players] all probably put their hands up and said, ‘I probably have used that casually before and I didn’t really realise the effect it was having’.

“So, I think that once we tore back those layers, we had a really good response from the group. “Laughing at a homophobic slur is the same as saying it yourself. So if you’re laughing, you’re agreeing with it.”

In addition, Jefferies teammate, Tom English spoke out as well…

“You talk to kids who don’t really know that the language they’re using is hurting someone,” English said. “We’ve attacked the racism stigma, now we’re attacking the homophobic one. When people make those off-the-cuff comments, they don’t think that there’s one person in the room that it may affect.

“Whether it turns that person away from the game or they go home and feel bad or sorry for themselves, that’s not what we’re about in sport and as human beings.”

The next step for the study is analyzing the data from the results of the intervention, which included creating discussions and demonstrating ways that young athletes could react when they hear homophobic language. The goal is to determine if it’s possible to change the norms through education. Both Denison and English recognize it’s not an easy problem to tackle and that there is still a lot of work ahead. And the results do look promising.

By Dirk Smith