NRL legend Ian Roberts shocked the football world when he became the first player to come out as gay in the 1990s, but the trailblazer believes coming out now would be even harder.
The 57-year-old Manly and Rabbitohs greatness will star in a new documentary about his life, and made the surprising claim that it would now be harder to come out, despite a fellow footballer committing suicide in 1998 after horrific homophobic abuse .
Roberts came out in 1995 while playing for the Sea Eagles, who he said was “rugby league’s worst kept secret” at the time. I don’t want to believe he was gay.
Despite all that, citing the skyrocketing suicide rate of LGBTQ+ youth and the rise of social media trolls, the football legend said he didn’t think coming out would be any easier.
It’s quite the statement that was made when Roberts came out, being gay was still a criminal offense in Tasmania.
Male great Ian Roberts has revealed that he believes it is even harder for gay athletes to come out now than it was when he did in the 1990s.
The NRL hardman will tell his story in an upcoming documentary, saying he will talk about ‘pretty dark stuff’
Roberts with his long-term partner, Daniel. The footy legend came out in 1995
“I honestly think it might be harder to come out now. It’s so much more direct, there’s so much more media and hype at hand, because everyone has phones (and opinions),’ he told the The Sydney Morning Herald.
“The queer community still has such high rates of self-harm and suicide. I think: would it be easier now? Don’t know. Everything is now so much more accessible.’
Unfortunately, gay men and women often do not feel safe and supported, despite the fact that same-sex marriage is now legal and gay culture is much more visible and accepted.
The 2021 Australian LGBTIQ+ Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Report found that young people aged 16-27 were five times more likely to attempt suicide than straight people.
For that reason, Roberts denounced the seven members of his former club – Josh Aloiai, Jason Saab, Christian Tuipulotu, Josh Schuster, Haumole Olakau’atu, Tolutau Koula and Toafofoa Sipley – last year for refusing to wear the club’s rainbow jersey over their religious beliefs .
At the time, he said, “I can promise you that every young child on the northern beaches dealing with their sexuality would have heard of this,” and the situation began to worsen even more after the comments of the group’s leader, Aloiai.
Seven Manly players refused to wear this rainbow jersey in the side’s Round 20 match against the Roosters due to religious beliefs
Roberts marching in Sydney’s 2022 Mardi Gras parade with the NRL advocating gay rights in code
Aloiai referred to homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice,” saying that he and the other boycotters couldn’t “live that way or endorse it” — insisting there was “no chance” he would back down from his point of view.
Roberts denounced his comments, describing them as “hypocritical,” pointing out, “You just go back to the ’80s and ’90s and gays were thrown off cliffs.”
It reinforces Roberts’ heartbreaking claim that coming out is even harder for current players.
But of course it was terribly difficult for gay athletes to come out in the 1990s.
EPL star Justin Fashanu became the first professional footballer to come out in 1990, sparking a fierce backlash in the UK.
That was how he was treated in the press and by fans, Roberts even putting off his own coming out for fear of how he would be treated in the football world Down Under, where casual and direct homophobia was rampant.
EPL star Justin Fashanu became the first professional footballer to come out – but tragically committed suicide after a spate of homophobic abuse
Roberts on April 4, 1995 – the year he came out as gay
Tragically, Fashanu committed suicide after retiring from a long and successful football career.
“He (Fashanu) was mistreated by the English press and the supporters of the game, they were very homophobic. He retired in ’94, the year I came out, and died by suicide in 1998,” Roberts said of the tragedy.
Roberts admitted that while LGBTQI+ people are more accepted these days, much has still not changed, which was one of the reasons why he finally decided to tell his story through the documentary he is making with filmmaker Heath Davis.
“It is still very much seen as a weakness in men’s sport. That’s the perception… I’m not asking people to feel sorry for me, but it has taken its toll,” he said.
Despite being touted as a trailblazer at the time, it took more than 25 years for another top male athlete to come out, when A-League star Josh Cavallo announced to the world in an emotional video in 2021 that he was gay.
He was followed last year by ex-NBA and NBL star Isaac Humphries — and Roberts admits to being surprised and disappointed that more male athletes still don’t feel comfortable coming out.
“It’s nice that Josh and Isaac (have come out now). When I came out I didn’t think it would open the floodgates. But I didn’t think it would be another 30 years or so before a man would come out in a contact sport again,” said Roberts.
No doubt the documentary, which is backed by Screen NSW and tentatively titled ‘Light: The Ian Roberts Story’, will run through some pretty confronting issues.
Roberts said he would talk about “pretty dark stuff,” and hopes by telling his story it will help the “next” Ian Roberts.
Considering the hardman was one of the strongest players of all time in a career spanning 213 matches, including nine Origin matches and 13 Tests for Australia, there are many stories to tell.
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