It had all been so promising. The IRB had taken steps to tackle homophobia in rugby. The ARU had signed a multi-sport pledge to keep homophobia out of the game.
But of course there’s a vast gulf between ‘doing things on paper’ and ‘things changing in real life.'
So over the weekend Nigel Owens cops homophobic abuse on twitter, and Waratahs flanker Jacques Potgieter used the word ‘faggot’ twice during their victory over the Brumbies on Sunday.
Brumbies vice captain David Pocock talked to referee Craig Joubert at the time. He was firm and assertive that ‘there could be gay players here.’ He wasn’t willing to accept slurs were just part of rugby. And he’s right, they’re not.
The most satisfying penalty I’ve ever given in my five years of refereeing was when one forward pack used a homophobic slur towards the other pack as they were setting up for a scrum. I didn’t even think as I blew the whistle. I told the aggrieved captain that homophobia was contrary to good sportsmanship - an act I could penalise for. I didn’t tell him it was a stupid idea to trot out homophobic slurs in front of a gay referee.
Being gay and involved in rugby is a long, slow, crushing of the spirit - one hateful slur at a time. It’s listening to jokes being made in front of crowded rooms by people who blithely assume no one like you is listening, who assume it’s okay to make gay people the punchline because there are no gays in rugby.
And you clench your fists and ignore the knot in your gut and keep your head down because above it all - you love the game.
You keep doing that until it all gets too much and you leave the game you love - another player, referee, volunteer, supporter - gone. It’s hardly uncommon - these latest events have unearthed another friend who won’t be picking up a whistle this season, he’s tired of all the background hate.
So when Pocock stands up and says ‘there could be gay players here’, he’s standing up for me, and every other gay person in the rugby community. He’s reminding everyone that the assumption only straight people are involved in rugby is wrong and hurtful - just like saying only men, or only white people, are involved.
Whether there’s a gay player or not is irrelevant. It’s that assumption which must be challenged. Yes, bringing it to the referee was the right action - homophobia is an act contrary to good sportsmanship.
Nigel Owens gets stick for being proud of his homosexuality, for mentioning it a lot, for alluding to it even during games.
He gets stick for reminding everyone their prejudices won’t go unnoticed, that there is definitely a queer in the room.
But sticking your head over the parapet like that gets pot-shots from mean, small-minded people. The widespread condemnation of the hateful tweet Owens received is heartening, but how many people are supporting him because Owens is a good, likeable character? How many people know that for the gays involved in rugby, that tweet is not only awfulness directed at Owens, but also another little reminder that no matter how much you do or how good you get, who you love is always going to be used to hurt you.
Would those people have stood up for me?
No matter how many players show up for gay pride parades, no matter how many pledges get signed, homophobia is still a problem in rugby. It hurts people, and it hurts the game.
But the more people, gay and straight, who stand up and say queers are part of the sport, abuse is not, the closer we’ll get to solving that problem.