This article is a summary of Jason Ball's presentation given at the Australian National Humanist Convention in Brisbane on Sunday 29, May 2016
Born into a football family
Jason described how he was born into a family that lived and breathed Aussie rules football. Being named ‘Jason’ was a tribute to one of the football greats, Hawthorn’s Jason Dunstall, who kicked 16 goals in a single game, just before Jason Ball was born. When he was five years old Jason started playing – to make up the numbers in the under 10s for the Yarra Glen Football Club. To start with he didn’t get too many kicks until he was older and taller. But a few years later he was awarded fairest and best.
At the age of twelve Jason realised that he was gay. He had picked up that being gay was seen as ‘bad’, ‘weak’, ‘soft’, ‘disgusting’. He consequently thought his family and friends would reject him. As a teenager he thought that he would have to keep this a secret and not act it. He therefore visualized he would probably marry and have children, as everyone expected him to do. Up until the age of 15 Jason was filled with self-loathing and even considered taking his own life. Eventually he had the courage to reach out to a close family friend. This girl was accepting of his sexuality and that sent him on a journey to be the person he was. As time passed he gradually came out to his close friends, family and a few work colleagues. They were accepting, which made Jason’s life a lot less pressurised.
When Jason was at university he received a phone call from his old football team, asking him to rejoin. He was painfully aware of the homophobic atmosphere within football circles, on the field as well as off it. Unlike the National Rugby League, where Ian Roberts had declared his homosexuality, there was no-one within the Australian Football League (AFL) who was openly gay. So, Jason continued to hide his homosexuality from his footy mates, but he had made a promise to himself: if asked, he wouldn’t lie.
One day after a match he was chatting with a team-mate who had recently broken up with his girlfriend. This led the friend to ask Jason, ‘What about you? Are you seeing anyone and what is his name? And why don’t you bring him along to a game?’ As other similar conversations followed, Jason’s fear of how his footy mates would react was not well founded. This led him to realise the homo-phobic language he kept hearing was coming from a place of ignorance, rather a necessary dislike of gay people.
Jason was beginning to reflect on his own experiences, as well as looking at data that showed that young gay people were six times more likely to suffer from depression, commit suicide and self-harm than straight young people. So he decided to come out as a gay football player. When he spoke to his club coach and president they were most supportive and encouraging. In publicly calling on the AFL to do more about tackling homophobia, he began to gain a profile and various media interviews.
During 2012 he received an e-mail from Change.org, suggesting that he might be able to help with the ‘Say No to Homophobia’ campaign, by providing a personal profile for the media program. The AFL had already signed a letter of support for this campaign, and it was during this season that Steven Milne had been fined for an on-field homophobic slur towards another player. And Jason Akermanis, the Queensland Bulldogs player, had written an opinion piece for the Herald Sun in 2010 in which he advised gay players to stay in the closet.
Jason took the proposition from Change.org to the Yarra Glen Football Club to gain their support. He then became the media spokesperson for the campaign. It began with an interview on radio Joy FM and a major article by Jill Stark in The Age. There were many other interviews on radio and on television, which generated a flood of supportive letters and phone calls. The two Jasons, Ball and Akermanis, parried shots on Twitter until Akermanis cancelled his account. Many other tweeters joined the discussion on-line. The campaign even rated a mention in gay circles internationally.
When Andrew Demetriou, CEO of the AFL, rang offering to involve Jason in some pre-season activities, they discussed the lack of support for gay players in general. When it was agreed that the AFL would play the ‘Say No to homophobia’ ads on the large screen at the two preliminary grand finals in 2012, the news was reported on the front page of The Age. The CEO of the Yarra Ranges League subsequently rang and asked to be able use the ads for their own grand final.
Jason was asked to lead Melbourne’s annual gay Pride march – the word ‘pride’ was the opposite of shame, which the gay community had been made to feel.
When Change.org organised an on-line petition as part of their campaign, Jason received more than 1,000 e-mails. Many were congratulatory, some offered religious admonition, and there were quite a few personal stories. He answered all of them personally, over several weeks.
There is a great deal of homophobic language on the footy field, part of an attempt to denigrate the player and attack his masculinity and prowess. On reflection, Jason considers that while this style of language is prevalent it may not necessarily be an accurate reflection of the degree of prejudice against homosexuals within the sport. The problem of homophobia and the absence of gay players still needs to be openly acknowledged. Straight team-mates will be invaluable allies in this ongoing fight.
At an AFL training camp for potential young recruits, players took a pledge to not use homophobic language. Jason’s story, made into a short film, was used by the AFL in such training sessions.
Jason was asked to be an ambassador for beyondblue. This didn’t require a person to be famous, but rather be someone prepared to share their first-hand experiences of such mental health issues as depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. In this role Jason visited schools and community groups and shared his story.
In these talks a piece of research data he often shared was that around ten percent of the population would be classed as LGBTI, so in a school with 2000 students, around 200 would be struggling with their sexual identity and not feeling safe at school. Such students are likely to find themselves victims of abuse, both verbal and physical, suffer from depression, anxiety, have suicide tendencies and engage in self-harm. Because of these mental health issues they are more likely miss days at school, switch schools to avoid abuse and often drop out of school completely.
Safe Schools Program
After a brief review by the Turnbull government, federal funding is to be wound back on the Safe Schools Program and barriers have been put in place that will reduce its effectiveness. For example, requiring students to obtain parental permission to be involved in the program is likely to have a detrimental effect on at least some young people; particularly those who feel afraid to tell their parents about their developing sexual feelings. The rightwing ideologues who’ve lobbied to wind back the Safe Schools Program seem to operate from the assumption that being gay is a choice and such programs would encourage more young people to make such a choice.
Jason briefly noted that around 80% of LGBTI young people want to play sport, but because they often find them-selves exposed to harassment they tend to drop out. This is a most unfortunate situation as it is well known that active participation in sport improves mental health.
Yarra Glen, Jason old team, took the initiative to have a Pride Cup. Rainbow colours were used on the 50 metre lines and in the jumpers of both teams. To give more of an inclusive and community feel to the event, the two teams were partnered with local organisations. The two coaches and players were carefully briefed. Before the game started a Uniting Church minister was asked to say a few words. Jason commented that as a humanist he didn’t know how he felt about that, but after she showed him what she planned to say he was reassurred. Her comments were affirming and inclusive and included the following sentiments:
This is a time of silence to remember those young same-sex attracted couples, some of whom have taken their own lives. A time of silence to remember those who are having difficulty with their gender and sexuality. A time of silence to remember the rainbow of different expressions of sex and gender. A time to remember that all have a right to feel safe and affirmed in their life choices.
In concluding Jason announced the AFL would hold a pride game in August 2016, when St Kilda would play the Sydney Swans. He added that he was standing as a Greens candidate in the Federal seat of Higgins, and was hoping to take to two messages to Canberra:
- The power of coming out. Don’t be afraid of who you are.
- I wouldn’t change who I am. However, being gay doesn’t define who you are, but it is part of who you are