“Happy as a faggot in a submarine.”
Andre Agassi has made quite the transition from oaf to Zen-like statesman and ace biographer. Still, when he decided to share his sense of the world with the world after winning the French Open Championship in 1999, there were number of things to consider. Who laughed and why and how did Agassi believe he could make the comment at a press conference?
Yeah, he got away with it.
Always the clown, Goran Ivanisevic has also been a high-achiever in disparaging language. With his liberal use of the word ‘faggot’, the Croatian is placed highly in the league table for bashers of ‘poofters’ ‘benders’ and ‘queers’. As with Agassi, it hasn’t hurt the image of the 2001 Wimbledon winner or his popularity.
The locker room was and still is a Serengeti where you run with the herd or you perish. In Ireland these are transitional days. Well hopefully. Possibly. Maybe.
Big names came out. Welsh rugby international Gareth Thomas in 2009, the same year as former Cork goalkeeper Donal Óg Cusack. Others followed. Conor Cusack, Donal's brother, Olympic diver, Tom Daley, London 2012 gold medal winning boxer, Nicola Adams and former German soccer international Thomas Hitzlsperger.
A minority group that has always seemed to get a good kicking, critics point at a team-sport culture that has declined or is unable to change an environment that mercilessly suppresses any expression of sexuality other than hyper hetero. Reasons given: fear and ignorance of difference.
Others inescapably think no further than the physical act, believing it to be sinful. Yes, believe it, God’s opprobrium too. The locker room and church have never been cold places for extreme views. “You’re involved in lads’ culture. Everything is discussed in the dressing room from sport to opinions about women,” says Brian ‘Bru’ Amerlynck.
“And the term faggot and queer . . . they’re using derogatory terms and insults, not in a malicious way. They are throw -away comments heard in the play ground, secondary school, right up the changing room.
“No one chooses to be gay. You can’t change yourself. It would be nice to think words like faggot, homo, queer would be viewed by society as just as offensive as the nigger word.”
A Garda, who plays rugby with AIL side Suttonians, Amerlynck last week debuted for the senior team in their defeat to Ulster's Instonians. A back, he plays alongside his brother, Mark, who's the tighthead prop on the side. A Belgian name from his father's side, he grew up in Dublin kicking what rolled and bounced – rugby with St Paul's, Gaelic Football with Kilbarrack and Raheny's Naomh Barrog and soccer with Sherriff Street under-18s.
“But rugby was what I wanted to do,” he says. “I played for St Paul’s played against some good players . . . against Jamie Heaslip in SCT in 2000. Yeah, we lost to Newbridge in the first round at Donnybrook. Heaslip was number 8. Even then he was head and shoulders above the rest.
“Played with the French prop Vincent Debaty too. We played together in the Belgium underage team, when I was there in 2000 for the U19s. It was for a World Cup qualifier in Lithuania in March 2000. Debaty was born in Belgium and then he moved to France.”
Bru is “a straight acting gay”. Last year, he returned to the team he left for Australia three years ago. All was as it was until last month when the sentiments of former second row and sports pundit, Neil Francis touched a nerve.
While Francis apologised for his “clumsy” remarks, his language cut a community used to pain. Customary trigger words were used. “Hairdresser” and “ballet” and the questioning of whether gay people liked sport or not was far from vicious and possibly just thoughtless, but it halted in its tracks any considered view of gay life.
It also reinforced one of the great hetero changing-room lies of a gay aversion to sport rather than sport’s hostility making life awkward for non-straight players. An aside was the confusion of femininity with homosexuality, that gays unlike straights didn’t like rough.
“I don’t want this to be a go at Franno,” says Amerlynck. “If you ask someone to describe a gay person . . . they might say somebody who may work in a certain type of job as Neil Francis did when he said hairdresser . . . someone who is not interested in sport. You stereotype them. He can only talk about his own experience and I don’t think he meant badness. You have that because you have that jock culture.
“Once I came out people were more respectful. I struggled quite a lot through my teens. It came to a head one night when I was drinking in Howth. I wrote what could only be described as my goodbye letter, gave it to a barman and went walking up Howth Pier.
“Thankfully the barman copped it and the gardaí were called. They picked me up and brought me back to the station. I consider myself fortunate with the people around me. Without the rugby club, I don’t know if I’d be here. My closest friends are the guys on the team.”
He bridles at the mention of words like brave or the suggestion he could become a touchstone for crazies. He's now a cop walking the streets of Crumlin, where he is based, with queer on his back. He's a bender at the bottom of a ruck on the back pitch. People who take deliberate aim do not use the word gay.
“There’s nothing I haven’t heard before as a guard,” he says. “I’m not bothered. It wasn’t brave. Brave is someone telling their grown children that they are gay, or somebody coming out in secondary school or in an environment where it wouldn’t be well received.
“The saddest thing was that if Franno had said those comments when I was 15 or 16-years-old I would have been absolutely devastated and it would have made me question my involvement in sport, questioned my involvement in rugby. Maybe I shouldn’t be involved in rugby. Maybe I shouldn’t be involved in sport.”
When he came out in Suttonians there was no other gay person in the club that he knew of. The following two seasons two other younger players came out in the Under 20s team. “I’d like to think maybe I’d some effect, I don’t know,” he says.
But slowly times and attitudes change.
Four years ago, Croatian Football Federation president, Vlatko Markovic, was forced to apologise for remarks following threats to sue him for incitement to hatred .
“While I’m a president of the Croatian Football Federation, there will be no homosexuals playing in the national team,” he had said in an interview. “Luckily, only normal people play football.
In February of this year American football braced itself for the first openly gay player when Michael Sam, came out. The 24-year-old, who plays for the University of Missouri, will soon become the first openly gay athlete in any of the four major North American professional sports leagues, basketball, football, baseball and ice hockey. Small steps are seen as giant leaps.
"I don't know any other gay rugby players in the AIL. There's no way of knowing," he says. "When you're camp people put two and two together. If you join a team from scratch, come in and be camp, yeah it could be difficult. You'd be the butt of jokes behind your back rather than straight to your face. I don't think people now would say 'fuck off you queer'. I don't hear those terms now.
"You know I've to go into the changing rooms, the showers. They wouldn't think I'm checking them out because I'm not. When the American footballer came out that's one thing the NFL coaches or owners said 'how can you go into the locker room full of men when you're attracted to men".
In Britain, the treasury estimated the percentage of gay people in the population was six per cent. Stonewall, a gay rights charity, put it at five to seven per cent. A 2007 survey in Ireland came up with a figure of six per cent, while earlier studies such as the McKinsey Report had the number closer to 10 per cent. According to IRB figures, 177,604 men, women and children play rugby in Ireland. If the locker room is not a hostile place for gay athletes – a difficult view to accept – and reflects the general population then rugby alone should house gay players in the thousands.
Hiss view of rugby is a glass half full with Suttonians’ attitude thawing the game’s chill image towards gay players.
“Rugby is a very respectful sport,” he says in its defence. Even to gay people? “Yeah.” Do you really believe that? “Yeah I do, yeah. It’s one of the most tolerant sports. That’s why there is a gay rugby team. I can’t speak for other sports. But I’d be positive. I don’t for see any issues with opposition knowing I am gay.”
Sometimes the joke is on the joker. Sometimes progress appears as a series of solitary advances, the war still raging on other fronts with oafs and statesmen.