‘Last bastion’ of homophobia
The New Zealand Falcons are now in their third season. Reporter Simon Smith sat down with Sam Learmonth to talk about what it is like to be an openly gay rugby player in 2015.
When Sam Learmonth was at school he didn’t want to play rugby because he feared its macho culture.
It wasn’t until he was 32 that the New Zealand Falcons started up and he joined their supportive environment.
Playing his first game two years ago for the gay-friendly rugby team was a memorable and liberating moment for the lawyer from Avondale.
‘‘It was terrifying and it was unlike anything I had done before.’’
Learmonth says that although his team is generally accepted, sport is ‘‘the last bastion’’ of homophobia.
At sport stadiums and when watching games down at the pub it is common for spectators to shout out insulting words.
‘‘I think that if you are not gay then you probably don’t recognise what it’s like,’’ he says.
‘‘I don’t really experience homophobia in any other element of life, except in sport. You would never speak to someone like that in a work environment.’’
The Falcons play weekly in the Auckland Rugby presidents grade and are attached to the Ponsonby Rugby Club.
It is the team’s third season now and instances of homophobia in and around the field are reducing, Learmonth says. Most of their opponents just want to play rugby and are happy to socialise afterwards, although last year a team did not want to go for a beer after the game.
Learmonth says there has been a lack of discussion in New Zealand on homophobia in sport, but over the Tasman progress is faster.
Former Wallabies captain David Pocock was vocal in denouncing Waratahs forward Jacques Potgieter for using the word ‘‘faggot’’ on the field this year.
The sport’s authorities backed him up and handed down a $10,000 fine.
Australia is also more progressive in high-profile sportspeople being openly-gay, with world champion swimmer Ian Thorpe coming out last year.
"There’s been some really positive shifts, and I think that New Zealand will follow that,’’ Learmonth says.
The Falcons had a solid season last year, and this season have not lost a game.
Learmonth is the team’s vicepresident but is currently sitting on the sidelines as he dislocated his shoulder at the end of last year.
About 90 per cent of the 30 to 40 players in the Falcons are gay, and this is beneficial in helping them come together as a side.
Learmonth says the players are highly invested in making the team work, with a sense of lifting each other up, and displaying perhaps more patience than there otherwise might be.
‘‘One of the moments when we really felt that we were a team was when ASB came on board, because they were a big corporate sponsor and it gave us a big sense of pride — we weren’t just a member of the gay community any more.’’
The Falcons will be hosting the Purchas Cup from September 4 to 6, with gay-friendly rugby teams from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane attending.