THE walk into Crown is sparkling.
Sparkling from the rings and necklaces of wives and girlfriends, so heavy with rocks they could plunge towards the red carpet.
Sparkling from the stars of the football pitch, whose pumped-up bodies yearn to slip into something other than expensive suits.
Sparkling from the flash of the photographers’ bulbs that yearn to take pictures of something a little less predictable.
On this chilly Melbourne night, that something a little less predictable starts walking up the carpet.
At first glance, they look just like any other players. Black jackets and white crisp shirts set off by bow ties in the team colours. It’s a nice touch.
The strong meaty hand of the bigger of the two men, clearly — and openly — clutches the hand of the other.
“I need a sparkling,” says the player’s companion.
It’s a night that Jason Ball, who plays for regional Victorian AFL team Yarra Glen, yearns to become a reality.
“An AFL player to take his boyfriend down the red carpet on Brownlow Medal night would really signal a change of attitude,” he says.
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GAY sports people have been coming out for years. Australian names include diving’s Matthew Mitcham, tennis’ Casey Dellacqua and NRL’s Ian Roberts.
But the usual trickle of sports stars opening up about their sexuality has, in recent months, turned into a deluge.
In January, former English Premier League and German World Cup soccer player, Thomas Hitzlsperger, revealed he was gay. A month earlier, British Olympic medal-winning diver Tom Daley announced he was in a relationship with a man. And before that, there was Jason Collins from the NBA.
However, perhaps the most high-profile coming out was one by an American footballer: “I am Michael Sam, I’m African-American and I’m gay,” the University of Missouri player said in February.
A shoo-in for the NFL, he immediately began to cop some flack, including an ill-judged quip from Australian golfer Steve Elkington who said Sam was “leading the handbag throw at NFL”.
But these barbs paled into insignificance compared to the almost-universal encouragement he received from fans and footballing authorities.
Even Michelle Obama tweeted her support.
With British divers, American footballers and basketballers and German soccer players all coming out in the last few months, has sport reached a turning point when it comes to the acceptance of homosexuality?
And if gay people are accepted in mainstream sport, what role is there for LGBTI-only sports teams?
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“A LOT of people are more accepting than you might think,” says Belle Brockhoff, a snowboarder who represented Australia in this year’s Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
“Especially with people my own age. They’re like ‘oh cool’, and then they move on.”
Brockhoff publicly came out last year and says the reaction has been mostly positive.
In fact, coming out has galvanised Brockhoff into confronting homophobia head on.
The Olympian has become an ambassador for Athlete Ally, an organisation that campaigns for equality in sport.
While in Sochi, Brockhoff met gay Russian athletes to hear about their experiences first hand and publicly backed the Principle 6 campaign that urged the International Olympic Committee to adhere to its own charter prohibiting discrimination in sport.
She has also revealed to the Star Observer that, away from the piste, she was conducting her own underground gay rights campaign.
“Me and the guy who waxes my board stuck quite a few rainbow stickers around Sochi,” says Brockhoff.
Vending machines were a key target but even a few Russian police cars found themselves adorned with rainbows.
“It was very stealthy and ninja and I was like, ‘dude we’re going to get arrested’ but he’s a no-bullshit kind of guy who hates bullying in any form,” she says.
It was a short-lived protest, though: “The next day the police had taken the stickers off the cars.”
While Brockhoff is pleased at the progress she has made at changing attitudes, the real breakthrough, she says, will be when a footballer comes out: “AFL’s like a religion — it’s like Vegemite — they are role models and more people will be inspired to come out.”
As the only openly-gay AFL player, Jason Ball is a trailblazer. However, making the decision to come out wasn’t easy.
Sledges such as “homo” and “faggot” were bandied around by his team mates.
For Ball, it was exhausting and he suspects many young gay people simply give up and exclude themselves from taking part in sport because of the banter.
“But I loved playing football and I liked the guys, despite the homophobia,” Ball says.
One of his team mates had an inkling Ball was being vague about his private life so came straight out and asked about his partner’s name.
Ball had promised himself he wouldn’t lie: “ So I said, ‘James’.”
“‘You should bring him down. We’d love to see him’,” the team mate replied.
From then, Ball says the homophobic language suddenly evaporated: “I’d never felt more part of the team.”
As the only out player in AFL, Ball acknowledges that this isn’t the case elsewhere.
“AFL is no different to NRL or any other male team sports where that blokey culture has gone hand in hand with homophobia,” he says.
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PETER Robinson, a lecturer of sociology at Swinburne University of Technology, says the “tired old stereotypes” of butch men and effeminate women permeate team sports.
“Dominant masculine men are the most valued, being gay is not seen as being part of that so it’s going to be difficult for people to come out,” he explains.
Individual sports, such as swimming and athletics, are often an easier environment to come out in, according to Robinson, due to their lack of strong macho team culture.
Keith Parry, a lecturer in sports management at the University of Western Sydney, says language is also a part of the problem preventing LGBTI people from taking an active role in sport.
“The terminology we use when someone gets injured is ‘don’t be a big girl’,” he says.
“It’s seen as banter. Sexuality is a tool to get under someone’s skin, the same as when fans are racist.”
The lines between gender and sexuality are blurred when it comes to sport, says Parry: “If we look at some female sports, like football and hockey, it’s often assumed the players are gay.”
She adds that the notion is “if they’re masculine, they must be gay.”
However, some suggest this assumption can lead to an easier acceptance of gay women in sports teams.
“Women’s sports tend to be more inclusive, but in male sports it’s more challenging,” says Asia Pacific Outgames sports coordinator Olivia Birkett, who has herself been mistaken for a lesbian when she competes in hammer throwing competitions.
“I don’t even correct people these days,” she says.
The Outgames, to be held in Darwin in May, will see 800 athletes complete in 18 sports in the Northern Territory capital’s biggest sporting event of 2014.
Do gay events such as the Outgames, and rugby’s Bingham Cup (which Sydney will host in August), actually aid in separating LGBTI people from mainstream sport?
Birkett says LGBTI athletes are still looking for an inclusive space in which to compete.
“Part of our philosophy is to provide a safe environment for people of any orientation to feel comfortable playing sport,” she says.
“We are free of homophobia; we want our mainstream sports to be free of homophobia, too.
“When it’s not a talking point we’ll know the tide has really turned.”
Marty Tebbutt is vice president of Brisbane Hustlers, Australia’s top gay rugby team. For him, inclusiveness is the core of his team.
By competing in the local Brisbane league, they are taking that message to people that may not have come in contact with LGBTI sports people.
“Rugby is an aggressive sport, so a bit of sledging is always going to happen, but most teams are conscious that crossing that line and making homophobic comments is as bad as making racist comments,” he says.
Tebbutt also looks forward to the day when “your sexuality matters as much on the footy field as your favourite flavour of ice-cream,” but until that happened, there is a role for predominately-gay teams.
He commends the work of the footy codes in combating homophobia, saying that rugby is “the most inclusive of sports because fat or skinny, fast or slow, gay or straight, you can play.”
That phrase, “you can play”, is a common theme and also the catch phrase of a major new campaign to combat homophobia in sports.
Peter Downes, manager of sports education organisation Play by the Rules, says the initiative brings the codes together with local clubs and fans.
“With sports people coming out, homophobia was emerging into the consciousness of local clubs,” he says.
“But our message is simple — in sport what matters is effort, skill and commitment, regardless if you’re gay or straight.”
The initiative is backed by many of Australia’s leading sporting bodies as well, including the Bingham Cup, the NRL and AFL, and spearheaded by famous sporting figures, such as rugby’s David Pocock, basketball’s Lauren Jackson and soccer’s Harry Kewell and Alessandro Del Piero.
Downes says these familiar faces help get the message through to the fans: “They’re not the people you might expect to be saying this message.”
However, when it comes to football, it’s Jason Ball’s work that has given the anti-homophobia campaign its biggest boost, and perhaps paved the way for other players to take the same step into the open he has.
Following a petition he started, the AFL showed anti-homophobia ads at the 2013 Grand Final, supported International Day Against Homophobia and asked Ball to participate in inclusiveness training sessions for professional players.
His team Yarra Glen is also due to play a “pride match” against another local team with the full support of the AFL hierarchy.
Ball also hopes the 50m line will be painted in rainbow colours.
But for every AFL heavyweight, like Brock McClean who marched with Ball at Melbourne’s Pride March, there’s another heavyweight saying the opposite.
Former footballer Jason Akermanis said he doubted out players would break down homophobia and locker room nudity would “cause discomfort should someone declare himself gay”.
Ball has no truck with comments of this sort.
“The likes of Akermanis are projecting, saying people are uncomfortable with gay players, when I think they themselves may be uncomfortable,” he says.
“You need to look at the mental health impacts to gay people of homophobia and once people join the dots they don’t want to be part of it,” adds Ball.
“There is no excuse for racism or homophobia. It needs to be stamped out.”
Peter Robinson agreed: “It was interesting for Jason Ball to come out, demand change and achieve it.
“The change is more than just the players, however, it’s the management and the supporters.”
For Keith Parry, the tide will never turn as quick as it should so long as gay people don’t hold positions of authority in sport.
“The people that run sports are still the stereotypical image of sport — white, middle-aged affluent guys — and they reinforce these ideals.”
However, Ball remains optimistic: “As a country footballer there is only so far I can go… It would be a game-changer for a footballer — who the fans worship — to come out.”
Nevertheless, he’s proud of how far he has come.
“When I was 13, I had all this self-loathing and suicidal thoughts and wished I wasn’t gay,” he recalls.
“If I’d known I was going to be a gay footballer and be out to all my team mates (an out player) would have made the world of difference.”
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OUT AUSSIE SPORTS STARS
Daniel Kowalski Swimming
Kowalski won four gold and silver medals in the pool for Australia at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. He came out in 2010.
Matthew Mitcham Diving
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Mitcham won Australia’s first gold in the sport since 1924. Since then, Mitcham has continued to compete and was Chief of the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade in 2009.
Alex Blackwell Cricket
The vice-captain of Australia’s women’s cricket team, Blackwell has also played for leagues in New Zealand and England. An ambassador for Athlete Ally and the Bingham Cup, Blackwell is also part of the team that won this year’s T20 championship in Bangladesh.
Ian Roberts Rugby league
The NSW State of Origin and Australian international forward, Roberts played for South Sydney Rabbitohs and Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles. He became the first, and so far only, NRL player to come out in 1995.
Casey Dellacqua Tennis
Tennis ace Dellacqua is ranked world no. 16 in doubles. She not only came out last year but also announced the birth of her first child, Blake, with partner Amanda.
Ji Wallace Trampoline
Wallace won a silver medal in trampoline during the Sydney 200 Olympics. He publicly came out in 2005, and in August 2012 he also revealed he was HIV-positive.