There has been much debate about whether the word “gay” being used in an insult is considered offensive anymore. Especially in the context of sport. Below is a piece by self-confessed NRL fan Rebecca Shaw, which was first published on her blog on Tuesday, May 6 — a day before Miranda Devine’s controversial column for News Corp’s mastheads. Add your two cents worth to the debate with a comment below.

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ON sports site The Roar (which I read regularly and follow on Twitter, being a sports-loving lesbian), “expert” contributor Ryan O’Connell (who I also follow on Twitter, but who has never followed me back but that has nothing to do with this, that is a different failing) wrote about an incident in the NRL Under-20s State of Origin match the Saturday night previous. Blues player Mitchell Moses was caught calling opposition player Luke Bateman “a f*cking gay c**t”. Even though Bateman did not wish to make an official complaint, the NRL review investigated and the outcome was a two-match suspension for Moses. He was also ordered to undergo an anti-vilification education and awareness program. Great, right? The NRL (not historically known for its progressive politics) acting swiftly to show young players that homophobic language is unacceptable, and attempting to educate them to be better in the future.

Not according to Ryan. He went on to say:

Though I applaud the stance, and fully support it, there’s just one little problem: no one was discriminated against. Bateman is not gay. So the slur was technically nothing more than foul language. Moses can be accused of being boorish and ignorant, but it’s not exactly accurate to call him a ‘homophobe’.

Don’t get me wrong, what he said was unacceptable and he should be punished for it. As the NRL had recently held a press conference with other major Australian sporting organisations to announce they were committed to ensuring homophobic slurs were not part of their sports, they most definitely needed to act upon the incident.

But the context in which the comment was made suggests Moses should really be punished under the category of being a neanderthal and using unacceptable language, rather than being anti-gay. If you want evidence of this, read the slur again and notice which words are censored. It will give you an indication of the truly offensive part of the comment.

I asked a gay friend if the sledge offended him, and though only a sample of one, his response was, “Not really. Not in that context. He’s basically just calling the other player a girl, isn’t he?”

That response should help add a little perspective to the incident. While there should be no room in the game for homophobic slurs, and the battle for equality starts by making such comments unacceptable, let’s not overreact either.”

Firstly, I am quite confused as to what he is even arguing here. The NRL had to act because of their anti-homophobia stance, but it wasn’t homophobic, it was just bad language. In any case, I do know what he is saying below, and it is way off base:

Though I applaud the stance, and fully support it, there’s just one little problem: no one was discriminated against. Bateman is not gay. So the slur was technically nothing more than foul language. Moses can be accused of being boorish and ignorant, but it’s not exactly accurate to call him a ‘homophobe'”  

Well, this could just not be more wrong. Language does not work like that, and as a writer, I am surprised Ryan is so confused about this. Homophobic language does not only exist when it is directed at a gay person’s gay ears. Moses was not calling his opponent foul names and then dropped the word ‘gay’ in there as something unrelated and positive. He meant to insult Bateman. He used the word gay, the word that I identify with, as an insult. To tear someone else down. That is homophobic. 100 per cent case closed, blow the whistle, game over, other sports things, etc.

If you still don’t quite get it, let me tell you a little story about a terrified closeted 17-year-old Rebecca. I was staying at my favourite aunt and uncle’s house for the weekend. I loved them, and felt comfortable with them. They were young and cool and accepting and progressive. We had a great night, and at the end of the night I planned on having them be the first people I came out to, hopefully giving me the courage to then come out to everyone. I remember the exact moment. I was sitting on the stairs with my aunty when my uncle (who was inside drunk) started talking about bands and music and performers. I was laughing and excited and dying of nerves and happy and then I heard my Uncle say the word ‘faggot’. Now Ryan, he wasn’t saying it to me. He wasn’t saying it at any gay person. It was just a throwaway word that I assume he didn’t think anything of, and probably doesn’t remember that night, let alone that moment.

And yet 14 years later, I remember it clearly. My stomach dropped, my face flushed, I felt cold run through my veins. My excited nerves turned to dread. I completely shut down. And do you know what happened? I didn’t come out to anyone until I was 20 years old. That moment stopped me feeling safe to come out for three yearsThat throwaway line, that Ryan would argue was not homophobic, made me feel like my uncle hated people like me. That I couldn’t even trust that the people I thought would be totally okay with me being a lesbian to accept me when I told them. It made me feel l didn’t belong anywhere. Extend that to closeted men. Extend that to closeted young men in macho environments. Extend that to closeted young men who love NRL. Imagine the repercussions something like that could have.

Language is power. That is why I took Ryan’s response so seriously and am responding here. He is someone that gets to use language to influence people, to make a difference.  It does not matter what Ryan’s gay friend thinks. It especially doesn’t matter what they think if their opinion is that it isn’t offensive because it’s just like Moses was calling Bateman a girl. That is a whole new problem. Comparing someone to a woman should not be an insult. It is sexist. Again, I don’t see how this confuses anyone.

I am glad that Ryan’s gay friend wasn’t personally offended, I am glad they are so comfortable and secure. But that isn’t the point. The point is that the NRL is trying to stamp out homophobic language, and what Moses said was absolutely homophobic. He might not hate gay people, but what he said was homophobic. He might think gay people should have equal rights, but what he said was homophobic. I can keep saying it all day, and it will keep being true. I can’t take Ryan’s word for it that Moses is not a homophobe. The only thing I have to base my opinion on is that Moses uses gay slurs to insult people. I hope that this is a learning experience for him and that he is more careful about what he says in the future, because this is not about if Ryan is offended, or Ryan’s gay friend is offended, or if I am offended. This is about a wider issue, and making sure everyone feels safe and included to be involved with the sport they love.

(Editor’s note: The Roar also published this piece.)

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Rebecca Shaw is a freelance writer, co-host of the comedy podcast Bring a Plate. She tweets at @brocklesnitch

She also wrote this opinion piece in light of Miranda Devine’s column today.

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