ON Friday, it was revealed that Collingwood player Heritier Lumumba was due to leave the club over a disagreement regarding a homophobic slur in the club.
Lumumba complained over graffiti on a promotional poster of Scott Pendlebury and Dayne Beams in the players’ rooms. Someone had written “off to the Mardi Gras boys” on the poster, and although Lumumba complained about it, very little was done. The event has set off a chain reaction, which will likely lead Lumumba to be traded by the club in the off-season.
Susan O’Brien, for example, argued in The Age: “By reacting in the way he has, Lumumba risks becoming a laughing stock in the eyes of his fellow players and fans of the game.
“Yes, there is homophobia in the AFL; that is undeniable. But if players react to every single slight or slur, then they risk not being taken seriously when they raise issues of more substance.”
In some ways her argument makes sense. This was not a huge slur or a significant attack. And given this you can see the argument that it is probably not an issue worth quitting over. It’s great that Lumumba is standing up against homophobia but he should be saving his energy for the “real fights”.
However, what these arguments miss is that this probably isn’t just about one poster or sign, but rather something much larger and more sinister — a culture of homophobia that permeates throughout the AFL and our entire society.
When we think about homophobia we think of the direct stuff — the emotional and physical abuse targeted at people because they are LGBTI. It’s people getting bashed on the streets, denied access to work or sporting teams, or being emotionally abused and excluded because of their gender or sexuality. It is the person being screamed at that they are a “faggot”, a “poofter” or a “queer”.
But while the more direct form of homophobia is what we talk about there is more to the problem than that. The note on the poster is the perfect example. It’s what we call casual homophobia and it takes on many forms — assumed stereotypes (i.e. that feminine men are clearly gay), sly jokes, and outright insults. The outcome however is always the same: to subtly and casually put queer people down in some way, shape, or form.
The use of the term “that’s so gay” (where gay means bad) is a perfect example. Most people who say this would not consider themselves homophobic — it is just a turn of phrase supposedly. But it is a turn of phrase that actively puts gay people down, casually noting that they are synonymous with being bad. The poster is just the same. While the intent was jest, it was jest designed to tease and mock and that is what it achieved. Look around and you see this everyone — the subtle putting down of LGBTI people in ways you wouldn’t notice unless it was directed at you.
But it goes beyond that. This isn’t just about the putting down of LGBTI people, but the exclusion of us as well — exclusion through our collective assumed heterosexuality. Our society shuts queer people and our experiences out through assuming everyone is straight. This is best epitomised by the process queer people have to go through in coming out. We assume heterosexuality to the point where we force those who don’t fit the mold to announce themselves to the world and then ask them tireless questions about it when they do so. It’s a subtle form of homophobia but a strong one — forcing people to explain their choices over and over again, hence pointing out how strange and out of the norm they are.
It is this sort of culture LGBTI people face every day. A culture of assumed heterosexuality. One where we are both regularly reminded that we don’t fit into the norm, and then subtly teased every day because of that fact.
We don’t know exactly what happened at Collingwood, but I wonder if Lumumba’s complaint wasn’t just about a poster but an overarching culture in club. One that lets this sort of homophobia happen all the time without anyone doing anything about it.
Good on Lumumba for standing up to it, and shame on anyone who tries to tear him down for doing so.