A SELF-described nerdy child who is now doing a PhD in astrophysics is not a person you would expect to be a driving force behind a popular rugby union team, but Craig Burnett is exactly that.
Burnett admits one of the reasons he joined the Melbourne Chargers — the city’s gay rugby union team — four years ago was because they were a good looking bunch of guys. Also, he wanted to give team sports a go.
“But I thought it was never too late and it was at that time they did a ‘Surf and Turf’ night against the Surge (Melbourne’s gay water polo team) and I thought they were a good looking team.
“People were warm and welcoming, so I went to the tryout. I wanted something to prove to myself and to de- velop as a person.”
Born and raised in Melbourne — a city more obsessed with Aussie Rules football than rugby union — it comes as no surprise that Burnett knew nothing about the sport. However, that didn’t stop the Chargers from taking him on as a player and to help develop his skills.
The team has five “non-negotiable” core values, including being inclusive and welcoming to everyone with an interest in rugby union whatever their age, fitness level or sexuality.
It was this sense of inclusiveness that appealed to Burnett, who has contributed to the development of the club off the field and has played an integral role in working with other clubs around Victoria to promote diversity and inclusivity.
“I like the work the Chargers to do to make people feel welcome in a sporting environment,” he said.
“There’s people that come to the Chargers and the other sports and it’s obvious they tried to play rugby (or other sports) in school and we were bullied out. Their stories are heartbreaking, but they’re playing again and it’s great to see.”
Burnett is one of the people responsible for the Chargers’ community relations and was pivotal in renewing its partnership with the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC). He also organises joint events with other community groups and builds on the relationships with other sporting clubs — an alliance he believes builds the profile of LGBTI sporting clubs while increasing awareness for the importance of acceptance in sports.
“There is definitely bullying that happens within sport, so it’s good to have a space to play without judgment,” Burnett explained.
“It’s good to have teams that can be quite competitive, play in tournaments and win silver.
“We can show teams… that we’re all gay, all inclusive and we can still be good.”
In September last year, the 28-year-old joined the board of directors at VAC after the recommendation of friends and is enjoying the role despite feeling “impostor syndrome” at the beginning of his tenure.
“I’ve been HIV-positive for eight years now. I never really engaged with the positive community because I never felt like my status defined who I am,” he reflected.
“I was nervous about applying, I didn’t feel I had the right skill set. But I applied anyway, the board of directors really enjoyed my interview and that gave me the confi- dence to go forward.”
Burnett described the steep learning curve he had in the first three months of his role at VAC as a rough one, but he overcame it and is now glad to make a contribution to Victoria’s HIV community.
Burnett has even volunteered at Melbourne’s LGBTI community radio station JOY 94.9.
“I had a lot of depression, in my early to mid-20s, trying to figure out who I am and how the world works. I thought I was a crap person,” he said.
“You need to create objective measures so you can look at them and know you’re not a shit person.
“I got involved in the community for work that is important. This is one way I’m going to measure my worth in the community and see all the people I’m helping, and that’s not a bad thing.”
In May, Burnett and the Melbourne Chargers — along with local rivals Brisbane Hustlers and Sydney Convicts — will head to Nashville to compete in Bingham Cup 2016, the biennial international gay rugby union tournament.
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**This article was first published in the April edition of the Star Observer, which is available now. Click here to find out where you can grab a copy in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.
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