Australia’s first gay sports star Ian Roberts on normalising diversity

Ian Roberts made history in 1994 by becoming the first rugby league player to publicly come out as gay.

He was Australia’s first openly gay sports star, and only the second high-profile male figure in team sport to come out.

Roberts had feared how his sexuality would be received, after seeing the media’s abuse of English footballer Justin Fashanu following his own coming out in 1990.

“The English media were savage to him, the crowds were savage to him,” Roberts remembers.

“After he came out, his career went down terribly.”

Fashanu’s experience made Roberts delay his public coming out, though his club already knew.

“The club mascot, the guy in the Manly Sea Eagles suit, that was my partner,” Roberts laughs.

“Most of the players were absolutely fine.”

‘There was homophobia’

Roberts says his coming out was a relief, and the media were respectful.

“There was homophobia, absolutely,” he says.

“But no more than any person at my age, in any career, who had come out at that time.

“I’m sure it would have been just as difficult being openly gay in the building industry.”

As well as homophobia, Roberts had to overcome illiteracy.

“Growing up, I never had an issue with myself being gay,” he says.

“I knew I was gay as far back as I could remember.

“But the biggest hurdle for me growing up was I was basically illiterate.

“I never learned to read and write and spell, until I was like 38.

“To me, the scariest thing growing up was being asked to stand up in class and read.

“I used to think that I was dumb, that was the hardest thing.”

Roberts learned to read when he started an arts degree, an achievement that he says changed his life.

Coming from a working-class background, Roberts played rugby league from childhood.

“I played footy because that’s what kids in housing commission in the suburbs did,” he says.

“I was better than average, but I never set out to become a professional rugby league player.”

Now retired, Roberts counts beating illiteracy along with coming out as his biggest achievements.

Making gay normal

Roberts believes the environment for the next generation of LGBTIQ people will be more positive.

“I still believe the most powerful thing I can do day to day for the LGBTIQ community is, every time I’m in public with my partner, just to hold his hand,” he says.

“A simple act like that makes being gay normal.

“As kids now grow up, for them to see two women or two men holding hands, getting married, and for it to be no different… we’ll just be part of the community.”

Roberts says he never would have imagined when he came out that Australia would have marriage equality in his lifetime.

“I think it’s so important for the LGBTIQ community to tell our stories and hear about the experiences of other people,” he says.

“It’s such a positive conversation to have.”

Since retiring from sport, Roberts has made television and film appearances, including as a gay man in the 2012 independent film Saltwater.

He was honoured as an LGBTIQ trailblazer in Australian sport at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

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