How Australian athletes shaped history by campaigning for same-sex marriage as nation voted 'yes'

All boundaries are conventions… waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention, if only one can first conceive of doing so. — David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas.

It is both a blessing and a curse to be seen. Movie stars and politicians know this well. As do professional athletes.

Their every move is dissected, their every action judged, their every step counted and held up to the gold standard for comparison. This is the burden that athletes live with, the cost of the money they make (some of them, at least) for playing the game they love. In this fish bowl, they try to maintain both their performance and their humanity with the world often playing voyeur.

But being seen in also a blessing, for when athletes are seen doing things considered near-impossible, they sow a seed in the minds of us mere mortals: maybe I can do this too. To change our perceptions of the possible and impossible, nothing replaces the value of seeing someone do it first. And that is exactly what a number of Australian athletes have done, albeit this time off the field.

A postal vote in Australia has returned a 61.6 percent support for same-sex marriage, restoring some sheen to the institution of plebiscite in a post-Brexit world. And central to the result of the vote was the role of the antipodean sporting community: 36 different sporting organisations in the country, both local and national, publicly backed the 'yes' campaign and called for equal marriage rights for all Australians. These included the national bodies for cricket, basketball, volleyball, tennis, netball and football.

Even traditionally ‘blokey’ sports like rugby came on board, and perhaps the most emphatic statement came from the Australian Football League (AFL), the competition for Australian Rules Football.  They changed their three-letter logo outside their headquarters in Melbourne to the word 'yes' in support of marriage equality, for a day in September.

 How Australian athletes shaped history by campaigning for same-sex marriage as nation voted yes

A look at how different athletes and sporting organisations in Australia openly campaigned for same-sex marriage. Images courtesy: Twitter

Along with the sporting bodies, a number of on-field stars – most of them openly-gay — lined up to support the 'yes' camp. One of Australia’s most decorated Olympians, swimmer Ian Thorpe appeared in an ad for the 'yes' campaign.

Tennis player Casey Dellacqua criticised the Australian government for not pushing the legislation without the need for a vote, and called for an overwhelming 'yes' vote through this article. And Australian women’s cricket team vice-captain Alex Blackwell – who married her girlfriend in the UK last year — has used her profile to campaign against homophobia more than once.

For many of these athletes, the vote was a personal victory. Blackwell’s nuptials didn’t hold ground in her home country, and her team mates Jess Jonassen, Megan Schutt and Elyse Villani have spoken about the unfairness of not having the option of marrying their partners. Schutt was quick to talk about wedding plans after the results came out.

It’s a #YES 🌈 now to plan a wedding 💁🏼👰🏼 Well done Australia. Can’t wait to marry the love of my life ❤️ so very happy and proud 🙌🏼 #ssm #lovewins #marriageequality

A post shared by Megan Schutt (@megan_schutt3) on

The stands these organisations and individuals took were not without consequence. The day after the AFL headquarters brandished the 'yes' sign, the building had to be evacuated after a bomb threat, which thankfully turned out to be an unrelated hoax. And when Dellacqua posted a picture of her son with partner Amanda Judd in 2013, she was cricitised by tennis legend Margaret Court, who said, amongst other things, “This child has been deprived of his father...” While Dellacqua “never wanted to be the poster girl for society’s attitude towards same-sex relationships”, it was those comments that forced her to take a public stand.

Set against the backdrop of the ‘take a knee’ protests by American football players, the involvement of Australian athletes to shape an intransigent national policy paints a contrast with the situation in India, where most athletes are deliberately neutral.

India is still in the throes of Section 377 and other parochial attitudes, and the need for athletes and other celebrities to take a leading stand on issues has never been greater. Silence has a voice too; “I go to places, like India and Sri Lanka and it (homosexuality) is illegal," Blackwell told me in an interview early this year. “That tells me, I'm not quite good enough in a country like that. It doesn't affect me personally, but if I was an Indian, it's a very dangerous message.”

Which is why the likes of Virat Kohli’s video appealing to Indians to not burst crackers in Diwali two years ago was a rare gust of fresh (and cleaner) air. The fact that so few athletes take up social causes when not dictated by their media managers points to the direction the position of the athletes should evolve in India.

The athlete is everything we are not, but want to be. He is the one who goes faster when we grapple with city traffic. She is the one who wakes up early on a Sunday while we grumble about going to work on Monday. I remember being inspired to pull a writing-all-nighter, something I never do, after watching Rafael Nadal’s indefatigable stamina in Melbourne earlier this year to go past Gregor Dimitrov. And just thinking about Pankaj Advani’s 17 World Championships at age 32 is enough to get you out of bed for a month worth of Mondays.

An athlete’s visibility in making changes, whether on the field or off it, has the potential to shape history, a potential that the Australians have used to the fullest. Here’s hoping that when the time comes, our sportspersons pick their cause and speak up, and help a generation believe that going past certain conventions is possible.

Heaven knows India has a lot of causes to choose from.

Snehal Pradhan is a former India cricketer, and now a freelance journalist. She hosts ‘Cricket With Snehal’ on YouTube, and tweets @SnehalPradhan.

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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2017 11:16:55 IST