Every so often, Rugby League produces moments of far greater significance than simply the sport alone. It could be a single handshake of respect, a kick-off towards gender equality or, in tonight’s case, a flash of glitter promoting LGBTQI inclusiveness. The latter has been a long time coming for NSW True Blue Ian Roberts, but he’s excited about a big night for the game as a whole.
Roberts, who in 1994 became the world’s first openly-gay footballer to still be playing, will tonight lead the NRL’s “Pride In League” float at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Now in its second year, the float was established by the NSWRL’s Paul Langmack and has welcomed Roberts with open arms – a welcome the game wants to extend to the broader LGBTQI community. Despite the impending poor whether in Sydney this weekend, Roberts says he won’t let anything rain on this parade.
“It’s almost a relief that the NRL are doing it and that they’re on the front foot about it,” Roberts tells NSWRL.com.au. “I’m really glad that I’m on board for this side of things because it’s very personal to me.
“Sportspeople have a validity straight away with the community,” Roberts adds. “When sportspeople speak up about issues, a lot of the general public that wouldn’t listen to politicians will listen to sportspeople. Rugby League has that power.”
Almost 23 years have passed since Roberts first came out but for the 51-year-old, the game’s symbol of inclusion is better late than never. The issues he faced throughout his career still exist today, of course, and Roberts believes the Mardi Gras float is merely the first step in helping a large portion of the community.
“Now they have to move forward,” Roberts explains. “It’s not just being present at the parade, it’s about doing something valuable that humanises the concern.
“There needs to be more of a presence; there needs to be more of a visual impact. I think they should have things like posters at grounds about acceptance, inclusion and about LGBTQI communities.”
Langmack and Roberts are close friends; they are the same age and played against each other for much of their careers. The fact Roberts will have the Canterbury-Bankstown legend by his side at tonight’s parade, however, demonstrates people of all ages are capable of acceptance.
“If you’d asked me 20 years ago if I could see in the future Paul Langmack on a Mardi Gras float sprouting equality, I would’ve said you were crazy!” Roberts joked. “Not that I think ‘Langers’ is intolerant or unaccepting, but everyone mellows as they age and people start seeing things differently.
“You get to your 40s and 50s and you’re like ‘as long as they’re smiling and respectful, that’s enough'.”
Having spent seven years in Los Angeles pursuing his acting career, Roberts has witnessed the damaging circumstances which closeted individuals' experience in both countries. While he knows each situation is different, he explains how significantly coming out changed his life.
“There does come a point in your life where you’ve got to make your life your own,” Roberts says. “If you’re not prepared at some point to step out then you’re just not being true to yourself.
“When I look back at my situation I think ‘I don’t know how I was ever in the closet.’”
The Rugby League world always new Ian Roberts was one of the game’s toughest but on a game-changing day in 1994, he truly exemplified what that word means to him. Tonight, amidst the festivities, Rugby League itself will show toughness as it opens its arms to all sections of the community – and that is something worth celebrating.