Holding on to Hope

Ian Roberts talks about being the first male professional athlete to openly come out in Australia, and his ongoing support of the LBGTI+ community

August 25, 2021 Lifeline
Holding on to Hope
Ian Roberts talks about being the first male professional athlete to openly come out in Australia, and his ongoing support of the LBGTI+ community
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to lifelines, holding onto hope. A podcast series in which people who've reached a dark place in their lives share their stories.

As part of the Out of the Shadows program we’re talking with international Rugby League icon Ian Roberts. 

In a stellar career, Ian was renowned for being a hard and ferocious competitor. 

But for a number of Australians he is regarded as a champion for being the first male professional athlete to openly come out, and his on going support of the LBGTI+ community.

Warning:

Warning this episode contains explicit language. This podcast series will share personal moments of connection and deeply felt experiences. If anything you hear has a triggering effect, please reach out to someone who can help keep you safe. Or remember, you can phone lifeline at any time on 13, 11, 14,

Ian:

LGBTQI plus community, the figures are saying that they are five times higher that they will potentially self harm as opposed to their straight peers. I would be surprised if anyone, my age there would be anyone who didn't know someone that had self harmed or taken their own life. You know , that's not. Yeah , that in itself is kind of a scary statistic.

Beverley:

Welcome to lifelines , holding onto hope, a podcast series in which those who have reached a dark place, share their stories of how they found joy in life again. As part of the out of the shadows campaign, we taik here to international rugby league star, Ian Roberts, during a stellar career, which saw him play for Souths, Manly. and the Cowboys, Ian was renowned for being a hard and ferocious competitor. However, for many he's regarded even greater champion. Being the first male professional athlete to come out as gay and for his ongoing support of the LBGTQI community. Hi Ian for those few people who don't know you, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself?

Ian:

My name is Ian Roberts. I suppose I have a , a bit of a profile here within Australia, , b ecause , I'm a rugby league player. I played, through the late 80's and up until I think I retired in 99, I had quite a good career. I was fortunate enough to, pl ay state of origin and play an d p lay for the country. We nt o n a k angaroo tour. I also had a season at W i gan, I suppose. My, u m , m y profile became a bit elevated, intense. I do n't k now what word to use. I mean, I, u h , I did, u m , c ame to the, to the greater public's attention in 1994, 95. when I came out as a gay man, u h , I was playing for Australia at the time. And obviously that was, u h , k ind of a, I wouldn't say rock the boat, but it did unsettled things in the greater community a little, but, yo u k n ow, overall I think I was well supported by the rugby league community. I mean, I did it personally for myself and just not wanting to hide the truth. I m e an, I did realize it was going to have some sort of impact, but I didn't realize how big an impact it would have. And also, I didn't realize that, u h , u p until this da te, yo u k n ow, in the major sports within Australia, there's still been no other, u h , m ale in a professional te am s port, a t the level I played at to ha ve c ome out, it was quite a story

Beverley:

When you were playing Football you were renowned and you played for the Rabbitohs you played for Manly, you played for Townsville Cowboys. And during that time you were renowned as an absolutely fearless and fearsome competitor, you know, like you were astounding on the field, but obviously there must have been some struggle for you. Like you've described your , your being gay. I know as the worst kept secret in football, and yet you did keep it a secret. And why was that? Was that because you were worried about your own acceptance? Were you struggling with your own acceptance or were you worried about others acceptance of you?

Ian:

I've always been , um, as far back as I can remember, I've always been, same-sex attracted, so it's never , and I've never, I've never personally had an issue with it . I knew instantly that growing up that way that it was, you know , it wasn't the preferred choice. I mean, I remember a situation. I was seven years old and my dad and I were sitting , um, watching the TV , uh , and there was a show called checkboard, which was, this is 1972 now. And it was the first time that , uh , two men , uh , it was a documentary about homosexuals and gay life, kissed on TV. I was sitting next to my dad and I remember watching, watching the TV and feeling connected to whatever they were doing. I just knew I was of the same make as those men on the TV. But my dad said, and forgive my language. I'll use the language you use that night. They make my fucking skin creep. I instantly knew it was that it was not the way to be.

Beverley:

So how did that affect how you felt ?

Ian:

Being gay as I grew up, it didn't really affect me my sense of self, my , my problems with not being able to read and write that was far greater. Like I was, I was always ashamed, I was always, I always felt dumb growing up. That that sensation of not being able to read and write and the consequences and the difficulties that gave me , uh , and just the sense of shame that I always felt from not being able to read and write. That was far greater. and that was far more hurtful for me as a person and more damaging to my sense of self than my sexual identity or anything like that.

Beverley:

That must've been difficult for you Ian. So then how did you feel about coming out?

Ian:

In 1989 I signed to play with Manly in 1990, and I promised myself that when I, when I left Souths to go to Manly, that I was going to come out and be honest and be open about it. It was going to be fresh, fresh start. But in 1990 over in England. Justin Faschanu, who is a premier league player, soccer player , uh , came out. And back then there was no internet and no worldwide web. So we used to have to keep get our news via , uh , TV, the paper, or radio. I kept abreast of that and what was happening. And Justin was, the English press brutalized him . They were Savage to him. The , uh, the, the fans of the game were very cruel to him as well. Justin retired in 1994 and , uh, took his own life in 1998. He was such a hero to me from start to the demise of his, of him taking his own life. I mean, he's still a hero to me now, but I do remember when Justin came out and the way he was received by the English media and the British supporters of the game, it terrified me. That's why I didn't come out. It was like, it was another four years before I came out in 94 on the kangaroo tour . It was also the year that Justin retired.

Beverley:

What happened when you came out?

Ian:

I was quite open about my sexuality, even in my private life , uh, from an early age. I used to go to clubs, in my teenage years, gay clubs. And all the time when I started playing with Souths and that as well, playing first grade with South's. My mum and dad would come to every game, but they would hear things from the crowd. The crowd would shout things out, quite offensive as you can imagine. But I mean, you know, in saying this also , um, I think if I'd had red hair , I would have been about the red hair. If I'd been a person of color, it would have been about that. If I'd been someone who was overweight, it would have been about that. I think a lot of people, a lot of the crowd back then, just tried to get under your skin. That they'd heard something potentially, and they'll just try to use it to get you off your game or whatever it was. But still, there are certain things you can't protect people from as my mum and dad, I couldn't protect them from what was being said in the crowd. I mean, the reason I came out, it was again, it's one of those stories. It's , it's just, you never really know who you're talking to. Casual language, I call it casual language. You know, if you're , uh , if you can hear a conversation and it's offensive to you, then you're part of that conversation. You know, what you're willing to walk by is what you're willing to accept. And so just be aware of what, what you say affects people. It can affect so many people unbeknownst to you. My mum used to work at Qantas, and she was at lunch one day. And , uh, there was two boys sitting opposite her in the lunch shed, reading an article about me in the paper, not knowing that my mum was sitting opposite them. And one of the boys said to the other, that I'm going to use the same language, because this is the language that my mum had had to deal with at the time and I wasn't out to my family at this stage. But my mum and dad, like I said, had been to all my games, that used to get all my games, so they used to hear a lot of the offensive language that sometimes sprouted about me at games. One of the boys said to the other boy, reading the paper. Oh , that's Ian Roberts he got caught sucking some guy off in Oxford street. And my mum who was having mental health issues at the time anyway , uh , it was devastating to my mum. I mean, I try , I try to say, you know , obviously my mum didn't believe what they were saying, but it's still, that's how I had to come out to my parents. In fact I got home from training, and then I got a phone call with my dad. He said look boy, you need to come around to your mother and fathers. Your mum heard something at work. So that was my conversation with my mum. Obviously. I mean , I told them. My dad just said, well boy we don't believe everything we hear, we just want to hear you say, you're not gay. And that'll , that's good enough for us. Well, I guess at that stage, I just, I was, I just had enough. I just said, no , dad, I'm gay . Um, and I just remember that moment. And I think anyone in my situation or the coming out story has that moment they remember. I felt like I was, I was like dissolving into the TV as I'd said it because my mum didn't handle the news very well. And my dad didn't handle it very well. That was very hard for them . I mean, I went through a period of time for about two or three years out to that where we kind of lost touch. I kind of lost touch with my parents and my family. Uh , but that is quite a familiar story in the LGBTQI plus community. I was always comfortable with being gay. Um , but I always knew it was frowned upon it . It was, it was not accepted. It wasn't , um , going to be an easy trip.

Beverley:

Where were you in this journey when you actually rang lifeline that first time?

Ian:

The first time was, it was about, it was probably about a year and a half after my family. I was just feeling really alone Um, I'd had a business failure as well. Um, but it , it was just one of those moments the whole time leading up to that, it was probably a month or two leading up to making that phone call that I was just feeling incredibly desperate and unsure of everything and unsure of myself. I just really rang just to talk to someone that , I mean, that was, I had contemplated self harm , but it was, I think I was just calling. I was a lot more desperate than I thought I was, but I was, I remember that the loneliness I was feeling and just not, not being able, not having, being able to talk to someone that, that wasn't, I wasn't connected to was probably more important to me at that stage.

Beverley:

Can you remember how the phone call went Ian?

Ian:

I do remember feeling an incredible amount of relief when I hung the phone up. And just like , like I just inhaled, I'd been holding my breath for like 20 minutes or then I was gasping. And I remember that that sensation of someone , someone just listened to me, like being listened to, and I don't know what that is, but that's just being validated that someone listened to me. And , um, yeah, I it's weird. I was trying to recall the conversation. I , I was, I remember part of the conversation just talking about feeling like I was isolated, but being very alone. And I just felt like I was alone all the time, even though I wasn't, I mean, that's how I was feeling. And if you feel something, then it's justified, but I mean , I look back and I know I wasn't at that time alone, but I was feeling incredibly isolated and , and just , just the need to talk to someone that I didn't have to validate myself to all the time.

Beverley:

It's interesting, isn't it? Because, you know, she said you weren't alone, but presumably there was no one else you could unload on, it is it is amazing how difficult it is.

Ian:

It's um, yeah, I mean, yeah, that, that sense of isolation and , and feeling like, you know, it might sound corny to say, but like, you're the only one in the world who might be feeling like you're feeling like you're the only one in the world at that moment who's going through that. And how scary that is also, the sense of being alone and not knowing what you feel or what's in front of you, or if there's anything in front of you or if you want to be a part of that or , or, yeah, I'm , I'm such an advocate for the sharing. Yeah.

Announcer:

Through connecting with others, we can hold onto hope.To speak to a crisis supporter, please call 13, 11, 14 twenty four hours, seven days a week.

Beverley:

Can you tell me about the second time that you called lifeline and about the events that led up to that call?

Ian:

I had retired about four years earlier, retired from football, but definitely miss the game. And there was a real void in my life , the comradery, just the routine of training and that whole professional thing that was what I did. I was now not, not a part of that. It was almost like my sense of self was kind of damaged about who I was. I had also just recently split up with my partner at that time, a business that I've been involved with had just had just finished as well, also had substance abuse issues. And I was in a bad place. I mean, looking back it's, it's almost like a fog looking back into a fog. Um, but , uh , I do know , I desperately needed a lifeline in that situation. And again, just the sensation of someone listening to me and validating me and not judging me was what changed, changed my situation. It empowered me when I was, when I put the phone down. Cause we spoke for a long time. Yeah . I spoke for a long time the second time it was. Um, and it was just, yeah, I felt , I mean, I dunno if, if, if worthy, is, is the word I'm looking for, but I did feel , I felt like I was worth something I'm worthy to be here.

Announcer:

No one should ever have to face their darkest moments alone. Lifeline is here to help. Please call 13, 11, 14 , or visit lifeline.org.au

Ian:

When I got off the phone that second time I'd used lifeline in the early two thousands, it felt like I had a real change in my life.

Beverley:

And did it literally?

Ian:

Sometimes all you just need, you just need someone to listen to you. I u sed to do some of the talk to, regardless of where you sit financially or culturally or professionally. Sometimes just having a voice on the o ther end of the phone. Who's, who's caring. And that's s omething i t's so easy t o, let's just s ay w ho's kind, that's w hat I m ean. U m, yeah, just be kind, j ust like how many times you heard that, i t's just, u h, just be kind,

Beverley:

You've gone on to have a stellar career in acting, you've learned to read and write you've. I mean, you you're astounding in so many ways.

Ian:

It was 2001. My car had broken down about a hundred yards up the road from NIDA, the national Institute of dramatic arts in Kensington. And I was actually just walking by NIDA, up to, up to a service station to get someone to help me on the car. And I just thought, I'd go in, I'd go into NIDA and see if there's someone there who could help me maybe do some acting classes. Uh, I met a gentleman by the name of Kevin Jackson. I hadn't really thought of enrolling in the degree there because I thought it would be too old. But after like three or four months of some one-on-one classes with Kevin, Kevin suggested it. So that's what I did. I auditioned for the three year course and got in. I'd always loved art, sports kind of took off for me as a kid and through my teenage years and obviously, you know, early twenties professionally, but I've always loved acting. So it was almost like out of default I'll go back and do that. I've been doing that ever since. Um, but I will say if I had to survive on my , uh, my acting credits and paychecks , I would go pretty hungry.

Beverley:

I wanted to talk to you then about how you've used that though with your theater sports and your , um, your work with the football teams to tackle some of the issues,

Ian:

The level of profile I have does serve as a platform. And I've almost taken that on as kind of a bit of responsibility to , to talk about these , uh , particularly being an advocate for the LGBTQI plus community. But also things with learning difficulties, if it can bring any sort of awareness to the subject matter. And it's a positive thing. I mean, I keep saying that I'm fully behind having a, you know, having a conversation talking and just awareness.

Beverley:

So tell me a little bit more about the, think about it program?

Ian:

I'm part of a program. Uh, it's called Think about it. It kind of a theater sports program for the NRL. People are aware of what theatre sports is. Just me and some friends really came out with the idea. They'd be playing around with the idea. And I , because I'm in at NRL all the time. It just kind of evolved really. It's three friends were together we needed another actor, so it ended up being four of us. We came up with some scenarios and the scenarios are all based around the mysoginy, homophobia, self harm, social media, gambling, drugs. Anyway, the four actors know what's going on in the scenes and we get three or four players up involved. And hopefully they can navigate and negotiate the scenes in a positive way. Uh, and it's also, even if they don't do it in a positive way, if they get it wrong, it's a safe place to get it wrong because we then talk about the scene and how better that should have been handled or how they should have , or could have maneuvered around the scene in much more positive way. It's great. Like we've been doing that for like five years now. Uh , well obviously not for the last year and a half because of the whole COVID thing, but , um, yeah, that's, that's pretty par for the course for everyone at the moment.

Beverley:

Do you know what sort of impact you've had through that? Cause I can imagine that in the NRL community in particular or any kind of fairly , uh , macho for want of a better word community, you would have a huge impact.

Ian:

We've been doing it now for at least five years. So , uh, and the NRL is still rolling out and we, we come up with fresh ideas every year. It's an evolving situation all the time. And once again, it's , um, it's, it's just , I mean, it sounds a bit corny to say, but it's a safer environment for the players. It's a safe environment for them to get the situation wrong because we then discuss the situation. In saying that like 99% of the time the players get it right. But there is, you know , there is that odd time that they , um, choose a bad option that does create the most interesting conversation.

Beverley:

Does it help you to be this voice because you know , there is something very, like you said, you needed to be validated earlier on and there's nothing more validating than knowing that you've helped somebody else. I think.

Ian:

It's such a privilege, honestly, it's such a privilege to be in this situation that potentially can help. But with that privilege, comes some responsibility and it's following through. And it's being open to having those conversations that you and I are having now. And we hear people say it all the time, but if you can help one person, then that's wonderful. And I 'm like, it's a wonderful thing. I mean, I a ppreciate i t at that level. A nd i f i t, if i t goes on to be more than that it's even better, b ut t hat almost comes back to using a service like Lifeline. Like one person is all it takes an d t hat can make all the difference to a person as well. Th at o ne person is willing to listen or willing to have a conversation with you or willing to talk about something openly. I think that's where we can make the biggest gains. And I think that's wh y L ifeline is so f antastic because people will talk to you openly and honestly about stuff and that's validating in i tself. So yeah, I m e an, I hope it doesn't sound corny, but if it does help, yo u k n ow, one person that's well worth it.

Beverley:

No, it doesn't (sound corny) at all. And I've spoken to so many people now who have been on the verge of making an attempt. And it's interesting, the smallest thing that will turn them around. 'Jjust come and have a cup of tea with me,' you know? 'And we'll just have a talk about it'. Something as small as that, you know, 'Come and have a cup of tea with meme.' . It seems like a nothing thing, doesn't it? But it can save a life.

Ian:

Yeah , absolutely and nothing's too small. What I mean by that is what might seem too much isn't. You've just got to be willing to have that conversation that it''s okay to share, that it's okay to speak up.

Beverley:

What advice would you give to someone who finds themself in that lonely position you were in when you called Lifeline - on both occasions?

Ian:

It's okay. Like it's okay to call. The first time I called Lifeline, back in the early nineties, I remember having a b it, bit of a conflict thinking, 'Am I wasting someone's time?' It's always worth it. It's always worth it. It's okay to call. I don't know how else to put it i nto w ords, B ev. T here's nothing that's too small to talk about.

Beverley:

And if you are presented with someone, or you know, someone and you think they're struggling, what would you advise someone who i s not sure how to help? What would you say to them?

Ian:

I would ask them if has that person has had thoughts about self harm ? Has that person had thoughts about taking their own life. Not being afraid to ask that question can make all the difference

Beverley:

Looking back on your life now, Ian - and God it's been an extraordinary life - how do you feel looking back and how d o y o u feel about the place that you're in now?

Ian:

I'm in a great place now. Yeah. I'm very fortunate to have been able to help others too, by just speaking openly and honestly about my life. It's a privilege that this conversation can help other people. I have a wonderful, wonderful relationship with my partner. I have a wonderful relationship with my family. One of the best and nicest moments in my life was my dad saying in an interview - this is just a few years before he passed away seven years ago - that he had four children and loved all his children the same but that he felt felt blessed to have had a gay son because he got to see the world as it really is.

Beverley:

It must've moved you beyond belief to hear your dad say that and unexpected, I would think. Is there advice you would give to, particularly to family members who maybe have said something unkind, you know, in that it is never too late.

Ian:

Yeah it was beautiful. I mean, it's uh , yeah, it's, it's one of those moments, one of those reaffirming moments. It's never too late to reach out. It's never too late to reach out to anyone. I mean, we've all said and done things that in hindsight, (we wished we'd) not done, it's okay to reach out. Like it's never too late to reach out.

Beverley:

Thank you for listening to holding onto hope. Lifeline Australia is grateful to all our interviewees who share their stories in the hope of inspiring others. We also acknowledge all of you who provide support to people in crisis and those on their journey to recovery. If you found this podcast helpful or inspiring, please share it, rate it, write a review or subscribe wherever you download your favorite podcasts. If this story has affected you and you require crisis support, please contact Lifeline on 13 11,14. You can do this at any time or visit lifeline.org.au to access web chat every night from 7:00 PM to midnight. If it inspired you to be a lifeline volunteer or to donate, please visit lifeline.org.au. With thanks to Wahoo! Creative for interviews, editing, and production, and the voice of lived experience, which is essential in the development of our work.