Monday, April 15, 2024

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AO Pride: Ian Roberts On Hope, And The Long Road Ahead

On a hot summer Friday night ahead of Australian Open 2024, the new Courtside Bar at Melbourne Park was humming with activity for its first official event.

Standing head and shoulders above the crowd was former NRL star Ian Roberts, clad in a rainbow-monikered top and ready to share his story to some 150 listening ears for the AO Pride Launch, now in its sixth year.

“These conversations are always necessary,” an expressive Roberts said during his Q&A with yours truly, opening up on the challenges he faced as the first out gay man in Australian rugby league – a title he still owns alone some 30 years later.

Nick McCarvel interviews Ian Roberts at the AO Pride Launch

Nick McCarvel interviews Ian Roberts at the AO Pride Launch

The Pride Launch may be in its sixth iteration – having begun in 2019 with the likes of out NBA star Jason Collins, former doubles world No.1 Rennae Stubbs and others – but AO Pride is bigger (prouder!) than ever before.

AO Pride Day (25 January) is now in its fourth year, and the Glam Slam – an inclusive LGBTQ+ amateur tennis event – now a part of its seventh AO, with over 225 participants from some 34 countries.

AO Pride also includes a Pride Hub on site, a first-of-its-kind AO Pride Range at the AO Store, the Finals Festival music line-up featuring pride ambassador Tash Sultana (among other artists), and much more.

It’s a reflection of Tennis Australia’s commitment to tennis as an inclusive sport that welcomes everyone, to those from the LGBTQ+ community to All Abilities Day (23 January), which is “a showcase of the diverse ways that people with disabilities thrive in all aspects of tennis.”

AO Pride: A year-round celebration

Roberts is as engaging as he is striking in person. The 196cm (6-foot-5) former international forward has become a tireless advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, with his energies focused on Australia’s first-ever queer museum, Qtopia, set to open in March.

As he shared his stories with the Pride Launch crowd, he spoke of his sexuality being “the worst-kept secret” during his years with the Manly Sea Eagles, when he brought his then-partner to team and social functions.

Roberts shared stories with the Pride Launch crowd

Roberts shared stories with the Pride Launch crowd

“If I did anything differently I would have come out earlier,” he admitted at one point, saying he has never had a tinge of internalised homophobia and has always batted away any uncomfortableness with teammates by making light of the situation.

“Don’t flatter yourself, mate,” he says he’s told teammates – and fans – to break any tensions. It further drives home his point around conversations such as these, which he says help to educate and create a dialogue around queer people in sport, especially in male-dominated spaces, having seen women’s sport take the lead in this realm, too.

As Roberts told story after story about his own journey and where the sporting space needs to go next, the event buzzed with key figures from queer Melbourne, including the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Major Events in Victoria, Steve Dimopoulos.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley was there as well, to show his support for the AO pride initiatives. Irena Farinacci, Tennis Australia’s national coordinator for diversity and inclusion, detailed not just the coming Pride Day, but also the organisation’s work year-round, which includes an LGBTQ+ advisory group, awareness training for staff and grassroots activations around the country.

AO tournament director Craig Tiley, Ian Roberts, and Minister for Tourism, Sport and Major Events in Victoria, Steve Dimopoulos

AO tournament director Craig Tiley, Ian Roberts, and Minister for Tourism, Sport and Major Events in Victoria, Steve Dimopoulos

Farinacci also thanked Roberts personally, saying how meaningful his coming out was for her as an Italian-Australian from a conservative family.

Roberts spoke with The Age/Sydney Morning Herald ahead of the event, sharing his excitement for his first AO experience – while also detailing his work with the NRL … and how far sport has to go.

“One of the questions we ask is: ‘Do you think if someone was gay in this group, they would feel safe to come out?’” Roberts said of his diversity training with the NRL. “It’s always the same response – there is never an answer. There’s a blankness. That’s what we are trying to change.”

By: Nick McCarvel
Originally published at:

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