Israel Folau can get stuffed. For those who don’t follow sport – or are lucky enough to live in states where AFL dominates – Folau is one of the most famous rugby players in the country, recently becoming the leading try scorer in Super Rugby and fourth highest try-scoring Australian international player. But it is his bigoted social media posts and subsequent sacking by Rugby Australia that is currently attracting the spotlight.
On 10 April last year Folau asserted that gays would go to hell unless they repented of their sins. Earlier, Folau had responded to the news that Tasmania had legalised gender-optional birth certificates by attacking the “evil ways” of trans and other non-binary people. He then posted an image which compared homosexuals with fornicators, thieves and drunks, among other things.
The sad fact is that despite the substantial wins achieved by decades of struggle, including most recently the campaign for marriage equality, homophobia and transphobia persist. This is especially the case in the world of competitive sport – there is still not and has never been even one male player come out as gay during their career in the AFL, NRL or Rugby Union. Folau’s comments only reinforce this homophobia and make it harder for LBGTI athletes and fans to feel comfortable and included.
It would have been great if there had been a grassroots campaign to drive Folau out of the sport, with ground invasions, pickets and so on. But before any of that could happen, he was sacked, both from his team and the league.
Some on the left have been hesitant about supporting this move because the sacking seemed to rest on a clause in his contract that constrained his capacity to speak freely on social media. Rugby Australia have since clarified that the sacking was based on his breach of section 1.3 of the league’s code of conduct, which stipulates that employees must: “Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby.”
The left should strongly oppose attempts by the right to reinstate Folau and to challenge his sacking by appealing to the Fairwork Commission. The issue here is not workers’ rights nor religious freedom. It is bigotry. Rugby Australia’s stance is a belated, but necessary statement against homophobia and transphobia. If Folau’s lawyers are successful in reinstating him, it will be a victory for bigotry.
The right are well aware of this, and have been trying to use Folau as a posterboy for yet another campaign against “political correctness” and for religious freedom. Newly elected One Nation Senator Mark Latham referred to Folau’s sacking in his maiden speech, while the Australian Christian Lobby and Alan Jones are relentlessly attacking Rugby Australia’s decision as an attack on so-called mainstream christian values.
They don’t seem interested in the fact that a majority of christians – Catholics and Protestants – voted against homophobic discrimination in 2017. But we should be. Their support for LGBTI rights indicates that homophobia is not an integral aspect of modern christianity, any more than stoning adulterers to death or renouncing clothes of mixed fibres. This controversy is not about freedom of religion, it’s about whether or not bigotry should be tolerated and tacitly endorsed by prominent public institutions.
The right prefer to invoke freedom of religion in defense of Folau rather than freedom of speech. No doubt this is to distract from their hypocrisy: they advocate denying freedom of speech for LBGTI staff and students at religious schools, or those otherwise employed by religious institutions. They have repeatedly lobbied for exemptions to discrimination laws for the church on this basis.
In this context, left wing concern about Folau’s firing fuelling the growing trend toward workers being sacked or censured for expressing legitimate political views on social media outside of work hours are profoundly misplaced. Not only does it fail to grasp the key dynamic of the case, it also misunderstands what is needed to restore civil liberties for workers.
The reality is that workers currently face a draconian situation with regard to employers policing their private lives and denying their right to free speech. The only institutions that can turn the tide on this are trade unions. Strong unions cannot be built without solidarity, which means being sensitive to and fighting oppression and discrimination at work and beyond. Such a stance is needed to give confidence to LGBTI workers and those otherwise oppressed that the union has their back. To alienate such layers by siding with a bigot like Folau therefore only weakens the very organisations needed to turn the tide on bosses who assume they can dictate to workers about how they use social media.
Israel Folau is not a worker. He’s a sports star celebrity on a multimillion dollar contract, whose opinions and behaviours have a broad social impact. Just as his enormous wages do nothing to push up workers’ pay and conditions, his sacking will make no difference to the position or job security of rank and file workers.
It would therefore be a disaster if unions and the left came out to defend this bigot alongside the right and their shock jocks. His fall from grace should serve as a lesson to every backwards fucker out there. If Fairwork steps in to reinstate him, the left should relentlessly protest Folau and the systems of conservative power that are seeking to prop him up.