'It was the worst-kept secret': Rugby League legend Ian Roberts tells his coming out story

LGBTQ+ athletes on the rewarding aspects of being out (1:36)

Out athletes from a variety of sports share their stories on the most unexpected benefits of coming out. (1:36)

Australian rugby league legend Ian Roberts [he/him], 56, came out as gay in 1994 and continued to play top tier club football until his retirement in 1998. He went on to an acting career, appearing in Star Wars II - Attack of the Clones, and in Superman Returns.

What was the 'coming out to myself' process like for you?

I never had a problem being gay. I grew up in a very... the truth is there was racist, misogynist, and homophobic overtones in my upbringing, but I grew up in a very loving family. I know that seems like a bit of a contradiction. I always knew [being gay] wasn't embraced by the greater society so I kept it secret -- as secret as it could be. I first came out to my parents, I was in my early 20s. It wasn't a 'good' coming out. I didn't have a good relationship with my family for probably five or six years after, but my parents gradually came around. By the time my dad passed away [seven years ago] he was totally embracing of the LGBTQ+ community. I'll never forget: My dad was reading a paper and I sat at the table with my partner and my mum. We were talking about marriage equality, did we think it was going to get through [the vote in Australia], and my dad, who didn't say much, I remember him putting his paper down and turning to us saying, 'Why shouldn't you be allowed to marry the person you're in love with?' He picked his paper up and started reading again. It doesn't sound like much but that was such a journey for my father to get to that point.

READ: 17 LGBTQ+ athletes share their coming out journeys

Did you have a specific reason for coming out to the media/public, rather than keeping your private life private?

I came out in 1994 but I was actually going to come out in 1990. I was in the process of transferring teams here in Australia, I was going from the South Sydney Rabbitohs to the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles. I was 24 at that time and I thought, at that stage, I'd had enough of denying who I was. But at that particular time, over in the UK, Justin Fashanu was playing Premier League soccer, he came out. We didn't have internet, so I was following the story by radio, TV, newspaper and through the gay grapevine. I changed my decision about coming out because he was brutalized by the English press and by the English supporters. He was a hero to me. He took his life in 1998. I don't know why men's sports has such an issue. In women's sport, coming out seems to be totally accepted. But there's still a really big stigma around men. So anyway, I came out in 1994 and by that stage I was just sick and tired of having to deny myself, really. And also, it was the worst kept secret in rugby league.

Has coming out impacted your career and opportunities at all?

That's an unknown. I can't go back and not come out and see how things turned out. I'm sure me coming out at times swayed someone from using me for an endorsement. I don't care either. [But] When I first went to play for the Townsville Cowboys in 1997, Tim Sheens was the new coach there. I was publicly out by then, and Tim made me the team captain, which was unheard of. Townsville, which is in the far north of Queensland, had a [reputation] of being quite homophobic. They had a politician up there by the name of Bob Katter, who has really interesting views, you might say. Bob said, before I went up there, that he wouldn't go to any Cowboys games while I was the captain. That was the kind of impression I had of Townsville. But they totally embraced me. It was a wonderful time for me for the two years that I spent up there.

How has your sport changed with regard to the LGBTQ+ community during your career?

I love rugby league but they haven't done enough. They've been in a position of being able to change perceptions, particularly when I came out in 1994. They could have used that and really raised awareness of the LGBTQ+ issues that our community faces daily. The NRL do have a float in the Mardi Gras Parade, we have for 3-4 years. Yes, it's a good thing but it's very limited. I've been trying to push for them to have a Rainbow Round every year. I think there are a lot of corporates that are ticking boxes. I feel like we've had this conversation now for nearly 30 years, about what the NRL can do. Sport is so powerful. We need our allies. I always wonder why straight people in the sporting community don't step up and embrace the LGBTIQ+ community and be a real ally for them. I would think that's great for their own profile and their own public perception, and great for sponsorships.

What is the most rewarding, and perhaps unexpected, part of being out?

For me, the nice thing about having a public profile and being publicly out, is you can help so many people. The most powerful thing I can do on a daily basis is simply hold my partner's hand when we're out in public. Because you can't be what you don't see, it's creating this normality about that. I'm sometimes like, 'Why am I still having this conversation?' but we still need this. It's crazy, I still get people who will double take, who will look at my partner and I holding hands as we walk by. It's in those moments when I realise we still have a long way to go. Unknowingly, it's been wonderful that by simply being truthful, I know I've been able to help people. That is quite a wonderful feeling. It would be wonderful if there was no issues and [people] could be free to be who they are all the time. But unfortunately we still aren't living in that world because some people aren't safe. They aren't safe physically, which is quite sad. We still have a long way to go.

What would your advice be to folks who are struggling with their identity?

Find your allies. Be safe. There are services out there... Phone services. Find your ally. If you're feeling... I don't want to sound like I'm being demeaning when I say, look to educate yourself around this area, around this space. First and foremost, make sure you're safe.

When debating coming out in your mind, what were your worst - and best case - scenarios? And did either come to pass?

Worst case scenario was potentially to lose friends and family, get kicked out of home. That kind of did happen. But best case scenario is that your family embrace it and that did happen for me as well. So I had the full spectrum. [Another] worst case scenario would have been self-harm or something like that. I didn't get to that point, I'm not saying I've never utilised those types of [counselling] services because I have in my life. I got one friend -- I've known him since my teenage years, he's my age, we grew up in the 80s and 90s clubbing together. He came out to his family in his 20s and they've never spoken to him since. I saw him three or four months ago and we had that [self-harm] conversation because another friend of ours had just passed away. That hit me in the face, like, 'Oh my god, that still happens, you're my age, you're 55 and your parents still aren't talking to you.' He hasn't spoken to them now for 30-odd years. They are quite religious. I'm an atheist, not that I'm down on religion, but it seems to make it easier for me to understand.

Did you ever feel any pressure, either internally or from speculating fans, to be a 'role model' or an ambassador for the queer community? And is that something you embrace now?

I feel a responsibility to do it. Particularly now. For all the reasons I've spoken about, the lack of visibility, especially in men's sport. I think we need to have this conversation, and if me being part of the conversation, if my limited profile can somehow help, then I'm all for it. I feel appreciative that people will still want to talk to me. I don't think my story is very relevant today because it was such a long time ago. I don't think my story is that exciting. Do I think things are easier now than they were 10 years ago? I hope so.