Of gays and Freedom of Speech

Over the last week a raging storm has been in progress in rugby. No, it wasn’t the one that pounded the Canterbury Crusaders with heavy, rain and hail on Saturday night – audibly and visually spectacular as it was – so much as one kicked off by the comments of Australian rugby player Israel Folau about gays and hell.

But just as an atmospheric storm does, this has sucked in unstable air from across the board – politicians, Pastors, rugby bosses, fellow players and former All Black Sir Michael Jones have all jumped into the debate. Some of them have sought to fuel the storm. Some have attempted to calm the storm

Mr Folau, a Christian by faith, stated that Gods plan required people to repent their sins or be prepared to suffer for eternity. His statement went onto say that he thought gays would go to hell unless they repent of their sin and turn to God.

Mr Jones, a devout Christian himself perhaps spoke the wisest words of anyone so far. He acknowledged Mr Folau’s right to his opinion with grace, but then pointed out that with an opinion that might be divisive such as this, one must temper it with love and respect for the other person. As a newly elected Board member of New Zealand Rugby, a place that has had some rather unfortunate brushes with issues of sexism and sexuality, Mr Jones would have been seeking to look after N.Z.R.’s best interests when seeking to moderate the tone.

Wise words. Much more intelligent and gracious than those that were uttered by Pastor Brian Tamaki. Mr Tamaki, whose anti-LGBTQ views are widely seen as divisive, inflammatory, and in some quarters, degrading made use of the hash tag #CryBabyGays highlight on social media his problem with the LGBTQ community.

But there are also very credible reasons for showing concern about the impact this debate and Mr Folau’s words has on people of poor mental state, especially those who might have harboured suicidal thoughts or showing symptoms of depression. Nigel Owens, a widely respected international rugby referee, who is openly gay told media that he had fought his own demons in the 1990’s when realizing what his sexual orientation was. It came a head with him considering suicide in 1996.

Labour Member of Parliament for Manurewa and former Black Fern Louisa Wall spoke out against Mr Folau’s commentary. As the author of the Same Sex (Definition of Marriage)Amendment Act, 2013, Ms Wall believes they are dangerous and send the wrong messages to people struggling with sexual identity issues. Ms Wall goes on to say that rugby contracts between player and club should have a clause in them forbidding bringing the game into disrepute.

I personally have no problems with Mr Folau having an opinion. Anyone is entitled to one. But with an opinion as Mr Jones noted, one needs to be aware of its potential for negative impact and a willingness to make utterances with respect and grace.

This particular thunderstorm is going to rumble on for a while longer yet. More politicians and other identities on the social landscape of New Zealand and Australia might yet jump in with their own views of what is going on.

Across the Tasman Sea, Australian rugby might be sharpening the knives, but who are they sharpening them for? They should not be sharpening for Rugby Australia Chief Executive Raelene Castle who through no fault of her own finds her tenure plunging headlong into a socially and professionally explosive issue. If they are sharpening for the scalp of Mr Folau, it might be remembered that to his considerable credit he did offer to quit the sport that he no doubt loves and has until now represented Australia with great skill in.


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