Australian sport supports same-sex marriage in key ballot

November 2, 2017

Try telling Charlie Winn and Steve Thorne that sports and politics don't mix.

As Australia votes in a postal survey on same-sex marriage, Winn and Thorne, who helped found the gay rugby team the Sydney Convicts, hope a positive result might mean the government will allow same-sex couples to be legally married in their country.

And if it happens, it could be due to the widespread support of most of Australia's major sporting organizations.

The Australian Football League, which runs the top level of Australian Rules football, replaced its logo on its head office in Melbourne with a prominent ''Yes'' sign in mid-September to send the message that is supports same-sex marriage.

The AFL joined the Australian Rugby Union, the National Rugby League, Cricket Australia and Football Federation Australia, which governs soccer, in declaring their support for the yes vote in the officially-called Marriage Law Survey.

The postal survey forms must be received by next Tuesday to be counted, and the result is expected to be announced by Nov. 15.

The government would still have to vote on it, even if the result of the informal, non-binding postal vote is a resounding yes, to legislate for same-sex marriage. So there's still some way to go.

For Winn and Thorne, who have been in a relationship for 13 years, it's a step in the right direction. They're both former players with the Convicts, Australia's first gay rugby club, which was formed in 2004. The Convicts have won the Bingham Cup, emblematic of the international gay rugby championship, four times - with Winn and Thorne having each captained the team to two titles.

Winn, a 44-year-old digital consultant, and Thorne, 40, who owns a printing business, had an unofficial marriage ceremony in the Blue Mountains near Sydney in 2012. But that has given them no rights as a married couple - they recently had to pay several thousand dollars in lawyer's fees while selling separate residences, something that wouldn't have been required if they were legally married.

They point to other issues as being discriminatory - for instance, if one of them becomes ill and is in hospital, and the other is not officially listed as family, they'd have to remain in the waiting room because they are not listed as a relative or spouse. Or the complications arising if one of them dies and the other has no legal status in the relationship.

''Fundamentally, it is about equality in the eyes of society,'' Winn said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. ''Support from the AFL, rugby league and rugby union means that it is not OK to be discriminated against, and that is a humungous step forward.''

Thorne says the widespread support of sporting groups helped emphasize to him and his gay friends that they aren't alone in pushing for marriage equality.

''We often surround ourselves with like-minded people, and when major organizations and sporting groups come out in favor of same-sex marriage, that to me takes it a step beyond,'' Thorne said. ''We can often have an underlying assumption that we are alone in our thinking.''

Not everyone in Australian sport agreed: Rugby fullback Israel Folau became the most prominent Australian sports star to say he'd be voting no in the postal survey, and 3,500 people replied to his tweet, many voicing their opposition to his views.

''I love and respect all people for who they are and their opinions. But personally, I will not support gay marriage,'' Folau tweeted.

That view was countered by Wallabies teammate David Pocock, who held a wedding ceremony with his partner Emma Palandri in 2010. But they have refused to sign the legal documents making it official until their gay friends are able to do the same.

''When my survey arrives I'll vote yes for justice and love,'' Pocock tweeted a few hours after Folau's message.

The Behavioural Science Laboratory at Melbourne's Monash University last week released some preliminary findings which show that Australian sport's support of same-sex marriage was helping the ''yes'' campaign. It tracked Facebook responses to the various Australian sporting bodies' approval of same-sex marriage, and categorized the responses under positive, negative and homophobic.

''Beautiful work Cricket Australia, a `sport for all' means a sport for everyone no matter of sexuality or gender identity,'' the study listed as one of the positive responses. Among the negative responses was this on: ''Sport and politics never mix. Stick to your core issues AFL.''

Erik Denison, a researcher on the Monash project, said its initial research showed support offered by the sports was affecting the public view.

''The support by the major sports, as well as athletes, likely has had a significant effect on public support for same-sex marriage in Australia,'' Denison told The AP. ''There is good evidence ... that sport continues to have a very strong influence on people's attitudes and behaviors.''

The Australian Bureau of Statistics, a government agency which is running the survey but which has no legal power to change marriage laws, said more than 77 percent of the 16 million survey forms had been returned, meaning three out of four eligible Australians had so far voted.

Earlier polling indicated that 61 percent of people believed same-sex couples should be able to marry. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that if enough people vote in favor in the survey, he would expect Parliament to make it legal.

If so, Winn says the support of the Australian Rugby Union, one of the first sporting groups to signal its approval for a ''yes'' vote, will have made a big difference.

''To actually have the sport you love and grew up with, that has forged a large part of my life ... (saying) that it is OK to accept gay people for who they are, is huge,'' Winn said. ''It allows the recognition of our relationship to be part of the whole culture of Australia. And sport is such a large part of that.''