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Is The Israel Folau Settlement A Win For Bigotry?

After months and months of legal proceedings, the now-infamous Israel Folau dispute has finally reached a settlement.

Folau made compensation claims worth $14 million against Rugby Australia for defamation and lost earnings, after an Instagram post he made condemning homosexuals to Hell led to his sacking back in May.

Yesterday, Rugby Australia issued a statement apologising “for any hurt or harm caused to the Folaus” and that “the Parties do not intend to comment further on the terms of their settlement as it is confidential”.

While I’m all for reconciliation and a chance to move forward on what has truly been an arduous case for everyone involved, I can’t help but feel -- unsettled. If Rugby Australia still doesn’t agree with the content of the social media post, and it still reflects Folau’s “genuinely held religious beliefs”, then -- aside from finances -- what was actually settled?

In case you missed the original post (which remains up on his Instagram account), Folau shared an image stating that Hell awaits for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators” among others, unless they repent for their sins. While I fall into pretty much all of these categories, it’s the homosexual label I’m narrowing in on here.

israel folau instagram
One of several posts Israel Folau has made about LGBTQI people. (Image: Instagram)

A lot of this case came down to Folau feeling discriminated against for his religious beliefs -- which is ironic, because being condemned to Hell makes me feel discriminated against too! Sure he “did not intend to harm or offend any person”, but the fact of the matter is that he did. And it wasn't just me -- he harmed and offended the entire gay community.

I don’t really care if that’s your long-held Christian belief. I’m not condemning your religion in any way (although a lot of evidence makes it very hard not to). I grew up going to Catholic school, and while I eventually decided Catholicism wasn’t for me, it was still significant to a lot of people I knew. And they didn’t all believe us gays were going to burn in Hell. The most important aspects of their faith were about treating others with kindness and respect.

I completely understand if your beliefs help you go about your day, but when it comes at the expense and offence of individuals who have absolutely no bearing on your life, then you’ve lost me. It’s not freedom of speech, it’s vitriol.

What message are we sending to young gay men, especially those coming to terms with their sexuality within League or Union right now? The hyper-masculinity within the game is a well reported blight that’s threatening the well-being and -- dare I say -- lives of its players.

Need I remind you that there’s only a handful of players who have had the courage to come out as gay in the NRL? And literally none who are active in the AFL?

It’s not some crazy coincidence -- it’s a toxic culture of homophobia and alienation that is preventing men from being their true selves. And having offensive remarks posted online from leaders of the sport -- only to have them appeased and apologised to by the organisation supposedly committed to inclusiveness and diversity -- contributes to this culture.

Raelene Castle, chief executive of Rugby Australia. (Image: AAP)

Not to mention the money raised to fund this case. It’s confronting and eye-opening to see hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to a high-profile sports star from complete strangers, let alone having the Australian Christian Lobby stepping in to field donations once the original GoFundMe page was taken down. All for something that was threatening his so-called freedom of speech! It’s hard to feel sorry for someone on a multi-million dollar sports contract and having that taken away -- but apparently there are a lot of people who do.

The details of the settlement are confidential, so we’ll never know for sure what was exactly agreed upon. We can only look at what has been actually given to us. Equality Australia is right -- the settlement “draws a line under what has been a divisive and hurtful period for LGBTIQ+ people” and it is positive to see Rugby Australia honour its initial comments and take "a stand for inclusion”.

The suggestion of withdrawing the Religious Discrimination Bill is a good step, as it reduces the legislation and discriminatory rhetoric that goes with these cases. Yet, for his part, Folau said he looked forward to "the federal government enacting the legislation necessary to further protect and strengthen these rights for all Australians".

In a statement on his website, Israel Folau said he felt "vindicated" by the settlement with Rugby Australia. (Image: YouTube)

But it’s what goes unseen that causes the most unease for me. If Folau and Rugby Australia are both truly happy with the outcome of the settlement, then it’s difficult to see how much this will actually change the course of LGBTIQ+ inclusion in sport. Same-sex marriage may be legal, but there’s still a long way to go in terms of equality, especially in the dangerously macho world of sport.

Settling a dispute as public as this one with an apology and some flowery language sets a precedent that these kinds of messages are okay and actually accepted as long as it’s a ‘religious’ belief.

“With today’s acknowledgment and apology by Rugby Australia, we have been vindicated and can now move on with our lives to focus on our faith and our family,” Folau said.

I wish I could say the same.