DUBLIN – Rugby star Israel Folau and others who post “opinions of hate” aimed at homosexuals should understand that people cannot choose their sexuality, openly gay referee Nigel Owens told AFP.
The 47-year-old Welshman – who is due to officiate in his fourth and final World Cup later this year – said there was a difference between free speech and opinions which become “very, very hateful to a community”.
Folau is suing the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) after they sacked him for his incendiary Instagram post in April where he said hell awaited “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters”.
Owens, who spoke to AFP last Sunday in Dublin when he refereed at the biennial Union Cup, Europe’s largest LGBT+ inclusive tournament, said it was important to understand why Folau and others are so “entrenched in these beliefs”.
“He too needs to understand our way of life,” said Owens.
“For him to understand pretty much everything listed on that list, you can choose, and the only thing you could not choose was your sexuality.”
Owens said Folau and others who liked his post – including England star Billy Vunipola – used antiquated religious beliefs as the reason for their views.
“You have to understand that if the scriptures were written now, they would be very different to those written a thousand or so years ago,” said Owens.
“If the scriptures were written today, knowing that people cannot choose their sexuality, then I am pretty sure it would not be on the list.”
Owens, who was in charge when Folau played in the 2015 World Cup final which saw New Zealand beat Australia, said celebrities needed to show responsibility when they took to social media.
“I can understand why people have opinions like that, but there has to be a time when you need to understand you cannot express opinions of hate,” he said.
“Particularly on social media, and especially as a person of influence, whether as a sports person or anyone else.”
Owens, who along with former Wales player Gareth Thomas have led the fight against homophobia in rugby, had his own battles coming to terms with his sexuality, even trying to take his own life over 20 years ago.
“Thankfully, I have a second chance, and I am still here and can look back at it. And though it is not nice to do so, it has helped me to be who I am today,” said Owens.
“I know from first-hand experience for somebody who is dealing with their sexuality and struggling with it.”
Owens says that there is a distinction between those who know early on they are gay – who have to put up with being treated differently and “horrific” bullying – and realising you are homosexual later in life.
“You get a bit older, and then you have to deal with your sexuality and you do not understand, as was my case of growing into someone you don’t want to be,” said Owens.
“There are a huge amount of issues that come with it.”
Owens, though, believes rugby is an inclusive sport, having always welcomed people of all “shapes and sizes”.
“Rugby is also now inclusive, no matter what the colour of your skin, your religious beliefs or sexual orientation are,” he said.
“This is particularly important because in today’s society, there is a lack of respect for people who are different, who hold different beliefs, different opinions, different colour of skin and sexuality.
“We still have that narrow-mindedness unfortunately in society in everyday life.”
Nevertheless, Owens is not one for clamping down on good-natured banter.
“I want the ability to laugh at myself and for people to be able to pull your leg. That is what rugby is about,” he said.
“So long as it is in context, as long as it does not cross the line of acceptability.
“You should not get offended because someone is pulling your leg because you are part of the LGBT community.”AFP