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The human impact of Israel and Maria Folau’s anti-gay stance

Israel Folau and Maria Tutaia married in November last year, the same day Australia voted to legalise gay marriage.

It's not the first time Folau has made such comments. He made headlines last year for saying he would be voting against the legalisation of gay marriage in Australia.

Silver Fern's vice captain Maria came out in support of her husband late last week via an image posted to Instagram. "Stand with God no matter what," it read. "Don't be afraid to stand up for the truth, even if that means you will be standing alone."

Curiously, back in 2014, Israel appeared on the cover of LGBTQ magazine the Star Observer alongside teammate Adam Ashley-Cooper. The photoshoot was organised to publicise the Bingham Cup, a gay rugby tournament which was to be hosted in Sydney that year.

Elias Jahshan, editor of the magazine, told The Independent "It was a big deal at the time, as the Australian Rugby Union – as well as the peak bodies of Australia's other major sporting codes – were making a concerted effort to combat homophobia and to make their sports more inclusive for players and spectators alike."

Folau himself used his appearance on the cover to defend his latest comments. "Since my social media posts were publicised, it has been suggested that I am homophobic and bigoted and that I have a problem with gay people," he wrote in a post on sport website Player's Voice.

Folau on the cover of the Star Observer with Ashley-Cooper.

"This could not be further from the truth. I fronted the cover of the Star Observer magazine to show my support for the Bingham Cup, which is an international gay rugby competition for both men and women. I believe in inclusion. In my heart, I know I do not have any phobia towards anyone."

His Instagram comments, however, tell a different story, and even though he posed for the cover, he was unavailable for an interview for the magazine. Instead, his teammate Ashley-Cooper spoke on behalf of Australian Rugby.

Homosexuality in top level sport has long been swept under the carpet and rugby, especially, has struggled with inclusion. Welsh international Gareth Thomas became the first openly gay professional player back in 2009 when he publicly came out. Before that, Aussie rugby league player Ian Roberts was the first top level Australian sportsman to be openly gay.

There have been very few high profile players to come out since, however, and none in men's rugby or league in New Zealand (former Black Fern and now Labour MP Louisa Wall was openly gay when she played for the women's national team).

Efforts have been made to combat this. The NRL has made a stand, largely thanks to Ian Roberts who made a successful plea for them to support same-sex marriage. But the difficulties in changing perceptions remain glaringly evident.

In 2015, Out on the Fields, an international study on homophobia in sport found that New Zealand gay athletes were the most likely to hide their sexuality in sport. 88% of gay male youth and 76% of lesbian youth in New Zealand said they kept their sexuality hidden from their teammates. 71% said they believed youth team sports were not supportive or safe for lesbian, gay or bisexual people.

In response to the findings, New Zealand Rugby, New Zealand Football, New Zealand Cricket, New Zealand Rugby League, Netball New Zealand and Hockey New Zealand banded together to set up framework to encourage diversity and inclusion across all sports.

NZ Rugby chief executive Steve Tew announced they, along with other sporting bodies, would be setting up framework to deal with diversity and inclusion in sport.

NZRU chief executive Steve Tew said the report sent "a very clear message that rugby and other sports have an issue, particularly around homophobia."

"Sport is a mirror of society, but we also have an opportunity to lead some positive change and thinking in society and embrace those opportunities."

Former All Black and current Chief's halfback Brad Weber has become the first high profile player in New Zealand to make a stand against Folau.

"Kinda sick of us players staying quiet on some of this stuff," he Tweeted overnight. "I can't stand that I have to play this game that I love with people, like Folau, who say what he's saying."

"My cousin and her partner, and my Aunty and her partner are some of the most kind, caring & loving people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. To think that I play against someone that says they'll go to Hell for being gay disgusts me."

Weber's comments came after Folau's Waratah's Super Rugby coach, former All Black Daryl Gibson, defended his right to free speech. "We may not all agree with his belief, but we support him as a teammate and his right to express that freely," he told reporters yesterday.

In Australia, Wallabies sponsor Qantas has said that while it is disappointed about Folau's comments, they would be not be pulling their sponsorship. Here in New Zealand, Maria's major sponsor Adidas has stayed noticeably silent on the matter.

SkyCity, another big sponsor, said on Facebook that it "strongly disagree[d] with Maria and Israel’s comments, which in no way reflect our values as a company.''

Netball New Zealand chief executive Jennie Wyllie said the organisation had "concerns" about the situation and that they "had a conversation with Maria" about it, but she fell short of condemning the comment.

"We value inclusion and diversity, whether it be gender, ethnicity, social economic status, sexuality or religion," she read from a prepared statement. "We take our responsibility as role models for New Zealanders very seriously.

"Maria chose to demonstrate her support for her husband and his beliefs - this is not a matter for Netball New Zealand."

This was first published on Now to Love.