By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR, June 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sports stars with conservative religious views must be more careful when publicly discussing LGBT+ rights to avoid harming other people, Australia's first openly gay male soccer player said on Wednesday.
Andy Brennan, who previously played for Newcastle Jets and is now with Melbourne's Green Gully SC, made global headlines last month when he wrote "It's taken me years to get comfortable saying this - I'm gay" in various social media posts.
"You never want to harm anyone - that's the biggest line that nobody wants to cross," the 26-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"People should be pretty careful what they say, especially people with a voice ... It is important that they understand that they can really emotionally hurt people through what they say."
Rugby fullback Israel Folau, a fundamentalist Christian, was sacked by Rugby Australia and his Super Rugby club New South Wales Waratahs last month posting on social media that hell awaited "drunks, homosexuals, adulterers" and other groups.
Also in May, Australian cricketer James Faulkner's Instagram photo of "dinner with the boyfriend" led to global media reports that he was the first Australian cricketer to come out but Cricket Australia later said Faulkner had made a "joke".
It is difficult and rare for professional sportsmen and women to come out as gay, LGBT+ campaigners have said, as sport is commonly seen as one area where homophobia and gender stereotypes persist.
"If you treat everybody with a bit of respect, don't go imposing your ideas or beliefs on anyone," said Brennan.
"Accept people for who they are and what they do believe; it is a free world and people can believe what they like."
LGBT+ athletes often keep their identity secret for fear that teammates, fans and coaches would look at them differently and judges might give them poor scores, human rights groups say.
A few high-profile footballers have publicly said they are gay, among them British player Justin Fashanu, who later took his own life aged 37, German midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, now VfB Stuttgart's head of sport, and ex-U.S. player Robbie Rogers.
Before coming out publicly, Brennan said he was careful where he was seen - like nightclubs - for fear that people would make judgements.
The winger began privately telling close friends and family in November, then discussed his sexuality with various people at his soccer club, before posting his messages on social media.
Brennan said he worried that his teammates' attitude towards him would change during day-to-day activities.
"To be honest, there has been absolutely no change at all," he said. "It has been exactly the same. I forget about it a lot."
Through social media, other sports players had been in touch with Brennan and told their stories, expressing how encouraged they were by reading his story, and how important it was.
To tackle homophobia among fans, Brennan said sports clubs and governing bodies should support more gay players to come out if they wish.
Backing Pride events and promoting rainbow bootlaces for players are two good ways to help change attitudes, he added.
Although Brennan had not heard from other gay soccer players, he urged them to get in touch so he could offer advice.
"It would be nice to hear from them, talk about what they fear and worry about because it will probably be the same or similar to mine - I would definitely share my experiences," he said. (Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)