For rugby player Andrew Fitisemanu, Israel Folau’s controversial social media post denouncing homosexuality was a frustrating moment within his own life-changing journey.
- Andrew Fitisemanu, who plays club rugby in Melbourne, grew up as a Catholic and considers himself religious
- The 42-year-old says he does not want others to lose faith over Folau’s inflammatory views
- Fitisemanu says the rugby community around him has been completely accepting of his sexuality
The 42-year-old was born in New Zealand and is of Samoan heritage.
Brought up Catholic, Fitisemanu has gone on to form his own relationship with God since he moved to Australia.
He said he was embraced by the rugby community after coming out as gay.
“Faith for me has taken a few turns and challenges around how I chose to practice my faith,” Fitisemanu said.
“I was raised a Catholic, I was an altar boy.”
Folau’s social media post in April this year, which contained the suggestion that homosexuals would go to hell if they did not repent, has sparked furious debate from all corners of society.
Fitisemanu said Folau’s inflammatory views have not affected his own religious beliefs.
And he wanted people to realise that the former Wallaby’s standpoint was not reflective of the entire Pacific Islander community — a community he has come to know as diverse.
“I really got riled up when I started reading commentary and posts from different parts of the media and different rugby players who had this platform to talk about Pacific Islanders, suggesting we are [all] God-fearing people and we all support Israel Folau,” he said.
“I thought, ‘they don’t speak for me’.”
Fitisemanu said he did not want people to lose their faith over Folau’s divisive views.
“When I think about that social media post, he’s more than welcome to say what he feels about his interpretation about God and God’s teachings,” Fitisemanu said.
“But I would also say there are a lot of people and lots of other Pacific Islanders that have a different viewpoint.”
Being embraced by rugby
Fitisemanu revealed his sexuality to teammates after he joined the Melbourne Chargers in 2012 — a club that welcomes all players regardless of age, ability or sexuality.
He then joined the Melbourne Unicorns, who field a side in Victoria’s premier grade rugby competition.
A promising player during his younger years, he had always found strength in the sport while coming to terms with his identity, given his ability to contribute to the team’s goals.
“One of the things I knew that I was always good at was that I could play a certain game, and I was contributing, and it gave me self-worth and it made me feel better and confident,” he said.
The pivotal moment for Fitisemanu in deciding to come out to teammates occurred after the death of a close friend.
“You just start to realise how short life is,” Fitisemanu said.
“One of the things I decided to take control over was managing how I would be perceived and how people would view me.
“I was always worried that they would treat me differently, and I realised they didn’t. They just treated me the same and I guess for me that was pretty powerful.”
Former Chargers coach Neil Hay said the way his teammates remained unaffected by the news led to a change in the way Fitisemanu started to interact.
“When I first met him, Andrew was guarded, fairly abrupt and was lacking in social engagement,” Hay said.
“Whereas now I see him as somebody who is bubbly [and] joins in with everything.
“I don’t think it was a surprise to many players, but what he found was it wasn’t as hard as he thought it would be.”
Hay said the unique nature of rugby — in which a team needs players with various physical attributes to succeed — has contributed to Fitisemanu’s largely positive experience.
“Rugby has always seen itself as a special sport when it comes to inclusion,” he said.
“You all put your bodies on the line for each other and I think it’s a pure team sport and the reliance on others means it doesn’t matter where they came from.”
General manager of community at Rugby Australia, James Selby, said the sport was investing around $8 million a year in diversity and inclusion programs.
“Rugby Australia is incredibly aware of the changing demographic and socioeconomic profile of Australia and we endeavour to cater for the needs and motivations of our evolving community,” Selby said.
It has led to the development of a video series called #PartOfMore, which celebrates the achievements of players and teams the sport has helped in special ways.
In Fitisemanu’s case, he’s now determined to use his journey to set an example for others who might be questioning how to deal with their own sexuality after Folau’s public comments.
“There are young people questioning themselves and they need support and compassion,” he said.
“I would say you just have to look for little wins in life … Resilience is how you manage each moment.
“You might struggle and fall over but you need to know it is OK to tell people you have fallen over.”
Fitisemanu is not sure what his rugby career holds after suffering a neck injury that put a premature end to his season, but he said he has no doubts he will stay close to the sport.
“I have retired like eight times in the last five years, so that is going to be a difficult question for me, but I always know that there is a place for me,” he said.
“I think I have realised that I am always going to be that guy that likes to hang around with the team and say ‘Hey, do you remember that time…’.”