What should remain after a hero falls? | OPINION

The fallout: The Australian Medical Association has said excluding same-sex couples from marriage has significant mental and physical health consequences.
The fallout: The Australian Medical Association has said excluding same-sex couples from marriage has significant mental and physical health consequences.

Can you celebrate the professional success of a person if you personally disagree with some of her beliefs? This was the question on my mind after Margaret Court declared she would not fly Qantas “where possible” in protest of its support of marriage equality.

Court is an Australian tennis great; a former world No.1 with 64 major titles to her serendipitous name – more than any other player in tennis history. 

She has also publicly maintained an anti-gay marriage stance. In 2012, Court said: “To dismantle this sole definition of marriage and try to legitimise what God calls abominable sexual practices that include sodomy, reveals our ignorance as to the ills that come when society is forced to accept law that violates their very own God-given nature of what is right and what is wrong.”

There have been calls to strip her name from Melbourne’s Margaret Court Arena, which were waved away by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull despite his long-held stance on marriage equality. “She is one of the all-time greats and the Margaret Court Arena celebrates Margaret Court the tennis player,” Turnbull said. It’s clear Turnbull, like many others, separates Court the tennis player and Court the anti-gay marriage advocate. This view asserts that Court’s achievements should remain part of the modern fabric of Australian tennis – even if she continues to espouse views that threaten the safety of an oppressed minority.

The anti-gay marriage movement was recently declared a public health issue by the Australian Medical Association, which said excluding same-sex couples from marriage has significant mental and physical health consequences that lead to higher suicide rates in the gay community.

It made me wonder what Court could say that would warrant a professional stripping-down from Turnbull, if not supporting something that contributes to higher suicide rates. If Court had been seen to insult the memory of Anzacs, for example, would his conviction that Court’s professional life remain untarnished be the same?

It is the nature of the hero narrative that we assume someone who has reached admirable heights in their chosen field is also a righteous, virtuous and upstanding sort of person. We expect our heroes to maintain a public persona that is an example for our children and source of pride for our nation. 

When a hero reveals a personal view that’s seen as unsound by the statistical majority of Australians, we feel let down. We struggle to untangle someone’s personal identity from their professional pursuits, because a public persona is created from both. It’s informed by not only what was achieved, but who achieved it, and how.

It would be overreaching to denounce Court’s important historical contribution to tennis, because no amount of controversy can rewrite the past. But as we work towards a progressive society based on inclusion and celebration of diversity, is there really a place for a Margaret Court Arena? Management at the arena continue to welcome players of all sexual orientation and distanced themselves with a statement saying they remain committed to “equality, diversity and inclusion”.

Instead of continuing to celebrate a sportsperson who uses their platform to espouse views that may put gay lives as risk, why not rename the arena? Send a clear message: sport is no place for discrimination.

It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, intersex or transsexual – all that matters is how you play the game.

Emma Elsworthy is a Fairfax journalist.