It’s exciting to be here today because I think I’m going to share a story with you about sports supported me but how I failed at sport and just how important it was to be a chronic failure at sport.
And I say that very seriously because in my work as an organizational leader in the diversity and inclusion space, I have been overwhelmed with just how important this discussion of disability and inclusion is not only in Australia, and not only here in this room, but around the world. So firstly I just want to thank you for being here to listen to me and all of the other fantastic speakers.
I think I am the only one who can confidently say that I am the only squash player who has given myself a blood nose by hitting myself in my own face with my squash racquet. I am the only person to be regularly mistaken for a footballer in my work.
I want to challenge you today to think about social labels and the many assumptions that we make about people each and every day without even having a conversation with each and every individual.
I wonder for example what was the first thing that you assumed about me as you saw me make my way to the stage this afternoon, or this morning, sorry. And perhaps what’s the first thing you’ve assumed when you’ve heard me speak despite what you may think or perhaps have already assumed, did you in fact assume correctly? I can confirm for you delegates that I am a proud gay man. A proud gay man. I am a proud advocate for members of the LGBTIQ community. But alongside that there is much more to me than simply that label. I’m also a leader in the disability employment services sector. An international expert on diversity and inclusion, having just worked with the Canadian public service commission, and indeed our high commissioner to Canada, leading an international roundtable on the importance of diversity and inclusion.
What you may also not know about me is I’m a retired drag queen. A failed reality television contestant. A failed beauty queen. And just for good measure, and for balance, although to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t have a great deal of that, I’m a person with disability. I have cerebral palsy. I alone can tic almost every one of those sometimes unnecessary, invasive and discriminatory boxes, delegates they all stand before you this morning.
Bu I want to take you back to my first experience of sport. My first experience of sport was as a goal keeper of under 6 soccer. And I thought being a goal keeper was great, because all I did was pick my nose and dance and sing the Kylie Minogue songs. Occasionally I had to get involved because then it was 6 nil before I blinked my eyes, cause I was halfway through the moves of Madonna’s Vogue, and it was 7 nil, 8 nil. But it was my first experience, delegates, of being genuinely included.
As an organizational leader I am in a leadership position on the back of proven performance. I’m a leader that inspires people to understand the importance of inclusion. As organizational leaders, and indeed in my work with government, I spend my life trying to take away the power and impact and indeed negative impact of social labels.
What I would say to you is this, that although I make a living out of talking about myself, in fact, my parents told me I never shut up. But however, I make a living out of having these conversations because I want to create a space where it’s okay for you to use the wrong language, the wrong word, or perhaps not be quite sure what to say. I want to be someone that creates that space for organizations to say, we are not doing the best job in this space. We need to do more. And in order to do that, I thought to myself, do you know what? If it wasn’t for society, successive governments, and indeed senior policy makers constantly reminding me that I was a person with disability, and I was a person who is gay, do you know what would happen? I would most probably forget about it. I mean, their not necessarily the two attributes that I would speak to people about when I first meet them, and although I’ve made the mistake of getting up and oversharing already, behind me is a list of 50 random facts about me that very rarely do people get to ever asking. Because the only thing they want to know is, Wayne, did you injure yourself playing football on the weekend? And I’m like, no. But why? Oh because I’ve seen the way you walk.
That is the result of cerebral palsy, not because I play in the back row, although, that would be my fantasy, it’s not my reality. And also, genuine inclusion, in my work, is not a fantasy. In fact, genuine inclusion is sitting before me this morning. Each and every one of you here today, the work you do, is important. The work you do matters. Because what you do will feel like genuine and lasting change for the people that look, sound and indeed walk like me. I can see you all looking at me, just don’t stare at my butt as I walk by. Don’t go falling in love now.
But delegates, I want you to see on that list that if I was to genuinely say to you, I was a person who is gay and I am a person who has disability, they would be number 49 and 50 on a list of 50 random facts about me.
However, I think what we’ve got to understand, oh sorry, I keep pushing the wrong button. Is the language we use around disability and inclusion is important. Because if I said to you delegates, that I have never myself considered that I have barriers, deficits, limitations or inability, that my greatest barrier to participation and genuine inclusion is indeed incumbent upon everybody. Each and every one of us are responsible for either promoting, or denying a person the right to genuine participation and inclusion.
When I went to school I always played sport. I played squash, not very successfully, I was a soccer referee, and one of the questions I heard as a referee as I was refereeing the under 8s was the parents on the sidelines ask the question, and I remember being a teenager going what bloody question do you want them to ask? What is that, when we say, they are asking the question, they are asking the question.
My question is this, is we don’t ever invest in genuine inclusion, what do we say to people that look like me? What do we say to members of the community with disability? What do we say to indeed members of the LGBTYQT community and what are the subtle changes that we can make today in our organizations that mean that we can demonstrate we’re serious about it. And simply being here today is a sign of that, so thank you very much.
And when I was invited to speak about sport it scared the shit out of me, because I haven’t been very successful at sport. But in year 12 I was voted school sports house captain and initially I thought, oh this is just another cruel joke. But actually what it demonstrated to me that was my peers actually saw the importance of genuine participation. I wasn’t asked to join a specific group or sporting club for people with disability. And I have in the past, and I don’t want to say that they don’t serve a purpose, cause indeed those types of groups perhaps do. However, genuine inclusion happens when people with disability participate in all walks of life, in all levels of business, in all levels of sport. And even though I was a singing, dancing goal keeper, I was also a cross country runner, a member of the school tennis team, a hockey player. Sport was always something that was an important part of my therapy as someone with cerebral palsy.
However, it was the first time as a young person that I experienced genuine exclusion as well. The first time I ever experienced genuine exclusion, was hearing a parent from the sidelines tell their son they were playing like a poof! I deeply respected the fact that I was openly gay and the fact that I was a person with a disability. And to hear a person for the first time in the sporting context, an attribute of me, that I deeply respected and admired used as a means to sledge and to insult, to vilify and bully, particularly young people was devastating to me.
If we are genuine in our quest to create genuine inclusion, we have to be genuine to change that at all levels, and language has power. Words have power. Although I watch as an avid fan the football each week, thinking I wish I could have a body that looked like that, that jumped that high, that functioned at that level, and perhaps if I could be that talented with balls I would be happy about that right?
The reality is, sport is much more than reaching the elite levels. Sport is about teamwork, camaraderie, supporting each other. In organizations, I look at organizations and sporting fields as exactly the same. We support each other with our strengths and areas for development at work, but in fact I’ve seen it attacked on sporting fields.
One of the images that sticks out for me was David Pokok using Ausland to applaud a friend of his in the audience, and in the national media he was described as a pansy for doing so. When I’ve been to football games and heard people using the terms poofta and faggot to describe other players of sport, that excludes people like me.
And I use those terms very deliberately delegates. To hopefully underpin the type of language that I, as 37 year old man who stands before you today, despite my success, still confronts that type of language in my everyday life, and including some attempts at being included in sport.
In order to change the culture and conversation in relation to diversity and inclusion, we have to acknowledge that perhaps the greatest investment we can make as organizations and as governments is in our people. And in organizations are people like me, people that look, sound and work as hard as I do and indeed sometimes, just secretly much harder. But when I look to people to allow me the opportunity to continue to be visible and vocal around changing the way we think about disability, diversity and indeed sexuality, I look to champions like Matthew Mitchum, Ian Thorpe, I look to champions like Ocean Swimmer Susan Maroney, who is a person with cerebral palsy.
The first book that actually reached out to me was Finding Out by Ian Roberts. And indeed whilst I would like a professional AFL football to be my future husband, it alarms me that we are yet to, in Australia, have a male professional AFL football player come out as openly gay. To me that speaks volumes about the safety within organizations. There is no doubt that sporting clubs like the AFL and indeed many others, have done significant work, but indeed if we cannot see the people how can we hear them?
How can we respond to the changing nature of workplaces in sporting groups if you don’t have people like me in the sheds? My greatest skill perhaps could be taking the oranges at halftime, or handing out towels in the sheds, but indeed that’s how I would like to be included, but it’s not necessarily how every person with disability would like to be included. But if the greatest investment we can make as organizational leaders is in our people, how deeply invested are we in inclusion?
In the employment space where I work, 47% of people with disability are not currently in employment. Contrast with that 17% of people without disability. And we have for decades worked so hard to change this, but the statistics speak for themselves. And this is a conversation that we are not only having in Australia, but we are having around the world.
If we can not see images, and hear the voices of people from those diverse groups. If people from those diverse groups, and indeed I agree with Joe, particularly as a feminist, women in leadership roles. We are not adequately responding to what genuine inclusion and diversity looks like.
One of the things that I was taught as a young person by my parents was simple, but yet transformative. And that was, just be. Just be me. Never allow or compromise who you are for the bigger tree and ignorance of others. But you have an opportunity to change the conversation. And I hope in a small way that I do that, that I create a space where we can acknowledge what we have done and celebrate that, but we also equally need to acknowledge what we need to do better.
I’d love to be a professional sports champion. I’d love to be acknowledge for being able to participate at the peak of sport. Although, I tend to think of myself, I have this image of myself looking like Mr. Burns, running onto the football field. But indeed the way I want to participate may be different from somebody else. There are a number of ways that people can participate to the best and fullest of their potential, and indeed we don’t have to overthink diversity and inclusion, because what we may not know is that we are indeed already doing it if it’s just that the people we are doing it for are not visible and don’t have a voice.
To change that, and to close, I wrote a book in April of last year, title Anecdotes of a Disabled Gay. I call it my own personal collection of the shit people say, to a 30 something year old disabled gay man. Because what I’ve come to understand with my work here in Australia and indeed in other parts of the world, is that this is a conversation that we all need to have. This is a conversation that you are here having and it is an immense privilege to see you here and it’s actually particularly important I think given where we are as a country, particularly around our quest to be inclusive with the passage of marriage equality comes great responsibility to be sure we live in a country where everybody is treated equally and to be treated equally also means that you have equal opportunity to participate fully in sport.
I have the balls to stand here and talk about myself but I also want to make sure that on the fields of any sport, that I also have the opportunity to play ball alongside you. Thank you very much!