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Matt Cecchin: Coming out in the masculine world of rugby league
Matt Cecchin credits his passion and success with rugby league refereeing to not being picked for a side at school. “I went to a really big rugby league school called Holy Cross College in Ryde,” he says. “Back then, when you played footy for the school, the two popular kids were the captains and they got to pick their own sides.
“I was the kid left over, unfortunately. And my PE teacher at the time said, ‘Matt, you can referee it.’ I still remember to this day him throwing me the whistle. I went to catch it and dropped it, and everyone laughed. I thought there's probably a reason why they wanted me to referee,” he smiles.
“I refereed that day and absolutely loved it. I realised that I wasn't very skilled at playing, so it was a way of being part of the game and staying involved with my mates. The next week I went and did my ref's ticket, and I started refereeing at Balmain & District [Football Club] not long after that.”
Matt was just 12 when he started refereeing and continued to hone his skills and experience throughout his teenage years. “It's all I wanted to do,” he explains. “I used to kick a footy ball around the backyard with a whistle in one hand, making up scenarios of penalties and tries, and I used to drive the neighbours mad because of the whistle.
“So, I took up a part-time gig as a paperboy and I used to cart papers around the neighbourhood, blowing my whistle. It was a way for me to practice; I became obsessed with wanting to be a referee,” he elaborates.
Great comfort from Ian Roberts’ story
Matt made his NRL refereeing debut in 2001 – the same year he read Finding Out, the best-selling biography of rugby league great, Ian Roberts. “Ian Roberts’ book was so powerful to me because I really wasn't sure what I was,” Matt says. “I had no gay friends. I didn't go to gay nightclubs or bars or pubs. I wasn't sure – I had no idea.
“Reading Ian's book ticked a few boxes. I love footy, I love sport, and it helped me identify who I am today. One of those parts of me is being gay. It was a great comfort for me to have someone in the sport that was so tough and so talented and who was also gay. It was fantastic,” he adds.
However, the thought of coming out as gay to his family and colleagues filled Matt with fear. “There was a real and genuine fear of being treated differently,” he explains. “I’d heard my family make derogatory comments about gay people, so there was a real fear about coming out to them. Thankfully, they took it really well and moved on,” he adds.
Matt explains that he didn’t have a family meeting when he came out. “I hedged my bets,” he laughs. “I thought my sister would be an easy win, so I told her, and she was fantastic. Her only requirement was to be there when I told mum because she thought mum would have a meltdown.
“I remember calling mum into the lounge room and I told her. Mum said that she knew, she had a hunch, which really floored me. I asked her, ‘Why, do I walk or talk funny?’ and she said, ‘No, I picked up some things from you growing up’.”
Matt admits coming out to his dad was more difficult. “My dad was a different story,” he says. “He had a footy background, and he was a blokey-bloke. Before coming out to him, I expected him to take it poorly – I thought it would be too shocking.
“My dad was extremely surprised, but immediately fantastic about it,” says Matt. “Dad's not one for a lot of affection and stuff but he said ‘Bella’, which is an Italian word for ‘my little boy’, ‘I still love you’.”
Didn’t want discrimination or tokenism
Matt didn’t come out initially to his footy community for two reasons: “I kept it personal until I refereed my first A-grade game because I didn't want to be discriminated against, but I also didn't want to be the token gay referee either,” says Matt. “I wanted to get there on my own merits on the field.
“Thankfully, coming out to the referees and the rest of the squad in 2001, I was really, really well received,” he adds. “They were genuinely surprised, in the same way my family were when I first told them.
“I noticed a difference for about a day or two but, after a while, people realised I was still the same person, still the same guy taking shortcuts or undoing shoelaces and mucking around the way I do around the squad. It was really well received, and it just wasn't a big
deal at all,” he adds.
However, an episode followed five to six years later that had the potential to impact his young son. “I got a call from a journalist saying he'd heard that I was gay, and he was going to do a story on me the next day. He wanted to get my comment and my feedback,” says Matt.
“I asked if he could keep it quiet. My son went to the same school I did, and he was in year 10. He knew I was gay; however, I was concerned and fearful for how his mates may treat him when they found out. The journalist said, ‘Look, I'm going to talk to the paper and get back to you’.
“As soon as I hung up from him, I called the NRL and spoke to the media department and they said, ‘You need to ring your family and tell them because this story will probably break tomorrow’. But the journalist called me back and said, ‘Okay, we'll keep it under wraps until your son finishes school’. And that was it,” he says.
“A couple of years went by and I’d just refereed the 2011 grand final. I got a call from the same journalist, who said, ‘If I do the maths correctly, your son's finished high school. Do you want to do the story?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ I was interviewed the next week and it was front and back page of the paper for a couple of days and it was really, really well received,” he explains.
“I think people like that journalist genuinely understood my concerns,” he adds. “I look back and reflect that all my son's mates are fantastic. They just don't have the same baggage and the issues that my generation and generations before me had about it.”
Players guard of honour after final game
The respect that players and administrators have for Matt was demonstrated in the final game he refereed, between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the St. George Illawarra Dragons in 2021.
“I knew it was going to be my last game,” he remembers. “I blew full-time. It was a good game of footy, there were no dramas. The refs coach came out and gave me a cuddle and I started to well up because I knew that my career was coming to an end.
“Then I turned around and saw the guard of honour by the players and yeah, I just
couldn't believe it. I'd never seen anything like that before for an official and I didn't expect it. It just blew me away and I'm grateful to have that memory that will last forever,” he says.
Matt offers some insights for any young rugby league players who are going through the same internal struggles both he and Ian Roberts had: “My advice to any person in the game that is gay and hasn't come out yet is that their fears are genuine and real.
“Come out when you feel comfortable and confident. People will be judged on the type of
person you are as a whole, rather than your sexuality. And if people choose not to accept you, then that's okay too, there are plenty of others out there that will,” he concludes.