GoFundMe Takes Down Anti-LGBTQ Athlete Israel Folau's Page, Cites Policies

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday June 24, 2019

After top Australian rugby player Israel Folau managed to scuttle his career and lose a $4 million contract by posting anti-LGBTQ messages on social media even though he was warned about breaking the policies of his team and the sport's national organization, he took to GoFundMe to ask fans for donations in order to press a legal claim against Rugby Australia for firing him.

But then GoFundMe decided that Folau's message of faith-based excoriation violated their standards, too. GoFundMe took down Folau's page on July 24 and promised to refund donors everything they had contributed - a sum totaling more than $750,000, according to UK newspaper The Guardian.

The Guardian's report noted that the charitable platform's terms of service warn that pages may be deleted if they solicit contributions "for the legal defense of alleged crimes associated with hate, violence, harassment, bullying, discrimination, terrorism, or intolerance of any kind relating to race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, social orientation, sex, gender or gender identity," among other things.

The company's manager, Nicola Britton, said that Folau's page was taken down after "a routine period of evaluation" that resulted in the platform coming to the conclusion that "this campaign violates our terms of service."

Folau's career woes began when he posted an anti-gay message at Instagram last year in which he declared that gays are destined to be consigned to "HELL," a comment he made in response to a follower's question on God's plan for sexual minorities. When that post prompted a backlash, Folau was warned by Rugby Australia officials about such posts. Players are contractually obligated to be mindful of comportment, including on social media. Folau immediately began claiming he was the victim of religious persecution, even though he was let off with nothing more than a warning. When he repeated the offense with further posts attacking the LGBTQ community, sponsors took note - and took action. Folau lost deals with both Land Rover and Asics.

But Folau's homophobic attacks just kept on coming, until a post he made in April that drew from the Bible and lumped LGBTQs together with "liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, and others deemed by scripture to be sinful. At that point, Rugby Australia announced its intention to fire Folau and the case went to a tribunal, which found the athlete to be in "high breach of contract" for continuing to post incendiary homophobic material. Rugby Australia officially canceled Folau's contract in May, only for Folau to launch legal proceedings against the organization - again claiming that he was the victim of religious persecution, a charge that Rugby Australia flatly rejected. Folau then set up the GoFundMe page and made a video in which he portrayed himself as being attacked for his faith, and asking for donations.

A followup article by the Guardian quoted a spokesperson for Folau saying that that GoFundMe had "buckled against the freedom of Australians to donate to his cause" -- a claim that was instantly undercut when some donors took to social media to say that they were still going to donate to Folau's defense fund even if it wasn't going to be through GoFundMe.

The move from GoFundMe came after Folau's page had already drawn criticism from former Wallabies teammate, Drew Mitchell, who castigated Folau, posting, "YOU are in a fight that YOU chose to be in after YOU broke the terms of YOUR contract..."

Mitchell opined that others using the platform, such as the families of sick children, had greater need for donations than Folau did.

Britton's comments seemed to parallel Mitchell's critique.

"While we welcome GoFundMes engaging in diverse civil debate, we do not tolerate the promotion of discrimination or exclusion," Britton said. "Our platform exists to help people help others."

Folau's wife, Maria - also a professional athlete - became embroiled in the controversy when she promoted the now-defunct GoFundMe page on her own social media, leading to a pointed critique from Liz Ellis, a star in Maria Folau's sport, netball.

"There is no room for homophobia in our game," Ellis tweeted. "Anyone who is seen to support or endorse homophobia is not welcome."

Unlike her husband, Maria Folau has thus far managed to avoid running afoul of that sport's official organization. Netball South Australia head Bronwyn Klei issued a statement in which she said, "While Netball SA in no way endorses the reposting, we do not believe Maria has contravened our social media policy."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.