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Transcript: Championing Courage to Drive Meaningful Change (EP66)


Intro (with music): Welcome to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. This is a podcast where we talk all things, culture, leadership and teamwork across business and sport.

Voiceover: To all of our loyal listeners, The Culture of Things podcast will now also have specific episodes produced for YouTube. To ensure you don’t miss out on this exclusive YouTube content, head on over to YouTube, click the subscribe button and hit the notification bell. Now, let’s get into the episode...

Brendan: Hello and welcome to the Culture of Things podcast. I'm your host, Brendan Rogers. Today, we are recording episode 66. I'm talking with Martin Stark. Martin, how are you mate?

Martin: Mate, I'm good. I'm actually a bit pumped. I had a boxing class this morning with my coach. Seven rounds, we did two minutes of sparring and then it's actually finished off. I've got really tight calves from running. I finished off by messaging my calves to free them up a little bit. It was a very different style of boxing class this morning, but I loved it.

Brendan: Sounds fascinating, mate. How long does the class go for?

Martin: About 45 minutes. I trained in two different locations. I go to the corporate fitness center for my fight night in regular classes—we've got some awesome coaches—and then I have my own private coach. She's got a studio in Bondi.

Brendan: Pretty intense 45 minutes, it sounds like.

Martin: It's good. It's one of those things. If you really love what you do, those 45 minutes go by really quickly. I hated playing soccer at school. I was always the last one to be picked. So P lessons, they lasted like 45 hours, where the boxing class, 45 minutes just goes by so quickly.

Brendan: It's always good to hear when people are doing something they love, mate. You found a love for boxing, which we're going to certainly unpack you in the interview today. But mate, thanks for coming in and spending some time after your class. You're a better man than me mate because I often run and swim with a mate each morning. But I woke up this morning, looked out the window, it was pissing down. I messaged my mate who came back and I said, maybe we do just a swim. He comes back with one word, skip. So we did nothing.

Martin: What I'd like to do first of all is acknowledge the traditional owners in the land where I currently am, the Gurragunga people, paying respects to elder's past, present, and emerging. I'd like to extend that respect to all Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander and First Nations people.

Brendan: Thank you, mate. I appreciate the welcome to country. Well done. How about we share your biography so we know a bit more about you?

Martin: Definitely, Martin Stark. I am a proud Australian, originally from the UK. My day job is I'm organizing the world's first LGBTQ boxing competition, the World Gay Boxing Championship. I'm a Keynote speaker. I talk about courage, and inclusion, and help people in organizations to enhance culture as a habit.

I'm very passionate about social justice and making a difference. I spent 15 years working in technology procurement, negotiating big technology, outsourcing contracts, and then with a multitude of people in companies. Always having that relationship has been important in my career.

Brendan: Mate, you've just saved me a job. I prepared your biography. That's fantastic. Maybe I should get the guest to do it more often. You do it far more succinctly as well.

Martin: It's interesting because when I first started posting content on LinkedIn 2½ years ago, I started doing videos. Basics in communication is really impactful communication. There's a strategy which I use called connect and set. Connect means in order for you to really understand something, it's important to set the scene and make sure people are ready to really hear what you want to say and what the conversation is going to be about.

Once you've done that, you can really flow in (often I find what I call) sales or information bombardment. People just send you so much information. What are you trying to say here because I haven't got the first point? Conversations, they ebb and they flow, but set the scene and allow everybody to be captivated to listen.

Brendan: I really liked that connect and set. If I'm understanding correctly, that connect is really on that relationship. You're making connections with people. How has that been beneficial for you in doing what you're trying to achieve with the World Boxing Championships as an example in 2023.

Martin: What really happens is just having a very strong purposeful vision, so I say disrupting homophobia, transphobia, and hatred in sport. Very simple. Most people are fundamentally against homophobia, hatred, and bigotry. It's a very simple message. But then when people hide things behind the message, it gives us an opportunity to have that discussion.

A lot of times, people fear saying the wrong thing. They fear making a mistake. That's a real shame because if I can talk about the stats of homophobia in sport, for example, 80% of all people have actually witnessed to observe homophobia in sport, 50% of all LGBTQ+ Americans have been insulted or abused when playing, watching, or talking about sport. And 90% of the LGBTQ+ community think homophobia is a problem in sport.

Those stats are awful. The worst thing for me is as a community, we participate in sport at half the rate at the wider community, but at least five times more likely to attempt suicide. If I just hit you with those stats straight away, but if I opened up your heart to this is what I'm doing, in your eyes there's this empathy, there's this understanding. But if I just said ending homophobia in sport, people might not take the messages the way you've just taken the message right now.

So opening up some of these minds, connecting, setting the scene to have really engaging, impactful conversation because most people avoid the discomfort. They don't want to hear it. If I get you in a place where you feel your empathy and understanding, you feel you relate to something, you're more likely to get on board, be an ally, and try to make a difference.

Brendan: Our theme of today's conversation that got to permeate through is that championing courage, which is what you do and delivering courage. I know you've got something tattooed on the back of your back as well.

Martin: I have three words tattooed on my back. I'm not going to apologize. I'm a bit of a diva. Mardi Gras 2018, I had blue hair, and I had a word painted on my back and it was courage. A few weeks later, I actually had that word tattooed on my back.

Mardi Gras the following year, I said, what can go underneath courage? Fear nothing was painted. So then I had fear nothing tattooed underneath courage. When I had the first tattoo, the tattooist is very cheeky. He said it can be quite painful. You have long to [...] it yet. He said, we're halfway there. Two weeks later he finished. So I'm thinking this is, oh, no, okay, it's fine. He just said, it's all finished, it's all done.

Brendan: Wow. You've walked straight into it, mate. Get your shirt off, show us. We need to see this. We need to see this. Do I need to talk those that may listen to the podcast rather than watch? You don't need to talk them through the unveiling or anything like that.

Martin: I've taken my top off before one.

Brendan: You got a beautiful tartan ready shirt on, by the looks.

Martin: Yes. One more today, getting on a podcast, taking my shirt off.

Brendan: He's slowly but surely pulling his shirt. Look at that, courage, right in the back, right in the center. What are the words underneath?

Martin: Fear nothing.

Brendan: That is fantastic, mate. Have you ever got your shirt off for a podcast before?

Martin: No, I don't think I have. This is the first for me.

Brendan: Awesome.

Martin: I used to do a LinkedIn live show. I think one time, a friend and I, I did 1500 push ups and she was doing boxing, and we were talking about silly things. We're having a conversation like this, but we just wanted to bring some light-hearted humor. Somebody challenged me to do 1000 pushups in an hour and it ended up being 1500. She was hitting a punching bag. It's a platform for professional conversations, but it doesn't mean you can't have fun at the same time.

Brendan: Mate, it's all about just being vulnerable. We're just people at the end of the day. So what I'm really fascinated by, having something like that on your body is one thing, but where's that moment in time that you can look back on? What's given you this courage and this element of fear nothing? Where did that start?

Martin: I've always had it, but I had a fear of not meeting my own standard, that classic perfectionist. That performance review at the end of 2015 or in 2016, I was getting high achiever. Every year was getting high achiever. The manager said, Martin to be more courageous. People were saying that. I said, why am I holding myself back? So I just embraced it, did it.

The following year, my performance review set has gone from taking direction to given direction. I've negotiated the biggest outsourcing deal of a major bank. I won all of these awards for doing things, but it was that difference. But I've come through great adversity, through health. I've been in two induced comas. I've had a tracheotomy. The tracheotomy was always my worst fear.

In 2006, I had gallstone blocking my liver. I have a rare autoimmune condition, Addison's disease. I have a procedure called an ERCP to try and remove a blockage in my bile duct. That seeped into my pancreas. Within 12 hours, I have severe acute pancreatitis. My lungs have collapsed.

I was in intensive care. I remember going for a CT scan. I'm not religious, but I was praying to God to get me back to the intensive care. Because I was struggling to breathe and I thought, what if I go into cardiac arrest when I'm having a CT scan? It's going to be hard. I don't know why that entered my mind. But getting back to intensive care, at least, the medical professionals were there.

I remember the consultants saying, I'm saying, you need to put me on a ventilator. Sitting next to my mom, as I'm struggling to breathe, am I going to wake up? Then, coming weekend in one coma, I'm kind of recovering slightly but my body is producing sepsis and probably have another adrenal crisis. 

I remember the doctor, the surgeon coming over. Something's taken off my mouth and it was part of the ventilator. Then I'm immobilized and they performed a tracheotomy. I was sedated, but slightly aware. So I feel the pressure in my neck, I can't move. They're doing lots of different things. But what I noticed was the, what I described was the courage of the people around me.

When I was close to death, pretty close to death at that time, it was the final thing they could do before really saving my life. Then I'm placed in a second induced coma. So imagine living through your worst fear. Am I going to die? I can't breathe, having a tracheotomy.

Then the next thing, I talked about the dreams I experienced when I was in my induced coma. The dreams in the second coma were much worse. Then waking up not knowing you had a tracheotomy, not being able to speak. This is my natural voice using my normal, the way you speak. So I had to learn how to speak through my diaphragm to get my voice back.

That experience was just one of other terrible health experiences I had to go through. A few weeks later, I was transferred to a major hospital. I was told I had a 50/50 chance of having bile duct cancer. For 36 hours, I'm thinking, what's going to happen? The next day, I had an MRI scan.

In my mind, I'd already decided that if it was an aggressive form of cancer and there's nothing they could do, to me, I was more focused on the quality of life. I don't want any chemotherapy. I don't want suffering to prolong. Luckily, it wasn't. 

Two months later, having major surgery. The surgery goes well, but my wound site gets infected. So I'm back in hospital again, wound is opened up, cleaned. For four months, my wound site is packed daily. Then I'm back in hospital, back in hospital, back in hospital, and went to fourth admission, and then diagnosed with Addison's disease, a rare autoimmune condition.

So what can I do about this? I can't change any of this. I can accept it. I can educate myself. Through that, I'm empowered to then make the choices I have within my control. I can't change the past.

I can't change having Addison's disease. I can't change the nightmares of PTSD I have from the dreams of being in the coma. I can't change any of that, but I can accept it and I can try and live life to the max.

Brendan: Mate, thanks for sharing the story. I was fully aware of some of that. Have you reflected back and thought, it's just such a common scenario where people have had an experience or different experiences, but a real life changing experience like that for us to be more courageous? What was stopping you before a moment like that in living your life to the fullest and really championing courage?

Martin: I think it was that perfectionism and just seeking that approval. I used to describe it, it was part time confidence. When I did something where I excel, that was great, but other times, if I didn't meet my own standard, already I'm punishing myself. Then in conversations, I'm really seeking approval from others to be confident to get in, but you see other people would make a mistake.

I said, no, probably we all learn from that. But it just took further time to get there. People don't always know that they're achieving. Because how often are you put down or you're doing something and somebody will say something, not because they actually mean something good for you because masking their own insecurities.

It's much easier to say to somebody, oh, you should keep doing that. Why are you saying that? Rather than, great, you go forward. I always want people to have the best opportunities in life. But if you're unhappy or you're insecure, and you see somebody achieving, if you put your own self-worth first and put the other person down, that's what I think happens a lot in society.

Brendan: Can you give us some context to your experience around, okay, you're openly gay, and that you came out in your late 20s or mid 20s, for memory. What was life like for you, I guess, living with that, coping with that before coming out?

Martin: Going back to the 1980s, it was a very, very different time. I probably [...] as gay around 11 or 12. It was fear of coming out. In 1987–1988, the UK government enacted a law called Section 28, which was against the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities.

In the late 80s, the UK's biggest soap opera, EastEnders, had two gay characters. One of them does the peck on the cheek. It was national outrage. It was, how dare these things happen? So it was a very, very different time. Imagine being a gay kid, teenager. Are you going to speak out or say anything? Because it was just absolutely entrenched hatred in the media and in the law. The only visible representation were people like Boy George or a few others, but that was absolutely nothing. 

In 1993 or 1994, the UK government only lowered the age of consent for gay men from 21 to 18. As a teenager, you think, I can't be who I want to be until at least I'm the age of 21. It was a very, very different environment, but my parents are always been loving. My family was always been loving. I had nothing to fear from that, but it's often what society permeates. We didn't even use the term homophobia then even. Gay bashing was commonplace, but nobody would report it. That place in New South Wales had just published a report saying they're going to look into all of the gay hate crimes.

I think it was widely believed that gay men were hunted for sport in Sydney in the latter parts of the 20th century. People thrown off cliffs. Nothing was done about it. So when there's indifference to people being murdered, when there's indifference to people being victims of crime in certainly the 80s period, you think, what it must be like as a gay teenager? Things are very different, but that fear really makes you think. You have to get to a stage where you feel comfortable.

Brendan: It's amazing, fascinating, and extremely disappointing to hear those things, not that I'm naive to think that they didn't happen. What is it that has changed for the good since it was highlighted, the things that stick out to you that's really enhanced the gay movement?

Martin: I'll say for the LGBTQI+ movement, there's been wider acceptance in society. Think about laws which have changed. Think about section 28 was repealed, anti-discrimination laws, marriage equality. We've also seen more visibility and representation of LGBTQ+ people and also LGBTQ+ people of color. There's been more support from the community from corporations. We have employee resource groups now. We have something called the Australian Workplace Equality Index, which is run by Pride in Diversity and actually major companies, and how inclusive they are that there's been more wider acceptance. People are coming out earlier.

Laws have changed. I talked about allies. Were it not for allies, we wouldn't have marriage equality in Australia because of that postal plebiscite, whatever it was called. Things have changed. Hearts and minds have changed. But at the same time, when the era of social media was given a platform for homophobia, for racism, for transphobia in the form of communication which was written over there, even at the beginning of this century.

So the actual incidence of things is probably still increasing certainly on social media, certainly in sport. There's more work to be done. Often people think, what's next? It’s not what's next. It’s actually just stopping people being homophobic. It's stopping people being racist.

I'm sick to death just talking about it. But I'm talking about it because if I don't, who doesn't? Is it up to the victims to solve the problems of racism? No. As a white man who's married to a black man, it is in my interest to that because I want my husband to have the same rights and privileges like everybody else.

I as a white man, if I say something against him who's making a racist comment, it means, my husband who may be experiencing that racism, if I say something, it stops him from having to say something. So we really need to move the dial on advocacy and not create an environment where people should have to experience discrimination.

Brendan: You've spoken about, obviously, giving some context to what it was like previously, and some things that have changed for the better. What do we still need to do? Again, I'm conscious of using that what's next, but where do we need to progress in this next 5–10 years for you?

Martin: In the next 5–10 years, I am concerned with the level of media focus on trans and non-binary people. It's nearly every single day, there is something. I just don't get this. I don't know why. I think transphobia is where homophobia was 15 years ago, but in the age of social media.

Last Saturday, which is Transgender Day of Remembrance, there's one report that says 375 trans, non-binary gender, nonconforming people have been murdered in the world in the last 12 months. That figure is probably a much higher. It's actually an increase from the previous year. Black and trans people of color are disproportionately affected by that.

What we need to advance is also the fear of people being who they are. The younger generation is so accepting. They're really passionate about making a difference. We're talking about a positive social impact. Let's stop homophobia, having more allies, wearing a rainbow lanyard, wearing a pin. More allies speaking up so that I don't have to say something, you say something.

People are spending five minutes educating themselves and reading what LGBTQ+ may mean or what some of the issues are. If somebody said something homophobic or racist, you would say, you know what, mate, this is the impact. That's just not acceptable. Whereas when somebody says nothing, it's up to me to say something, may I find that offensive.

The greatest things at the moment are saying, you're just being woke or it's cancel culture. When has it ever been woke to actually say racism is wrong, misogyny is wrong, homophobia is wrong? When has it ever been cancel culture to say, you know what, if you make a racist remark or homophobic remark, it's offensive, I don't like it?

This is the impact it has. I'm concerned with the the polarization of things. I talk about change in hearts and minds. Be a good friend, be a mate. Through all of the things that friends and family do for each other, they support each other.

Brendan: You've used that word homophobia a number of times already. To help everybody to understand better, what is that? I guess there's some extreme levels, but maybe even what's the subtler versions of homophobia that you may have experienced or seen?

Martin: For me, the microaggressions. For me, often, if something has been very overt to someone who's going to call me a [...] or a faggot, I'm not going to react to that. I may do things physically—it's safe for me to do so—but it's all of those subtle things.

Brendan: You are a boxer. I need to know that you're a boxer. You're a boxer as well.

Martin: I will use my things. I will block and I walk away, but it's the subtle things. Oh, you have a husband. Are you mocking somebody who displays their pronouns? It's somebody makes a homophobic comment and you don't say something.

In the UK this week, they've got the rainbow laces campaign which is trying to encourage people to wear rainbow laces when they're playing soccer, football, and another sport. It's a campaign to really stop and end homophobia, transphobia in sport. I think it's the Brighton team in the UK. They go away and some of the opposing team fans just start chanting rent boy.

So if somebody chants a racist comment, would you say something? Would you report it? If you heard a homophobic comment, would you just laugh? If I said I don't like it, am I just being woke, it's just banter, all of those things? Not sure if you've watched Azeem Rafiq last week. Being interviewed by the UK parliamentary inquiry, he's raised big issues about racism in Cricket, in Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

There was a report and then there was discipline. There's been institutional racism at the Yorkshire County Cricket Club. We're talking about institutional racism 20 plus years ago. Why does it still take the victims of something to do something about it? Why isn't it the culture within the club that if somebody says something offensive, he says something racist, that somebody hasn't come say, hey, mate, stop saying that?

Brendan: What does a heterosexual white person like me need to do to actually make a difference? My humble opinion is there's a lot of virtual signaling around, lots of things in our society, but I want you to help me understand what do I do to actually make a difference in not just virtue signal. I'm not saying a virtue—hopefully I don't—but I want to make a difference.

Martin: Just the fact that you're a heterosexual white male means that you're a human being. You have experiences, you're a friend, you're a mate, you're all of those things. A couple of things you could do, you might go in Google Search just to spend five minutes understanding what some of the key issues are and amplify some of those key messages. You might come along to a pride parade or a Mardi Gras parade.

When you hear something, say something. When you're speaking with your friends, speak about these issues. If your friend says something, say, hey, this is the actual reason why they're saying this. Come along. Don't be afraid of making a mistake. Start from a place of inclusion thinking about some of the things that you haven't had to go to. There's that transferring privilege, which is a term I really love. As a white man, I then had to change my name when I'm applying for a job.

I've never watched Game of Thrones or Ironman, so imagine if Tony Stark was real, he was my uncle who's worth $9 billion. In the Game of Thrones, if the Windsors were the Starks, I could call my uncle Prince Harry. I could call [...], all those privileges that I would have. But imagine, I then had to change my name to apply for a job.

That's nonsense. But then when you're screening applications, leave bias at the door. Just look for people for who they are, their skills, and their capabilities. Look at things where you've had an opportunity. You look at somebody else. They haven't had that opportunity.

What can you do? How can you open the door for somebody? Who can you introduce them to? What conversations can you have? How can you raise an issue about bias in recruitment or making sure that when people apply for a job, it does not matter what their surname is? They have the same chance as everybody else. Speaking up is probably the best thing you can do, because the hardest thing is when issues aren't spoken about or you fear saying something, nothing changes.

Brendan: As you're explaining that, there's this YouTube video that keeps coming to my head, which I've got to share. It's just this guy and he's just dancing extremely weirdly by himself in this field of a concept. Slowly but surely, the motto and the theory of the video is around leadership and taking that first step.

All of a sudden, slowly but surely, you'll see a person who goes up and just start slowly moving next to this guy who's still dancing really weirdly or whatever. Slowly, but surely the momentum of that change and people get. It's that sort of Malcolm Gladwell tipping point where all of a sudden, people were running from the other side of the hill to join this congregation, which was started by one single man.

Who am I to dance weirdly or not, but he was dancing differently. But the momentum, I just love the power of that. To me, that's you. I'm not saying disrespectful. You're that weird guy who's dating there and you're bringing some momentum. What people have you got around you already that have attracted yourself to your weird style of dancing?

Martin: I never set out to do any of this, and that's the beauty of the experience. I have all the allies.

Brendan: The best things start like that.

Martin: I would say the boxing family, first of all, certainly in Australia, boxing in Australia, boxing in New South Wales, people who I trained with, people supported me. I have an awesome board. Four amazing people who are highly skilled professionals in their own field came on board to help make a difference. I've made great connections with the LGBTQ+ community globally. We have a great LGBTQ boxing community. I have some great allies in the business community.

I join forums, networking events. So many people. I have just used my PC and my phone to communicate, but I've done it relentlessly. I've got statements from the president of the World Boxing Council, the president of the World Boxing Association, from the International Boxing Association, statement from the World Boxing Organization. I asked for that. Some took longer than others, but I just reached out to have those conversations.

The hard thing is when you go out and share your message, you don't know who you're impacting. There's a young LGBTQ boxer in Sri Lanka who wants to participate in the championships in future years. A friend of mine heard about him and said, I'm going to send some boxing gear. This LGBTQ+ boxer just bought his first pair of boxing gloves. 

Now, I've asked, do the LGBTQ boxer in Sri Lanka [...] can I actually talk about the individual? His response was yes, but I will never name who this person is. That person is not comfortable. But the impact is having one conversation with a very close boxing friend who heard about this and said, wait a minute, I've got some wraps. I've got some bits that I can send this individual. So imagine somebody's got the first pair of boxing gloves, really passionate, wants to be just who this person is, but an ally had said, let me help him. That's the real impact.

Brendan: Absolutely. How does that make you feel? What motivation does that give you to know you're having that sort of difference?

Martin: There's an abundance of kindness, there's an abundance of compassion. When you see, hate, look for kindness. Most people are so decent-hearted. Not everybody can express that in ways they feel comfortable or yet feel comfortable. There are so many different ways you can help. Just sending boxing wraps and boxing gear to somebody in another part of the world who's just starting on their boxing journey, that's the change that I want to see.

Brendan: It's such a brilliant story. Why boxing? How did boxing come about?

Martin: At the end of 2017, I almost died. I'm fully in hospital about 70 times of the last 15–16 years. I had an undiscerning crisis. It's so severe. In emergency, you will hear resus, which is the resuscitation section to be, like you've been in a car crash and you're close to death. That's what will take you straight away.

That was the first time I've ever been taken. I wasn't resuscitated, but I was straight into resus. I almost died. My pulse was below 40. They saved my life. One of the hospitals is absolutely amazing. When I'm there, I give myself an instant muscle injection. The paramedics are doing all the right things, but I'm close to death again.

I know what's on in the resus bay. What's next is probably going back in an induced coma if they can't stabilize me. They do stabilized me, but that brought back the memories of being in the induced coma. Often, we connect memories, so I'm back in a very strong PTSD moment.

I have a few self-defense classes in the local martial arts center. The second class just happens to be boxing. I was always, boxing was almost barbaric. It was something I wouldn’t ever consider, but sometimes I'm enjoying this saying, I can actually do this.

I continue having lessons and I catalogued my journey on Instagram. The gay boxing hashtag has less than 1000 post with boxing that's got 20 millions. So I'm just continue, continue, continue. I decided not to go to the gay games in 2022. I was calling myself the [...] gay boxing champion when I won gold for Australia.

I found out it's no longer a list of sport. I understand that because there are so many sports. I'm actually having Addisonian crisis and I'm the hospital [...]. I go, why not just go and create the world's first gay boxing championship? It's one of those crazy ideas that seems to catch on.

Brendan: Who does that? Where does that come from? Have you ever thought about that? You've referenced your parents before. Loving parents and upbringing stuff, but that stuff, that substance in people. Not everyone just wakes up or has a moment. and then, you know what, I'm just going to do my own thing, I'm going to create it myself. What's that driver there?

Martin: I think I've always, as I was talking a bit about courage and not holding myself back, but I've seen what's possible. The gay games has been going for 40 years. A few people started that. I've seen what has happened in international sport and LGBTQ+ sport, so I know what's possible and what can be achieved.

When I see a vision, I can see that this can be done, I just reach out there and say, let's make this happen and start building relationships with people. With that succinct communication, with that connect and set way of communicating, you get people on board. If you build relationships, then you get from the position where you have those relationships and it's much easier to plan.

My background in procurement saw things from great relationship with boxing in Australia and boxing in New South Wales. They have programs, referees, judges. We do things pursuant to their rules.

Imagine trying to write boxing rules or something that's never happened before as the rewriting until years later, but these events already exist. It's just about connecting people with people to get LGBTQ+ people and our allies in a boxing competition.

Brendan: Are the establishments doing enough, in your opinion? I've seen the letters on your website and I believe the support's fantastic again. Are they doing enough to progress where we needed to go?

Martin: Some are, some aren't. I'm going to say, within this country, I've been impressed with boxing, the leadership, and the engagement. I think we've seen great progress certainly with Rugby Union in this country. It's been great to see the M Cup held in Australia in 2014. I think some sports were at the leadership level. They're only just starting that journey. Racism is in cricket. To be honest, cricket has not taken racism seriously enough in the UK for that to be even resolved as an issue. 

What I have seen a change this year is in visible allyship. Sebastian Vettel wore a rainbow facemask, rainbow helmet, rainbow shirt in the Hungarian Grand Prix. We've seen Aston Martin have a rainbow flag in a Formula One car. We've seen Lewis Hamilton wear rainbow sneakers at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Hungary is enacting some anti LGBTQ+ laws.

The other week, Lewis Hamilton wore the rainbow flag on his helmet in Qatar. In Euro 2020, we saw the England and German captains wear rainbow armbands in that match. So we've seen great visible allyship. But I always talk about the world changes at that grassroots amateur level.

That's where I think sports in general need to be investing more within the grassroots, supporting people, getting clubs, getting more of those things especially after Covid, getting more funding into the grassroots. You can really impart the messages of inclusion, not just for LGBTQ+ people, but for marginalized or underrepresented communities. 

If you think about 2005 in Cronulla, what happened afterwards was the local lifeguards. They're inviting people from the Muslim community to train to be lifeguards. People who weren't included, why they're not included? It might not be an exclusive, but start from how you can include other people. 

I read a story a few months ago how there was a swimming class of people who'd never been able to have the opportunity to swim, assuming there's a life skill. Earlier this year, a swimming cap was banned from the Olympics.

Swimming caps, but I assumed it's like one size fits all. I remember some of my team or some friends spending our time to get the ball heads scrunched up. Now you think for black women who might have more voluminous hair, a swimming cap is important. There's a company created a swimming cap, which enabled people with different hair to have a swimming cap and get in the pool.

Now imagine the differences in the swimming cap, you can go and swim. But for the Olympic Games, the swimming cap was banned because according to the rules, it gave an advantage. Yet, I don't know about Australia, but in the UK, the Swimming Association of British women, they said, we're not against that. This swimming cap can be used for all competitions in swimming in the UK. [...] and the governing body banned it, whereas the British swimming body said no, we like this. We want people to be able to use this cap in swimming.

You see the difference? There's a structure of these are the rules, which may not contemplate people of different backgrounds. It's just somebody's hair, for goodness sake. If you have bigger hair, you do not need a swimming cap, which suits you up over. That seems like me a year, a standard swimming cap will be probably fine. But the rules mean this cap can't be used because of distinct advantage. Does that means this cap is banned, that swimming cap can be used by people who may not be able to swim to learn to swim?

Brendan: What skills are you using that you developed over time to help align the various levels of the boxing community? We'll focus on that because obviously, that's where you're at? What what are you doing and what do you need to do in the future to get that alignment?

Martin: Skill is really my strong communication skills, relationship management skills, working in procurement, negotiating big technology, outsourcing agreements, dealing with the C-Suite, dealing with CEOs of software companies. I'm bringing all of those things together. Also using my corporate skills, writing strategy, business cases, grants applications, marketing, all of those things.

If you don't have that, it's great to have people who can help you with that. Those are the skills that I've been using. I think the biggest skill is just opening up the conversation, allowing people to feel comfortable to make mistake, being courageous. Starting this conversation so that people can say, yes, I'm on board or I agree with it. What's this about? Create an environment where people can feel included and have a conversation.

A classic example is some friends who didn't know what LGBTQ+ meant if allowed to ask questions about trans people or non-binary people. They're now allies and they're able to have that conversation with some of their network. So when somebody doesn't understand something, spend 8 or 10 minutes with these awesome allies and advocates. When people ask about the world gay boxing championships, they're mentioning some of the stuff I mentioned earlier, but they're communicating the why and communicating what something means.

Brendan: You mentioned the LGBTQI+. For all of us, what what does that really mean?

Martin: They are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans. Trans is also an umbrella term of transgender, some who may change the gender, but some people are transgender non-conforming. They may not decide to go through the transition. They may decide to represent who they are, their gender identity may not match with their sex assigned at birth. So they may have been born male, but they are female, so use a pronoun she/her.

One of my very close friends, Celia Daniels, she's a translady. She has decided she doesn't want to do that transition hormone treatment and the surgery. She applied for a job using her male name. Worked for the interview as Celia, dressed as Celia. Basically, very surprised, offered a job much lower level than the job Celia applied for using her male name.

Q is queer. Queer is a bit of an umbrella term for people within the LGBTQI+ community. Personally, I remember when queer was used as a derogatory term certainly in the 80s, and 90s. I don't [...] queer. I is for intersex, and then the plus is for other, this pansexual. There are a lot of things which I, to be honest, struggle with. By having the plus, it's been inclusive. It's always important that we make it simple to understand to have the conversation.

Brendan: You and I are similar ages, actually. I agree with you. That term, queer, which stands out to me. That was used derogatory. Are you telling me now that that's a proud term?

Martin: So I would say it's a term which has been embraced, and the ownership has been taken back by the community, and younger people will probably describe themselves as queer. They might not say they're gay. They may just say they're queer, or say they're lesbians so they’re queers. Some say they’re bisexuals, so they're queer. It's become a bit of an umbrella term.

I think it’s a good question for somebody identifying who they are without having to explain something more than they don't feel comfortable with. Personally, I don't describe that as queer. I just don't get it. I'm a gay man and member of the LGBTQ+ community. But I love the word has gone from an insult into a word which has been owned and embraced by the community.

Brendan: I'm just thinking, mate. My wife uses the term weirdo for me. Does your husband call you a weirdo?

Martin: Plenty of things but you'd be causing trouble with all my cleaning. I've missed a corner and...

Brendan: These supposed loved ones have all sorts of supposedly affectionate terms for it, don't they?

Martin: My favorite thing last year was hallway bachelor. The more you’re going in a straight lines, missing the corner.

Brendan: I have to say we bought a fantastic new Hoover last weekend and I love it. It's making the carpet super clean, mate. You’ll have to get one if you're struggling. Classic. 

You refer to pronouns. I do come from a bit of a naive place as far as this goes. Can you please help me understand what is the value and what is really the importance of the pronoun situation?

Martin: This is really about providing an environment where people feel comfortable to express who they are. Some steps that I'm reading is that about 25% of younger people are identifying as non-binary. Their sex assignment certs may not align with their gender identity, they may decide it's non-binary. So I will explain my pronouns as he/him just to provide an environment where somebody who may not feel comfortable explaining that they're non-binary, they're trans.

If I put he/him in my email, if I put it when I'm on a Zoom call, then the person could say, my pronouns are they/them. It just creates an environment where they can just be who they are. As a gay man in the closet, the hardest thing was hiding. We come up every single day. But imagine going into a meeting, you see somebody displaying the pronouns or doing that, and somebody could say, well, I'm trans and my pronouns are she/her, you've taken away so much angst and replace that with an environment of confidence in where people can just be who they are without apology, without hiding.

Brendan: What value do pronouns have for me?

Martin: I think pronouns are also part of your identity. I'm a proud gay male, so I use he/him. Somebody might ask, what pronouns do you use? We say, I'm branding and I use he/him. Another person, trans person say, I'm going to use she/her, because by using she her. She is able to confidently be herself and be respected by other individuals.

A non binary person may use they/them. By expressing your pronouns, you're creating an environment where they feel comfortable to express who they are. Imagine the opposite. Imagine you're transfemale and you're constantly being called sir, referred to as he, being called a bloke. Imagine how cruel that is on your character, your identity, who you are, and that person just keeps doing it. Whereas you're in a meeting and you just display your pronouns, that person is less likely to do that because you've created an environment where people can be comfortable. 

We talk about psychological safety. It's psychological safety. It's so important. As I mentioned, the stats of self-harm and suicide are incredibly high in the LGBTQI+ community, particularly young LGBTQI + people, but the difference whether they have to hide who they are. I suppose today's world will be much easier to come up at school because now there are so much more support in place for the young people.

Imagine if I don't have to talk about pronouns where the teacher might say, my pronouns are he/him, she her, they/them. It's not even a conversation. It's just respect. It's just kindness. It's courtesy. It's dignity.

Brendan: What you've explained makes a lot of sense to me, again, putting yourself in the other person's shoes. That empathetic approach is absolutely perfectly sensible and very respectful. I respect people that do that and I personally have no challenge or no issue with that. I really appreciate you explain that to me to help me gain a better understanding.

Where I feel less comfortable is that I'm not a person within the LGBTQI community. I want to continue to have an understanding of that, but I still don't understand what value I can provide. Why would I use pronouns when I don't need to? I am who I am. I'm not what you explained.

Martin: By you using your pronouns, you’ve seen my name, my signature means I can be myself around you, means you're an ally, you're visible allyship.

Brendan: This is where how you define ally comes in.

Martin: It's about creating that environment, and you don't have to. It's about just being a good mate, a good friend, especially for the younger generation coming through who are so aware, who are more confident to express who they are. Can you imagine going to school coming out and having one of your peer group accept you, and support you, versus having to fear that? Or you leave university, there were some studies show that an LGBTQ+ student will be out at university, but go back into the closet in the workplace.

Imagine you go to where you strike your first job. A few people who are allies just use the pronouns in their email signature on a Zoom call, then you felt I'm a non-binary person, I'm just going to discreetly add they/them to my email signature. I don't need to even ask the question. I'm going to start doing that now. When I go into a meeting, I don't have to explain what non-binary means when I'm using these pronouns. It's just respect. It's just courtesy. You should accept it. 

It's not even a discussion item because there's that visible support. I'm accepted for who I am and I can contribute to the fullest or to not hide who I am. A high part of me comes down to explain why I'm using these pronouns and what that means. You as an ally, you can spend five minutes reading something. You can spend a couple of minutes understanding something. If you connect what you've learned, why wouldn't you? It's not compelling, but why wouldn't you?

Brendan: Mate, thank you very much for explaining that. The reason why I wanted to unpack that, because I don't have any confirmed statistics on this at all. But I certainly sense that the majority of people that would be using pronouns, whether that's LinkedIn or whatever, have no idea what you've just explained.

Martin: I agree.

Brendan: I look forward to making sure we share this widely through this conversation where people can make an educated decision and not just jump on a bandwagon. If they're educated about stuff, which is something you're driving hard to do and being courageous with change, then it means something and people will do something about it.

Martin: It comes about just being respectful. This is from a place of inclusion. My concern is when, oh, this is woke, this is cancel culture, all of those things. I don't know what any of those words or those terms mean now because if you say you don't like something, your class has been a snowflake, you're too sensitive, the right to free speech, when is the right to free speech never included the right to reply or say, you know what, I don't like what you're saying?

Brendan: I only like what you're saying if it agrees with me.

Martin: Absolutely. If not, I'm going to call you or the words and the sound. If you say something, you're canceling me. We got to stop that nonsense and just start being respectful, being inclusive, and spending five minutes researching something, and then maybe asking somebody a question, and we have a very respectful conversation. What's uncomfortable in any of it?

Brendan: Doubling down on this courage, you referred earlier about coming out. I guess it's a common term in the LGBTQI community, I imagine. Can you give us some understanding for us around your coming out? What involved in that and the emotions wrapped up in that before and after, and all that sort of stuff? Give us some context.

Martin: In my coming out, I was 27. I suppose I should have done it about four or five years earlier. I think coming out is always an individual's journey. It's about accepting who you are, first of all. So often, you might start from a place of fear. Am I going to be accepted here? Am I going to hear jokes, gay jokes, gay comments, all of those bits?

If I say I'm gay, am I going to be rejected? When I tell you I'm gay, does that mean now you're going to hate me? You're not going to listen to me, you're going to shun me? Am I just in the focus of ridicule? Am I going to be discriminated against if I apply for a job, if I apply for a promotion? Does that mean because I'm gay, you don't like gays around so you're going to do all of those things?

I came to this [...] to live life for me. I grew up telling my oldest brother first. I said, you know, older brother, we know parents, it was a non-issue and less of the family issue. It wasn't an issue, but it was always like a place of fear to them to the point and whatnot. I need to live my life for me.

Not everybody has that environment and support structure, so it's always a different journey for different people. I always think, come out on your own terms. Please, whenever you feel comfortable, it's what you decide to do. Have a support mechanism in place.

I got to the stage where, am I going to live my life for me? I'm living in Sydney. This is who I am. Why am I stopping? It was just yet had that courage to do it and just did it. It's a moment I feared that for many, many years.

Brendan: What was that feeling like once that cloak was dropped?

Martin: I think when I told my oldest brother, it was just acceptance straightaway which is much easier. It was like, okay. Just that immense relief.

Brendan: It wasn't that, duh, I know?

Martin: Absolutely, it was. Yeah. First, he said, I know. I've known for years. I've been waiting for you to tell us. That's one of those conversation. It makes no difference. Either one of those moments.

Brendan: Sorry to interrupt, mate. Can I just say that that's another thing that fascinates me? When we talked around leadership, when we talked about genuine conversations, what was stopping your brother or your family coming to you and say, hey, Martin, are you gay? Why was the pressure on you?

Martin: I think it's better to—through language and conversation—actually be welcoming and accepting in what you're saying. Those messages you've all been talking for years and years. Is it for me as an individual when I'm ready? Versus just outing somebody. Outing was something which was done in the last century.

The press would say this person is gay and that lives were radically changed. I think it was just around respect for me and making sure I'm comfortable first. They created a culture that I could go and have a conversation. That support mechanism was in place. It was up for me to then just take those steps.

Brendan: Walk through the door.

Martin: A few years ago, I was mentioned having blue hair for Mardi Gras. I thought of being in the location of work.

Brendan: Mate, I have to say I am very disappointed that you haven't done the blue hair today.

Martin: You wait till it goes yellow in two weeks. Arriving at work early, [...] left with two other people. I was getting those looks of disapproval, those microaggressions, but this guy he's looking okay. Then I happened to mention, ah, Mardi Gras this weekend, and the face is changed, big smiles and everything.

At one point, you get no thoughts of being judged, why am I having blue hair at work. It's suddenly a difference. There is that acceptance of those individuals. Their reactions didn't bother me in the slightest, but why did it take to me saying, it's Mardi Gras this weekend for them to be smiling and accepting? Versus other people would come and ask me, what you're doing for Mardi Gras this weekend? I love what you're doing. See the difference where I'm accepted and supported versus getting in a left with those looks of disapproval, looks of shock. I think allies turn that around beautifully.

Brendan: I like to say it's always trying to come from a place of curiosity, as opposed of judgment, isn't it?

Martin: Yeah.

Brendan: Mate, we haven't spoken a lot about the gay boxing championships in 2023. Here's your chance to speak a little bit about what's happening, all the work you're putting in, and the momentum you're gathering around that.

Martin: From 18th to the 22nd of February 2023, we're going to have a five-day amateur boxing competition at the WINX Stand at The Australian Turf Club in Randwick. We are planning for having a maximum of 200 participants. It's open to the LGBTQI+ and allies. We've engaged heavily with our boxing friends here in Australia too.

Our competition is based on three by two minute rounds of competition with participants matched on their age and experience. AIBA, which is the governing body for amateur boxing globally, have announced 13-year weight divisions. So what we've done is we've selected six of those weight divisions. For example, it could be like 57–60, 63–66 kilos who've been off for 6 world divisions. Amateur boxing competition knockout style over five days.

We've got support from World Pride, from Mardi Gras in terms of letter of support. Clover Moore, I love her. She gave us a beautiful letter of support earlier in the year. This is for me giving back. The first politician I met was James Griffin, who's a state MP for Manley. I've met him in a few events previously. He said as soon as you're ready, come and have a conversation with me.

So I contacted James Griffin's office at a meeting a week or so later, and he gave us our first letter of support, and helps introduce us to a few other people. The same with Zali Steggall who's my local MP, gave us a statement of support, and Alex Greenwich who is a state MP for Sydney. We've had wonderful support from government MPs.

What I've really loved the most is just having that support and support of boxing Australia, boxing New South Wales, and building a global LGBTQ boxing family. A lot of it already existed. There are clubs all over the world.

One of our ambassadors in the UK is a guy called Danny Baker. Danny was born Sarah, trans male. He's just been interviewed by Men's Health magazine. They did a whole photoshoot with Danny. He's going back out to Fuerteventura to train MTK Global. MTK Global is obviously one of the big boxing promoters. One of the people who's trained him trained alongside Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury. So there's some great love within the boxing family.

Brendan: It sounds absolutely awesome, mate. Moving ahead, that event is taking place. Get some time to rest or whatever. What's that one thing that's reflecting on an event like that that you hope to achieve?

Martin: What I hope to achieve is to really start disrupting homophobia, transphobic through inclusion and participation. If you wait for permission or if you wait to be invited, why is it holding you back? We can replace hatred by seeing people in the rain. People feeling comfortable, they can go to a local boxing class. We can grow boxing.

For me, it's getting people at their local boxing gym, at the local boxing club, taking part in the best sport in the world. People have seen LGBTQ+ people can compete alongside our allies and that we start seeing more people coming through to the professional ranks and going to the Commonwealth Games ,Olympic Games, becoming world boxing champions, but we can stop having these conversations.

I don't need to talk about homophobia in sport anymore. Those stats I shared, they're starting to drop. They're being reversed. I've said by 10 years time, there isn't a set up in this organization that want to no longer exist. I don't want to be talking about the need for a competition, people to feel safe. I want people talk about a competition where people feel welcome, accepted, and just go along.

Brendan: Mate, I really love how you brought that back again, what you mentioned at the top of the show around your purpose, disrupting that environment. Fantastic messaging. What about let's get selfish? Because you're a fantastic leader. Absolutely, I have no doubt, because everything you talk about is changing others and you're driving that, but you're doing that selflessly unless that courage is driving through. You're using this tag, gay boxing champion. Let's get selfish. Are you going to be gay boxing champion in 2023 at the end of that tournament?

Martin: No, because I'm not competing.

Brendan: What? But you're all talking...

Martin: Absolutely. I changed my Instagram tag a couple of years for gay boxing champ. I love that title. One of the reasons I'm not competing is because I have so much to organize. I'm going to be the promoter, the games director. So for me personally, it's going to be a lot to get done. It didn't take long for me to realize that the purpose is really my passion for doing this. So I want to make that happen and lead that change. 

Now, I may start the event, but do you see the President of the WBC not boxing? They're involved in the sport. They're immersed in the sport. So I may compete in the future world gay boxing, but the first one in Sydney, my job is to make this happen. You know what? I'm still going to be the gay boxing champion in the world.

Brendan: You know what? I reckon you've got a much better title, which is world change leader. How about you use that one? That's definitely where you're at. World leader of change, Martin Stark, brother of Stark, who's Ironman again?

Martin: I think Tony is my uncle because [...] billion dollars. He's probably joining Jeff Bezos and Tesla up in and going up to space so they can invite me next time.

Brendan: There is a slight resemblance, I reckon. You must be somewhere related to Tony Stark. Surely.

Martin: I wish even though I don't have half a million dollars. I'd never watched Ironman. I've never watched Game of Thrones.

Brendan: I have watched Game of Thrones, but I love the Marvel series. It's certainly a good family favor, I have to say. 

Martin, I always like to ask my guest a penultimate question, I suppose. That is, what's had the greatest impact on your own leadership journey?

Martin: The believe in myself to go and lead rather than being left through being in the career. When I started the World Gay Boxing Championships, it was just me and my vision. It's was just me doing that. I thought first, start at posting content on LinkedIn and then writing articles that we just want both leadership and knowledge. It wasn't waiting for permission or asking for an opportunity. I just started giving it. I remember the biggest commercial negotiation I did, the $300 million outsourcing contract. I made it happen. I knew I was able to do this and just connecting with other leaders.

Outside of the bubble of working in corporate, when you leave one environment and go to live in work environment, you need to establish relationships all over again. But when you network, when you grow, when you share your message and have the confidence to share what you believe, I believe in a better place to make stronger impact than just being part of the system where you can share your views.

If you lead, lead with purpose. Lead with your integrity. This is what you stand for. You're being vulnerable. Another people will see that and will probably have more trust in you because if you're not showing who you are, you're hiding who you are in some form.

Brendan: Martin Stark, I don't care what your sexuality is. You are an inspiring human. I really look forward to watching your journey and continuing to be connected as a result of our conversation. I appreciate your vulnerability and sharing your experiences, helping me and hopefully helping the Culture of Things community better understand how we can continue to all be looked at as humans rather than labels.

Mate, I appreciate your time very, very much. I appreciate you. Thanks for being a guest on the Culture of Things podcast.

Martin: You're welcome and thank you for your allyship and [...].

Brendan: Absolute pleasure, buddy.

Do you see Martin as a gay white man championing a cause, or do you see Martin an inspiring human? Maybe both, whichever way you see him, he’s a man on a mission to disrupt homophobia, transphobia, and hatred in sport. 

Here’s information on why this inspiring humans work is important. Eighty percent of people in Australia have either witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport. LGBTQI+ people are five times more likely to attempt suicide. Transgender people aged 18 years and over are nearly 11 times more likely. Ninety-one percent of female rugby players had most people assume they’re lesbians. LGBTQI+ people can feel insecure and sometimes discriminated against, preventing them from actively participating in sport. 

Martin’s building a solid team and group of allies to help change these stats. Will you make a deliberate decision to be part of the solution, not part of the problem? 

These are my three key takeaways from my conversation with Martin. The first key takeaway: leaders lead with courage and action. All change starts with one thing—a courageous person to lead it and take action. Martin’s the courageous person leading change and taking action. No virtual signalling here. He’s gathering the LGBTQI+ community and its allies through the magic of sport. If you check out the World Gay Boxing Championship’s website, you’ll see he’s working to a deadline. Real courage, real action, real leadership.

My second key takeaway: leaders are selfless. After recording, Martin shared the other reason he wasn’t competing in the world gay boxing tournament. He didn’t want to take away from the credibility and purpose of the tournament. It’s an unfortunate fact that some people would say it was rigged or it was a setup if he was the tournament CEO and he also happened to win. I saw it in him when he told me. He would love to be competing. But like a true leader, he’s being selfless and putting the team and cause first.

My third key takeaway: leaders lead with a vision. Martin’s very clear on why his organization exists. It exists to disrupt homophobia, transphobia, and hatred in sport. This is the beacon that drives them every day. It’s a key checkpoint that guides their decisions. A vision is part of the filtering process, deciding between all opportunities and the right opportunities. The best leaders know it and therefore lead with a vision.

So in summary, my three key takeaways were: leaders lead with courage and action, leaders are selfless, and leaders lead with a vision.

If you want to talk about culture, leadership, or teamwork, or have any questions or feedback about the episode, you can leave me a comment on the socials or you can leave me a voice message at thecultureofthings.com. Thanks for joining me, and remember, the best outcome is on the other side of a genuine conversation!

Outtro (music): Thank you for listening to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. Please visit brendanrogers.com.au to access the show notes. If you love The Culture of Things podcast, please subscribe, rate and give a review on Apple podcasts and remember a healthy culture is your competitive advantage.