I was an unlikely AFL fan – growing up on a cattle property in Central Queensland in the 1980s, following rugby league would have been the more logical choice. Despite this, during primary school I became increasingly interested in the ‘Southern’ football code and, when my (dearly-departed) Brisbane Bears entered the league in 1987, I was officially a fan.
That interest grew during the 90s, including playing a few games (very badly) while at uni. My fandom reached a peak during the glory days of the ‘merged’ Brisbane Lions (2001-2004) and the years I lived in Melbourne (2003-2008).
It is fair to say my active interest was waned a bit since then – probably the result of a combination of the abysmal performance of my team (only making one final series out of the past 12) and the fact I have moved back ‘North’ (first to Canberra, and then to Sydney).
Nevertheless, this Saturday night I will be sitting down to watch an AFL game between two teams that are not my own – the Sydney Swans and St Kilda Saints. The reason? Because tonight’s first ever AFL Pride Game is a historic occasion, and means a lot to me, not just as a footy fan, but also as a gay Australian.
The Pride Game demonstrates that the most-attended sporting code in the country understands (at least some of) the challenges that are presented by homophobia – both across society generally, but also the specific challenges facing Australian rules football.
The most obvious of these is the fact that, for a competition that started as the Victorian Football League way back in 1896 (before Australia even formally existed), there has still never been an out player at elite level[i].
As part of the build-up to the Pride Game, the League has publicly re-iterated its support for current players who may decide to come out, and its commitment – to build a supportive environment to allow them to do so – does seem sincere[ii].
Perhaps even more encouraging has been the fact that the AFL appears to understand that this is about more than simply accepting one or more gay players, it is actually about changing the culture of the sport, including the institutions that surround the game and the media that commentates on it.
In this respect, Australian rules does seem to have its fair share of, how should we put it, stupid people saying stupid things. From Jason Akermanis – who famously called for gay players to stay in the closet so that others could safely enjoy the ‘homoeroticism around football clubs’, including ‘slapping blokes on the bum and just having a bit of fun’[iii] – to commentator Brian Taylor – who described a player as a ‘poofter’ live on TV just two years ago[iv] – and controversy-generator Sam Newman – who, as well as describing Michael Sam kissing his partner as an “annoyingly gratuitous act”[v], has previously said that Melbourne did not need “mincing, lisping, parading people wandering all over the country” and warned of “having the whole state [of Victoria] infested with people we don’t actually want”[vi] – there are plenty of candidates for (re-)education about the real harms caused by homophobia.
The need to change the sport’s culture also includes ensuring that fans are not subjected to a homophobic environment. A widely-reported[vii] incident from earlier this year, where homophobic slurs at a North Melbourne-Fremantle fixture were apparently met with smiles from security guards, demonstrates that this is still a serious problem in 2016[viii].
On the positive side, however, the League responded relatively swiftly by updating its ticketing conditions to state that “no person… shall acts towards or speak to any other person in a manner, or engage in any other conduct which threatens, disparages, vilifies or insults another person (the person vilified) on any basis, including but not limited to a person’s race, religion, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, special ability/disability or sexual orientation, preference or identity.”[ix]
The comments by St Kilda CEO Matt Finnis, in the lead-up to tonight’s game, demonstrates that (at least some) senior figures within the League genuinely understand the need for inclusivity:
“People shouldn’t feel ashamed to hold their partner’s hand at the footy. People shouldn’t feel uncomfortable because they might hear a homophobic slur… It’s really important to say everyone’s welcome at a Saints game… The footy hasn’t been the most welcoming place for everyone so we think we can do our bit.”[x]
Hopefully, both at tonight’s historic Pride Game and in all the games that follow, Australian rules football does become a genuinely more inclusive place, for players and fans.
Of course, the challenges faced by the AFL, and the steps that it is taking to address them, is not happening in isolation. In recent years, there has been growing focus on the issue of homophobia in sports more broadly.
This includes the ground-breaking Out on the Fields[xi] study, which found that:
- 80% of participants have witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport
- 75% believe an openly gay person would not be very safe as a spectator at a sporting event, and
- 50% of gay men and 48% of lesbians have been personally targeted.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that 70% of young respondents (under 22) still believe youth team sport is not safe for gay people. Full results here (source: Out on the Fields):
A number of major Australian sporting codes (including the AFL, NRL, ARU, FFA, Cricket Australia, Swimming Australia, Waterpolo Australia, Basketball Australia and Golf Australia) have also taken steps to tackle homophobia through the Pride in Sports Index[xii] and related initiatives.
These are all important measures in changing sporting culture. But it is perhaps tonight’s AFL Pride Game that has most publicly caught the collective imagination. And that isn’t particularly surprising, given how closely ingrained ‘footy’ is in the fabric of Australian life (for many people anyway).
Which is also the opportunity of tonight’s game – to help overcome homophobia in all parts of society, not just in those traditionally considered to be more ‘gay-friendly’. The Pride Game will reach some people who would never even consider attending, or watching the highlights of, the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras (which ends near the SCG, home of the Sydney Swans) or Melbourne’s Pride March (held in St Kilda). In addressing homophobia everywhere, we need more vehicles like this.
One of my favourite stories of the past week reveals just how much cultural influence Australian rules football can exert, and also how much potential for change the Pride Game has. It involved former player Nicky Winmar, who famously stood up against the racism he was experiencing from AFL fans by visibly showing he was a proud Indigenous man, now showing similar pride in his gay son Tynan:
“I’m proud I can do this for him, and his friends and others out there – if you’re gay, be proud of who you are,” [Nicky] Winmar said. “I was proud to stand up for indigenous people in sport and now it’s time to stand up for these guys. Life is too short.”[xiii]
Stories like this are what culture changes looks like.
And if we were in any doubt about that, the backlash from some has merely confirmed it. This has ranged from 3AW’s Tom Elliot’s ill-informed contribution in the media (“Not a single professional AFL footballer has come out and admitted he is gay, speaks volumes. Footy is simply that, footy, why make it bigger than what it is? I don’t want to be lectured, I don’t want a political message”[xiv]) to religious fundamentalists distributing homophobic flyers criticising the AFL’s decision to hold the game[xv]. Both responses indicate that this game matters, and that its message of inclusivity matters.
For all of these reasons, and despite the fact my beloved Brisbane Bears/Lions aren’t playing (which is possibly a small mercy, given the way they’re playing they’d likely lose badly against both), I will definitely be watching tonight’s first ever AFL Pride Game. The code, and the two teams involved, are showing leadership and that leadership should be rewarded.
Oh, and there is one final aspect of tonight’s game that I applaud – the inspired choice to hold it on the anniversary of Howard’s homophobic ban on marriage equality. It shows that even our largest sports reject the discrimination imposed through that abhorrent Act – and that they stand with the majority of the community in believing all Australians should have the same rights, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. It’s time for our politicians to catch up.
[NB I acknowledge that this post primarily focuses on male team sports, rather than female team sports, which have a history of more out players, in Australia and globally, and is arguably more inclusive of differences in sexual orientation. I have done so because, at least for time being, the AFL is a male competition (although like many others I look forward to next year’s inaugural AFL national women’s league[xvi]) and also because, given the disproportionate media attention given to male team sports in Australia, they consequently have a disproportionate capacity to affect cultural change.
I also note that this post largely addresses issues of sexual orientation, rather than those of gender identity or intersex status (which share some elements – in terms of abusive comments and behaviour – but which have additional challenges, such as being excluded from participation on the basis of that identity/status). Both the Out on the Fields study, and to a lesser extent the Pride in Sports Index, provide greater emphasis on the inclusion of lesbian, gay and bisexual athletes than transgender or intersex participants. This has also been reflected in the build up to and media coverage of the Pride Game itself, which has focused almost exclusively on gay men. Obviously, as on many subjects concerning LGBTI rights, there is a long distance yet to go in terms of addressing trans and intersex inclusion in sports.]
[i] Of course, the AFL is not alone in this absence – of the four major men’s football codes in Australia (Australian rules, rugby league, rugby union and soccer/football), there has only ever been one openly gay elite player, rugby league star Ian Roberts, who came out more than 20 years ago. The fact nobody has joined him since both underscores the barriers that continue to confront gay and bisexual players today, and highlights how courageous he truly was.
[ii] There is some debate about whether the amount of discussion of this issue, including multiple public comments by League officials that gay players would be welcomed, has in fact increased the pressure on players considering ‘coming out’. Possibly – but this is still a preferable approach to the alternative, which would be for the AFL to remain silent on the topic, leaving players in greater doubt about whether they would be accepted or not.
[iii] Full quote: “But some or my, the homoeroticism around football clubs… what workplace would you be able to see 20 men nude all the time if you wanted to? When you’re slapping blokes on the bum and just having a bit of fun, what would that [having an out player there] do to a man in there when you actually work out, “Oh wait a second, wait a second. I don’t know if I can handle that guy.” Aker defends call for players to stay in the closet, May 20, 2010, The Age. http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-news/aker-defends-call-for-gay-players-to-stay-in-closet-20100519-vg2j.html
[iv] AFL commentator Brian Taylor slammed for homophobic slur on Geelong’s Harry Taylor, July 14, 2014, ABC Online. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-07-13/afl-commentator-slammed-for-homophobic-slur/5592660
[v] NFL Draftee Michael Sam’s kiss ‘annoyingly gratuitous’: Sam Newman, May 15, 2014, The Age. http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-news/nfl-draftee-michael-sams-kiss-annoyingly-gratuitous-sam-newman-20140514-zrd41.html
[vi] Newman anti-gay comments slammed, December 8, 2004, The Age. http://www.theage.com.au/news/National/Newman-antigay-comments-slammed/2004/12/08/1102182357178.html
[vii] AFL to change ticket policy after homophobic slurs, April 19, 2016, Star Observer. http://www.starobserver.com.au/news/afl-to-change-ticket-policy-after-homophobic-slurs/148600
[viii] On a personal level, while I witnessed a significant number of homophobic incidents at games in Melbourne, I haven’t observed the same behavior at the few games I have attended in Canberra and Sydney, and have comfortably held my partner’s hand and kissed him too, without incident.
[ix] Despite this positive step, the terminology used (preference) and the terms that have been excluded (gender identity and intersex status) show there is still some way to go.
[x] St Kilda CEO Matt Finnis thrilled about St Kilda and Sydney Pride Game, August 11, 2016, Brisbane Times. http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/afl/afl-news/st-kilda-ceo-matt-finnis-thrilled-about-st-kilda-and-sydney-pride-game-20160811-gqq783.html
[xiii] Nicky Winmar making a proud stand for his gay son Tynan, August 10, 2016, Herald Sun. http://www.heraldsun.com.au/sport/afl/nicky-winmar-making-a-proud-stand-for-his-gay-son-tynan/news-story/0a82b9ecd5ae1c6056682b5652a4b154
[xiv] Despite criticism, AFL Pride Game set to be life-changing, August 11, 2016, samesame.com.au http://www.samesame.com.au/news/14080/Despite-criticism-AFL-Pride-Game-set-to-be-life-changing
[xv] St Kilda, Sydney targeted in protest against AFL’s first gay pride game, April 30, 2016, The Age. http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-season-2016-st-kilda-sydney-targeted-in-protest-against-afls-first-gay-pride-game-20160429-goi52g.html
[xvi] Eight teams named for inaugural women’s league, June 15, 2016, AFL website. http://www.afl.com.au/news/2016-06-15/eight-teams-named-for-inaugural-womens-league