Why I’ll be watching tonight’s AFL Pride Game

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

[xi] Website: http://www.outonthefields.com/media/#Australia

[xii] Website: http://www.prideindiversity.com.au/prideinsport/

[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

12 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Athletes I Admire Most

Updated 14 July 2019:

It is now five years since I posted this list, and it is time for a refresh.

On the positive side, it means I can include some LGBTI athletes who have emerged (or, more accurately, that I have become more conscious of) over that time. This includes Megan Rapinoe, lesbian star of the recent soccer World Cup and outspoken LGBT activist, unapologetically gay figure skater Adam Rippon, and Erin Phillips, Olympic basketball medallist and AFL Women’s dual best and fairest.

It also means I can include Caster Semenya, who obviously was already an Olympic champion prior to my original post, but is now both more readily identified as an intersex athlete and who has since married her female partner.

On the negative side, it means removing people for less pleasant reasons, including WNBA player Britney Griner who in 2015 pled guilty to disorderly conduct charges after an incident of domestic violence involving her then same-sex partner.

Most disappointingly, it means ‘cancelling’ the woman who was previously number one on this list – Martina Navratilova – after she made a series of unacceptable comments about trans women athletes earlier this year, including calling them ‘cheats’. While I continue to respect Martina for what she accomplished in tennis career, and her pioneering efforts as a lesbian athlete, I cannot look up to a transphobe as a role model.

So here it is, my reviewed and renewed list of 12 LGBTI athletes I admire most:

12: Megan Rapinoe

I respect Rapinoe not just for her achievements on the field – including two-time World Cup winner, Olympic gold medal winner and US National Team co-captain. Perhaps just as important has been her stance on social justice issues off the pitch, including being a prominent supporter of Colin Kaepernick and efforts to draw attention to racial inequality in the US, herself kneeling during the US national anthem in 2016. And it obviously helps that Rapinoe has publicly called out the divisiveness and prejudice of President Donald Trump.

See also: Abby Wambach, Michelle Heyman, Chloe Logarzo and Sam Kerr.


11: Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King as an athlete was not necessarily a lesbian role model, and in fact was outed against her will in a palimony lawsuit filed by a former partner in 1981 towards the end of her playing career. But she was a champion on the court, and especially as someone who fought hard – and successfully – for equal pay for women tennis players. After her career finished, and King finally came out as a lesbian on her own terms, she also made up for lost time as an outspoken advocate for LGBT equality, and in 2009 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama for her work advocating for the rights of women and the LGBT community.

10: Michael Sam

So much was written about Michael Sam that adding much here is almost redundant. He makes this list alone for the courage of coming out publicly prior to NFL draft camp (although his teammates knew during his final season of College football) – and accepting the risk that he would be drafted lower, or even not at all, because of this declaration. To risk killing off your career, by being honest about who you are from the outset, in a sport where no active player has ever come out, is the definition of brave.

The moment where he emotionally celebrated being drafted by the St Louis Rams by kissing his then-boyfriend Vito Cammisano, broadcast live on ESPN to millions of Americans, was a beautiful moment (with added points for how much it seemed to piss off American homophobes). The fact he ultimately did not play in the NFL should not undermine the courage he showed – or the fact that he has made it easier for those that follow.

See also: US basketball player Jason Collins came out via Sports Illustrated in April 2013 and, in March 2014, played for the Brooklyn Nets, becoming the first openly-gay active player in any of the ‘big four’ North American men’s sports competitions (baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey), although baseball player Glenn Burke was apparently open about being gay to his teammates and club owners in the late 1970s, but not to the public at large.

Michael Sam Vito Cammisano

Michael Sam embraces boyfriend Vito Cammisano live on ESPN after being drafted.

9: Erin Phillips

Phillips is an amazing athlete, and it is impossible to overstate her achievements in two very different sports. She has been a world champion and Olympic Games silver medallists with the Australian basketball team, as well as a two-time WNBA champion. Phillips has also been the most public representative of the AFL Women’s competition, winning two AFLW premierships, and two league best and fairests, in the first three years of competition. Plus, she had her own viral moment, kissing her wife Tracy Gahan, on winning the first of those awards – something that we are still waiting for on the men’s side.

AFLW Awards

8: Adam Rippon

Rippon’s sporting achievement perhaps do not match some of the other athletes on this list, although he did win a team figure skating bronze medal in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. However, I look up to him both for his perseverance – after missing out on both the 2010 and 2014 Olympics – and for his uncompromising ‘gayness’, both in his sport and in his public appearances. He is a role model that many can look up to for many years to come.

See also: Belle Brockhoff, Gus Kenworthy, Ireen Wust and Blake Skjellerup.

7: Matthew Mitcham

Another athlete to come out before their first Olympic Games – aged just 20, in the lead-up to Beijing in 2008 – Mitcham went on to claim the Gold Medal in the men’s 10 metre platform, with the highest-scoring dive in Olympic history. The fact that he had been so public about his sexual orientation also meant that the world got to see him celebrating his victory by embracing his then boyfriend, Lachlan Fletcher, in the stands – a forerunner to the Sam-Cammisano, and Phillips-Gahan, moments.

See also: It would be remiss not to mention British Olympic bronze medallist diver Tom Daley, especially given his December 2013 coming out video on YouTube has been watched more than 11 million times around the world.

Matthew Mitcham Lachlan Fletcher Beijing

Matthew Mitcham celebrates his Gold Medal victory in Beijing with then-partner Lachlan Fletcher

6: Amelie Mauresmo

One of the most famous athletes to come out early in their careers was French tennis player Amelie Mauresmo, who not only came out publicly at the age of 19 during the 1999 Australian Open (where she went on to make the final), but who also endured negative comments from other players in response. The fact that she persevered against her (on-court) psychological struggles, to become world number 1 and then both Australian Open and Wimbledon Champion in 2006 is truly admirable.

See also: I have written previously about the large number of out female tennis players (link here) compared to the complete absence of any out male players. Of those women, one of my favourites is Casey Dellacqua, who came out in August 2013, with the simple announcement that she and her partner Amanda had become parents.


5: Greg Louganis

Greg Louganis is the only person to feature on this list who was not openly LGBTI during their sports career (although Billie Jean King was not out by choice). And, while he may go down in history as one of the greatest divers of all time (winning two gold medals at both the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics), that is not the reason I have included him here either.

He features because of his disclosure in 1995 that he was both gay and HIV-positive, having tested positive at the start of 1988. In doing so, he was confronted by, and helped to challenge, the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV, at a time when large numbers of people in the US, Australia and other Western countries were still dying from AIDS-related illness (noting of course that this continues to be true for much of the world today).

Louganis has since worked as an advocate for people living with HIV, as well as for the human rights of the LGBT community, thus demonstrating his champion abilities extended from the diving board to the real world.

See also: Australian Sydney Olympic silver medallist, trampolinist Ji Wallace, who announced he was gay in 2005, and HIV-positive in August 2012, and who has since become another advocate for people living with HIV.

4: Renee Richards

One of the true pioneers of LGBTI sports, Renee Richards transitioned in 1975. She was subsequently denied entry to compete at the 1976 US Open Tennis championships. Richards contested this ban in the New York Supreme Court, which ruled in her favour, allowing her to compete at the 1977 US Open where, despite losing in first round singles, she made the women’s doubles final.

Richards continued to compete until 1981, rising as high as number 20 in the rakings (in February 1979). She may not have won a title, but in the period since she has won an enormous amount of respect for being a trailblazer for trans* participation in sports.

See also: Mianne Bagger, Danish born Australian resident, was the first trans* woman to play in a professional golf tournament at the Women’s Australian Open in 2004. She went on to qualify for and play on the European Women’s Golf Tour. Trans* Canadian athlete Michelle Dumaresq is another pioneer in this field, competing in the 2002, 2003 and 2004 World Mountain Biking Championships. And obviously Hannah Mouncey, who has bravely fought for inclusion in the AFL Women’s competition (and has played in the VFLW).

3: Louisa Wall

Wall made her international debut for the Silver Ferns in netball in 1988 at the age of just 17. Later, she went on to compete in international rugby union, coming out publicly as a lesbian prior to playing for the New Zealand team that won the women’s World Cup in 1998.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Wall entered Parliament in 2008, and it was her Private Member’s Bill which was eventually passed on 17 April 2013, making New Zealand the 13th country in the world to achieve marriage equality. That list of achievements is enough to make most people (this author included) feel pretty inadequate by comparison.

Louisa Wall MP and partner Prue Katea

Louisa Wall with partner Prue Katea celebrating passage of the NZ Marriage Amendment Bill

2: Ian Roberts

Looking back on it now, almost 20 years later, it is difficult to overstate the significance of Ian Roberts’ coming out – for so many people around the world (including for the author, who was 17, deeply in the closet and at a religious boarding school in Brisbane at the time).

The fact that someone who was one of the ‘hard men’ of rugby league, having played 9 State of Origin matches and 13 Tests for Australia, talked openly about being gay – and, importantly, who continued to play the game for another three years – was simply amazing.

At the time, it was also supposed to be a ‘game changer’, with Roberts opening the door for other gay or bisexual rugby league (and Australian rules) players to come out, too. In 2019, in Australia at least, none have followed in his footsteps, thus underscoring just how significant his original declaration was. Although, on a positive note, just this year we did see Andy Brennan become the first out A-League soccer player.

See also: While no other Australian top flight rugby league or Australian rules players have come out since Roberts retired, Welsh rugby union and rugby league dual captain (and British Lions captain to boot), Gareth Thomas came out as gay in 2009, prior to his rugby league international appearances.

1: Caster Semenya

Caster Semenya’s achievement on the track are beyond impressive:

  • Olympic gold medal winner in the 800m in London 2012 and Rio 2016
  • World champion in 2009, 2011 and 2017, as well as
  • Double gold medallist (800m and 1500m) at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

The fact that she has achieved this despite near-constant speculation about her (intersex) variations of sex characteristics, and ongoing attempts by the International Association of Athletics Federations to change the rules in a targeted way to make her ineligible to compete is nothing short of amazing. I sincerely hope that Semenya is successful in her current appeals against the ban, and that one day we simply look back on how brilliant she was as an athlete.

See also: Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who has also been affected by rules targeting female athletes with ‘hyperandrogenism’, and who has also confronted homophobia in her home country by announcing earlier this year she is in a same-sex relationship.