St Kilda's Pride Game will take place Saturday, August 13. Photo: St Kilda Football Club
On Saturday, I am attending my first AFL game.
Until now, I have avoided AFL, associating it with unpleasant personal experiences with sport, as well as institutionalised homophobia, misogyny, sexism and racism. I'm hoping that this match will be different. It is the inaugural AFL Pride Game, between St Kilda Football Club and the Sydney Swans.
The game was devised to combat homophobia in sport and to promote inclusion, following the first international study on homophobia in sport, released in 2015. 'Out on the Fields' found that 87 per cent of gay male Australians who play sport are in the closet to some or all of their teammates, while 78 per cent of participants said that an openly gay, lesbian or bisexual person would not be very safe as a spectator at a sporting event.
With these statistics in mind, I feel excitement and fear over this groundbreaking Pride Game.
As a queer woman, I grew up associating sport with homophobia. At school, the sport field was where I first encountered homophobic language and behaviour. This was the place where students could call each other "homo", "fag" or "lezzie" without consequence.
Back then, I was unaware of my queer sexuality. The comments bothered me, but I didn't understand exactly what they meant. Something about the sound of them made my stomach tighten uncomfortably.
Sport was never a safe place for me, irrespective of the homophobia. Instead of strengthening my body and developing my flexibility, PE taught me to judge my body and hate it for its limitations.
After grappling with my sexuality for the rest of high school and during university, I met my partner and came out. We moved to Melbourne, where 'footy' culture is inseparable from identity. My colleagues' banter about footy confused me. I had no idea what they were talking about, and no interest in finding out.
I watched families heading to the MCG, rugged up in team merchandise, and couldn't understand their fierce allegiance. I had heard about sexual assault allegations, racist slurs and abuse and discrimination, sexism and homophobia. It made sense to avoid sport and its associated baggage.
Reactions to the Pride Game have varied from celebration to homophobic comments and protest. When I realised that so many people are opposed to the Pride Game and consider it unnecessary, I became even more convinced of its worth. Despite my initial nerves and misgivings, I decided to attend the game.
On the Herald Sun's article about the Pride Game, the comments ranged from claims that these issues are being shoved down people's throats, to arguments that the AFL has been hijacked by minority causes. "When's the straight round?", one fan wondered.
On The Footy Show in 2015, Sam Newman said, responding to the announcement about the 2016 Pride Game, "Why don't we have a boat people day next week or what about we have a transgender round and we'll get Caitlyn Jenner to sing at the Grand Final?"
The Australian Family Association, whose slogan is "One Man, One Woman, For Life," reported on their website that the "Homosexual lobby" has recruited the AFL. They have encouraged their supporters to post letters to AFL commissioners and their football clubs opposing the Pride Game, and suggest points to make in these letters. The email is a disturbing call to action, and draws on homophobic and transphobic sentiments and stereotypes. Spectators also found leaflets on their cars earlier this year, with the heading "Children deserve a mother and father."
The leaflets linked to an anti-marriage equality website, claiming, "By support for the same-sex attracted agenda with a Pride Game you are saying that you don't support natural marriage." Worse, the leaflet described same-sex parenting as "another stolen generation".
This is all cause for concern. I worry about protests or ugly comments in response to this Pride Game, just as the regular media debates over marriage equality have created an opportunity and platform for people to air hateful views.
Protests and hurtful campaigns have the potential to cause extreme damage to LGBTI people. Visibility is fantastic but also creates risk. Beyondblue's 2013 study into LGBTI people, mental health and suicide, found that discrimination and exclusion lead to elevated risk of mental ill-health and suicidality. Homophobia and transphobia, experienced by up to 80 per cent of same-sex attracted and gender-questioning young Australians, can become internalised.
This, combined with the lack of prominent role models and peer support, can cause significant mental distress. I strongly advise looking out for your LGBTI family and friends, at the match and generally, especially in the lead up to a plebiscite.
Simply adding a rainbow to a problematic brand doesn't fix the issues, and can be tokenistic or even pinkwashing. This time, though, it feels different. Despite the bigotry being expressed and its potential harm, there are some important benefits of this visibility.
Jason Ball, the openly gay Australian Rules footballer, LGBTI advocate and Greens politician, described the Pride Game as a "powerful gesture" at the Melbourne launch. "I think it'll give inspiration to people who have never come to the game of AFL before, have never been to a footy match...to feel that actually this can be something that they can take part in."
I see this Pride Game as an incredibly necessary, exciting and obvious sign of change. It tells us that even if some people's attitudes aren't changing, the systems are. Matt Finnis, St Kilda's chief executive, said of the game, "It's a historic moment, not just in AFL but in world sport."
I will be celebrating this game, which I will attend with my wife. It is her first AFL game, too, as she also had negative experiences with sport when she was growing up. When I think about the potential impact of the Pride Game, I remember myself as a young, unco-ordinated, and closeted schoolgirl. I know what the game would have signified to me.
Addressing LGBTI issues through sport reaches a wide audience. I think about the young people who will see this Pride Game – whether they go in person, sneak a peek on TV, or maybe even just see a poster advertising the match – and feel so happy when I imagine their pride.
Roz Bellamy is a writer, editor and teacher.