AFL Pride Game Reclaims the Football Field for the LGBTQ Community

Saints First Casual Pre-game gathering (Photo Credit: Saints Pride Group)

“Pride is the opposite of shame.”

What might seem like just a useful reminder to you or I is so much more to one Australian football team.

According to a media release on the St. Kilda Saints' website, the saying is also one main reason why they’re helping to make history by taking part in the Australian Football League’s (AFL) first ever Pride Game.

“Finnis said the Saints were committed to this game because ‘pride’ is the opposite of ‘shame’ and that St Kilda firmly believes that communities can only thrive when all people belong," reads part of the release.

It has taken the AFL awhile to reach this point.

In 2012, Jason Ball became the first Australian rules player to come out as gay.

In a conversation with Queens Free Press, he says he hadn’t been expecting the story to get “great coverage,” but since no one was out, it did.

Around that time, Ball created a petition, asking the AFL to start hosting a Pride Game to both celebrate the role that the LGBTQI community plays in the game, and to also reach out to certain communities that didn’t always feel welcomed.

Two years later, in 2014, his football club launched the Pride Cup. The 50 m line on the field was painted rainbow to celebrate.

Those involved in the Pride Cup also made an effort to keep the conversation going off the field. For example, Ball notes that they developed an education package which was rolled out to both players and coaches. They divided it up so the players, coaches and club presidents received different briefings. For players, they tried to get them to understand the significance of symbols, and the challenges that the LGBTQI community faces in sports.

“We wanted them to feel empowered to have those conversations,” explains Ball.

The briefing for coaches emphasized the role that coaches play in shaping the attitudes of the young men they work with and mentor. It also encouraged coaches to take a stand against homophobic language and homophobic behavior in football clubs.

“I guess it’s been building from that, the inspiration for the Pride match,” explains Ball.

This is a moment that will go down in AFL history, but Ball doesn’t want to see it stop there.

“I think that this is a fantastic first step for the two clubs involved,” he says, “I think the next step will be for the AFL to take a bit more of a leading role.” He continues, noting that most of the initiatives till this point have been driven by others, and mentions that he would like to see the AFL donate resources to the LGBTQI community in the same way it donates resources to Australia’s indigenous communities and women.

Though there’s still some work to be done, Ball says that the players have been responding well to the efforts to increase awareness of LGBTQI issues in the AFL. Efforts to raise awareness about the impact of homophobic language have been having a particularly huge impact, he says. Players are becoming more aware of the effects of homophobia and homophobic language, and see how homophobia can make it harder to “grow the game.”

And if they’re looking to “grow the game,” the LGBT community is “ripe for the picking,” according to Ball.

There's also still some work to be done at the administrative level within football clubs, where Ball says you can still find members of the “old guard” who believe that sexuality is a “private matter” that has nothing to do with sports.

Those involved with the Pride Game are prepared to show those members of the “old guard” just how wrong they are. For organizers, it’s not just a “private matter.” It has very real implications for not only the game, but also the community-at-large. “It’s actually about celebrating diversity and the benefits that that brings towards sport and the community,” says Ball.

And the St. Kilda Saints and Sydney Swans were fully prepared to remind people of this fact when they took to the field on Saturday, July 13th,  for the Pride Game.

“St. Kilda is really taking it to the next level, but they’re certainly paying tribute to the fact that this was something which came from the grass-roots,” says Jason Ball.

The Saints aren’t doing it alone. They have help.

Saints Pride is one of several LGBTQI supporter groups that has been created to support these new LGBTQI-friendly efforts in the AFL.

Saints Pride Logo (Photo Credit: Saints Pride Group)

Saints Pride Logo (Photo Credit: Saints Pride Group)

 

“We’re a very fresh group…Essentially we’re established to support the Pride Games and the concept, and to provide a human element to the concept,” explains Brett Stirling, the chairman of Saints Pride. As part of these efforts, the group hosts casual get-togethers at a bar inside the stadium, and worked to support other efforts related to the Pride Game. In the future, they hope to have functions organized around the Pride March, the Midsummer Festival in Melbourne, and, of course, next year’s Pride Game.

Saints First Casual Pre-game gathering (Photo Credit: Saints Pride Group)

Saints First Casual Pre-game gathering (Photo Credit: Saints Pride Group)

 

“Once we get over the Pride Game…we’ll move into long-term planning,” Stirling says, “One of the biggest things we’re working toward is becoming an official supporter group.  At the moment we’re unofficial.” Somewhat related, Stirling expresses an interest in eventually having his group included in the “President’s Circle.” Such an opportunity which would make it easier for the group to have more direct communication with AFL management.

Though they’re an unofficial group, they’ve had little trouble getting support. For example, Stirling notes that the group’s Facebook page gained 240 members in a 24 hour period. Also worth noting is the fact that the group recently hosted a fundraiser on GoFundMe, where 21 people donated to help raise $910.00—100% of the group’s fundraising goal—in 12 days. Going forward, the group hopes to have sponsorships that’ll also help with fundraising.

When asked what the group planned to do with the funds, Stirling mentions plans to donate to LGBTQI programs in the community. For example, he mentions an interest in making a donation to Stand Up Events –a program that works to address homophobia in sports.

Stirling has unique insight on the issue of homophobia in sports. He sits on a panel where he has shared his experiences as a gay man attending football matches, and he says that players have approached him after panel talks to discuss the matter further.

The road to the Pride Game was not always smooth for the Saints or Saints Pride. Stirling mentions that it has been difficult to form committees within the group, and then gather together for meetings, but they have eventually been able to get it all sorted and divide up the work.

The group has also encountered those who are opposed to the Pride Game. That obstacle has been a bit harder to work through.

“We talked about it internally. We haven’t had the opportunity to address it directly,” says Stirling, “To be honest it’s to be expected.  Marriage equality has been quite a hot topic of debate…But we’re fairly confident that’s a minority.” Ultimately, Stirling mentions that the group would like to try to change the conversation on LGBTQI issues.

He hopes to start the conversation with the Pride Game.

“Hopefully people will reflect on how they feel and what their values are and what they want to be represented by,” he says. Later on in our interview, Stirling elaborates on the point. “We’ve always said that AFL has been a great social equalizer so I think it’s an opportunity to just reassess what that community is and who do we want to include in it,” says Stirling of the Pride Game, “We want to be open to everyone.  It’s an important social progression.”

For Pat Miller of the Blue Roos (the LGBTQI group tied to the North Melbourne Kangaroos), this all started with a group of friends who were watching football together. After seeing what Jason Tuazon-McCheyne had accomplished in his work with the Purple Bombers (another LGBTQI group, connected to the Essendon Football Club), they thought that it was time to formalize their group as well.

“We approached the club in terms of setting us up,” he says. He continues, noting that there is now “more connectivity” between the LGBTQI groups that are tied to each football club.

“I’d be very surprised if all the clubs within the league didn’t have a similar group within the next 18 months,” he says of the growing movement.

While Saints Pride has relied on some fundraising efforts to help with their expenses, Miller says that a “modest membership fee” has been sufficient for the Blue Roos. If they ever did do any fundraising, Miller says it would be to support the club’s community outreach efforts.

It does help that the Roos have the support of their football club, which has provided them with tickets to games from time to time. They also tend to rely on the professional networks of their members.

“We’re one of the more inner-city clubs, and we’re very keen on providing an access point to football for the younger professionals,” explains Miller.

The Roos do organize social functions, but most of their energy is devoted to game-related activities.

“We don’t really have much of a track record in terms of large-scale events,” explains Miller, “The games themselves are big enough events and we try to just focus around that.” For example, they’ve had “social catch-ups” at most games. In general, Miller says that the LGBTQI community is “well-served” in terms of community events, but hopes that his group will have a presence at “The Festival”—an Australian arts festival.

Players from the Melbourne Kangaroos have taken notice of the work being done by the Blue Roos.

“There has been some engagement,” says Miller. In the future, he hopes to set up a program where a player will be an ambassador.

In the future, Miller also hopes to host a football clinic with the players. “We’re very aware that a number of the community were ostracized from the game during their teenage years,” he says. Miller sees the clinic as an opportunity to help remedy that situation by allowing community engagement with the game, and providing members of the community with a chance to work on their basic football skills.

Brett Stirling says that football is a “great equalizer,” and Pat Miller can definitely speak to that.

When asked to describe a particularly positive or memorable experience he has had, working with the Blue Roos, he thinks back to a time when a bunch of people from the group went out to a local gay bar. They were all wearing [team] “supporter clothes,” and according to Miller, it became a “focal point to start a conversation.”

It was an “overwhelmingly positive conversation starter,” says Miller.

But even though starting the conversation is no object, Miller says that the greatest challenge they’ve faced has been exposure—making sure that they’re reaching everyone who should be reached, and making sure that people feel comfortable joining.

Deborah Konopnicki & Nathan Miller of the Ruby Demons (the LGBTQI group tied to the Melbourne Demons) echo Brett Stirling’s sentiments on the importance of inclusion. “We’re just in the infancy of our group, but our hope and aim is to foster an environment that is welcoming of not only LGBTIQ people, but anyone from our community who is looking for a safe space to be themselves amongst other Melbourne Football Club fans (MFC),” explains Konopnicki.

Ruby Demons Logo (Photo Credit: Ruby Demons)

Ruby Demons Logo (Photo Credit: Ruby Demons)

 

As the group is still in its infancy, they’ve not organized any functions as of yet, but Konopnicki mentions that they have provided assistance to other AFL Pride Groups with their functions. Going forward, they are hoping to start monthly catch-ups with members, as well as game-day meetups

“We want to plan something fabulous for the pre-season as well, so stay tuned!” urges Konopnicki.

Though in their infancy, the Ruby Demons have already started building relationships with MFC players.

“We have contacted a few players and the response has been positive,” says Konopnicki, “The three of us that started the group (Myself, Nathan and Daniel) all played a half-time football match together at the MCG, and an ex-player called David Neitz was there (he also happens to be one of the all-time greats of the Melbourne Football Club and AFL) and was very supportive of the group.”

Group photo with David Neitz (Photo Credit:Amy Hespe)

Group photo with David Neitz (Photo Credit:Amy Hespe)

 

The players support the group, and the group supports each other.

“Well, getting to spend time with Melbourne supporters is always a pleasure,” says Konopnicki, “But there is something so comforting about spending time with people that understand the social and sometimes political issues surrounding your sexuality.” She continues, noting that, “There seems to be a deeper level of understanding with one-another, and that’s why I think it’s so important for groups like this to exist. It fosters a really sense of community.”

While Saints Pride has encountered some who are opposed to their work, Konopnicki mentions that the Demons have been pretty fortunate and haven’t faced any serious opposition.

Their response to any negativity they have faced is a useful lesson for us all.

“Our response to any negatively is to keep on going. To grow in numbers and be proud of who we are,” says Konopnicki.

And the Pride Game makes it that much easier for them to do exactly that.

“The community really needs a game like this. It’s a message to the rest of Australia that we are people who love the game and want to be (as Aussie’s would say) ‘given a fair go’,” explains Konopnicki, “I don’t think that people outside the community really understand the negative effects that institutionalized discrimination can have on people.”

Konopnicki sees the ways the Pride Game benefits the community, but it holds deep, personal meaning for her as well. “I’ve been with my wife for six years, and last year we were married in front of our friends and family.,” she says, ”While it’s not recognized as ‘marriage’ yet in Australia, a game like this tells me that I matter and I am supported. What a supremely powerful message.”

In some ways, the Pride Game couldn’t  have happened at a better time.  Same-sex marriage is currently a hot topic of conversation in Australia. It is prohibited under Australia’s 1961 Marriage Act, but currently there are efforts to amend the act to allow for it. The issue is being debated, with some wanting the issue to be decided by national plebiscite, and others wanting the issue to be decided in Parliament.

“It’s really a pointless exercise,” says Jason Ball of the plebiscite. For one thing, he notes that the results would be non-binding on MPs and you would still need a parliamentary vote. He also notes that having their lives subject to a vote would be damaging to the mental health and well-being of the LGBTQI community.

In other words, if Australia were to decide on marriage equality with a plebiscite, what you would see would be Australia taking a huge two steps forward with the Pride Game, then one gigantic step backwards.

Those involved with the Pride Game are intent on just looking to the future, and looking for ways to change the conversation.

They also have thoughts on how we might change the conversation here in the US.

First, though we have legalized same-sex marriage here in the US, it isn’t always easy for LGBTQI youth who are to trying to find themselves. According to statistics provided by PFLAG NYC, gay teens are 8.4 times more likely to report that they have attempted suicide and are 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression.

Pat Miller encourages LGBTQI youth to talk to people. He reminds them that they’re not alone and that help is out there if they reach out for it.

“In many ways, I hope that the Pride Round is a symbol of that,” he says.

Brett Stirling’s advice is inspired by his personal experiences.

“For someone who experienced it when I was going through my teenage years, it’s important to really find good supporters,” he says. He encourages youth to find that shoulder to cry on, or that thoughtful ear to listen in a time of need.

“Hold on to those special friends and be strong,” he says.

Also, though we have legalized same-sex marriage there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to increasing LGBTQI inclusion and visibility in sports, presumably because, as Wikipedia notes, “Heteronormativity can be seen as the dominant paradigm in sports culture.”

Pat Miller suggests re-framing the conversation on LGBTQI inclusion in sports.

“The key to it for us…is that it’s about the person’s achievement as an athlete and as a sports person,” he says, “As long as that’s the primary story…We’re talking about normalcy, about normalizing the experience.”

“Not saying that it’s easy, but if you don’t equip people who are going to have problems with it with actual reasons to have problems with it, then the battle is done,” he continues.

It’s so hard to write a conclusion to a story that really seems like it is only just beginning. Many thought that the AFL would never see this moment, and yet it finally came.

(Oh, and for those who were wondering, the Sydney Swans beat St. Kilda Saints by 70 points.)

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