Sydney Swans AFL Pride Game 2021 guernsey

The Sydney Swans, a staunch supporter of the Pride Game, unveils its pride-themed guernsey to be worn for the first time. (Photo: Sydney Swans)

Sydney and St Kilda will play the sixth annual Pride Game with each year's iteration holding more significance than the last.

The Sydney Swans and St Kilda Saints will participate in the sixth annual Pride Game for premiership points tonight, marking a continued significance towards supporting the LGBTQIA+ community.

It started as a pre-season game at Drummoyne Oval in 2015 between the Sydney Swans and Fremantle Dockers. The progression of a now-annual event, the Pride Game, a motion started with an idea by the Swans, continues to mean so much to a community that needs to be seen and heard.

One year later, in 2016, the Pride Game became a regular season fixture on the AFL calendar, and since then has only grown in strength, and support.

Tonight, it marks the sixth annual event celebrating the community. Greater visual representation, a progressive marketing approach and club-lead initiatives leads to the game being highlighted in a positive light.

Such supporters of the Pride Game, the Sydney Swans’ official LGBTQIA+ supporter group Rainbow Swans, who were recognised by the club officially in 2015, have been a constant figure in the club taking the approach to this game’s purpose.

Rainbow Swans Chair Sarina Jackson, who also sits on the the Swans Diversity Action Panel, says the supporter base grew from humble beginnings in 2003 with a sole aim in mind: visibility for the LGBTQIA+ community.

“It (Rainbow Swans) started back in 2003 as a Yahoo group way back when Yahoo groups existed and things like Facebook and Instagram didn’t and then it sort of kept growing from there,” Jackson told The Inner Sanctum.

“Then in 2015, the club was listed as an official supporter group. Before that, it was not club sanctioned, it was just a bunch of people that got together.

“I guess our aim is to not be needed, apart from that just to have fun. Our aim was for visibility of the LGBTQIA+, the visuality for both the supporters and the club. So we’ve done quite a lot work with the club on its principles and also teaching the club about the community and why it’s so important that they embrace us, as well as the supporter base and the broader community.”

Giving back to the community is something the Rainbow Swans pride themselves on. While memberships are available to purchase, the money is used to give back to others, whether that be through sponsoring a player or a club in the form of guernseys. For the past two years, Rainbow Swans have sponsored women’s Aussie rules club the Newtown Breakaways‘ pride guernseys.

Rainbow Swans sponsored the Newtown Breakaways pride guernseys. (Photo: Sydney Swans)

Looking back on that first Pride Game in the 2015 pre-season against Fremantle, Jackson remembers it as a monumental moment in terms of the possibilities it presented going forward.

“Reading about it, it was pretty quiet to be honest,” she revealed.

“It was pretty quickly put together and [there] wasn’t a lot of hoo-ha about it so there wasn’t an opportunity for the diatribe and the social media hatred that came out [from] 2016.

“It kind of flew under the radar and, from where I sat, I think a lot of people thought, ‘people don’t care about it, it’s just going to happen’. And because it wasn’t an actual game, just a warm-up game at Drummoyne Oval, it was small but it was so much fun being there. The rainbow 50 metre line and the [goal] umpire’s flags, it was pretty cool to be there.”

Reflecting on the year following and the Pride Game fixture that would become a mainstay since 2016, Jackson says the initial reactions to the game underlined a tricky beginning. Thankfully, attitudes have changed as the years have wore on.

“The social media hatred that the Swans copped, there was people who handed their memberships in, the comments online, it was really horrible reading them,” Jackson said.

“Last year and this year, particularly this year, sort of looking at the comments on everything and there’s just not as many, in fact there’s been hardly any so the difference is remarkable.

“They’ve either just realized that they need to shut up or they’ve realized the Swans aren’t gonna stop or they’ve just come to their senses or the world is in a different place because we’ve all grown up a little.

“But for me, it’s just the fact that the Swans don’t listen to anybody[‘s negativity], the visibility is there, they keep doing it and it has changed the attitudes of quite a lot of the member base or it’s shut them up which is also good.”

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In 2021, the Pride Game takes another big step forward with its visual representation, Sydney and St Kilda both designing pride-themed guernseys to be worn in-game.

It follows previous visual aids that include incorporating the rainbow into signs and marketing, the 50m arc, the goal umpire’s flags, and uniforms with socks and guernsey numbers.

“I think the fact that the guernsey came out this year, it was just another big step forward,” Jackson said.

“We always had the warm-up [tops] and then the Swans played with the socks and that was kind of what the Swans had. So for me, it was that next step on visibility.

“Nike produced such a beautiful jumper and I just think it’s beautiful. I think they were the drive behind the jumper, they really wanted to take the next step with the Swans and the Swans sort of went ‘yeah, let’s do it’.

“And the Saints one, I should absolutely say that the Saints one this year is really special because they’ve got all the names of the Pride Cups entwined into the guernsey. I just think that’s pretty cool and pretty special, so they need to be really congratulated.

“But I think the fact that both teams took that step of doing something really special with their guernseys again, just shows the visibility, and the need rather than want. [I] just think it was that next step and they’re really proud of it and both teams should be.”

St Kilda previews its pride-themed guernsey ahead of the Pride Game. (Photo: St Kilda Saints)

That difference between need and want has played on the mind of Jackson, the Rainbow Swans and other LGBTQIA+ supporter groups, as she described.

“I was having a conversation with another person at the Swans and we were talking about how long we need to have these games and there was a difference between ‘how long do we need to have the games?’ and ‘how long do we want to have the games?’,” Jackson said..

“And we need to have the games for as long as people tell us that we shouldn’t be having these games. And once we get to that point, we want to have the games as a celebration.

“So it’s funny, I don’t know whether we’re near that point where we’re needing to or wanting to. When you look at the statistics, we still need the game. We don’t want it, we still need it. So it’s one of those things.”

An important factor for Jackson and Rainbow Swans is the willingness from the Sydney Swans to look to understand and engage with the LGBTQIA+ community and what a Pride Game, and pride-inspired actions, mean to them.

“As an organisation we’re really thankful that we have a club that is so supportive of the community,” Jackson said.

She pointed to a video posted by Sydney which was posted in the lead-up to the game that saw players read out what this game, and the guernsey meant for members of Rainbow Swans, including Jackson herself.

“A few people got asked ‘what does his guernsey mean to them?’ and I wrote back, and I saw Isaac Heeney online yesterday read out what I wrote and I cried.

“It’s because, the [guernsey], it represents me and the community and my family. Knowing that I support a club – and I’m very passionate about the Swans – but that I support a club that is so community-minded and that are leaders, they put their beliefs off the field and on the field but they lead and it’s not just sport, it means so much to so many people.”

Providing additional information regarding the Swans enthusiasm for learning and building that knowledge internally and externally, Jackson says the club and its employees are respectful and understanding.

The Sydney Swans, through their work with the LGBTQIA+ community in 2017, won an Australian LGBTI Award in the Community Initiative/Charity category. The Swans also regularly march at Mardi Gras and is believed to be the first professional sporting team to enter a float in the parade.

“Two years ago we went in and spoke to the players before the game and we went in and spoke to the players about why this meant so much to us,” Jackson said.

“And they were all really understanding of that and they all came over after we spoke and said ‘oh that was just awesome, thank you so much’ and they understood what it meant.

“Then to have something, that next step, reading those things out, it was… again, it was the club showing what it means and explaining what it means so that the players get it.”

The struggles that have been apparent with COVID-19 limiting crowds and social interactions in public has been felt within a group who so regularly gets together in their support of the club, this game and themselves.

Although no crowds are allowed at tonight’s game, and Sydneysiders locked into their homes, Jackson says there’s still plans to get together, albeit virtually.

“Obviously this year has been limited in numbers,” she explained.

“We started [going out] and we went to some games but now everyone’s sitting at home. As a group it’s been really hard to have that feeling of connectedness and I know that’s really hard for some people.

“Tonight we’re having pride trivia leading into the game, so we’re all going to get on and catch up and have a bit of a Zoom and see each other and go ‘wow, this is football Mardi Gras’ sorta thing. Then the Swans have got a formal webinar before [the game], and then we’ll watch the game.”

Jackson sincerely hopes the continued fixture of the Pride Game and its gathering of support each season contributes to heightened talks of extending the game into a Pride Round in the AFL and getting more teams involved, similar to what the AFL Women’s competition does each year.

“You have a look at the AFLW and then you just sort of go ‘so what’s the big deal, there’s just no big deal here’,” she points out.

“We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way. We’ve really come so far to wait, but we still have a long way to go.

“It is another game of football, we just celebrate something different and it’s great.”

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