SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 07: A general view is seen of player Pride round socks on the 50m line paint before the round two AFLW match between the Greater Western Sydney Giants and the Adelaide Crows at Blacktown International Sportspark on February 07, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images via AFL Photos)

The AFLW has been a competition that has broken down many barriers in its short existence. The waves it continues to make within the LGBTQIA+ communities are a clear sign it is leading the way in Australian sport.

I first realised I was bisexual in my mid-teens.

Around the same time, I knew there was another feeling there.

I have never felt quite as masculine as I was ‘supposed to’, but I also never quite felt traditionally feminine either. I always felt like I was somewhere quite in the middle, but I had absolutely zero idea there was a term for this.

That would come almost 10 years later when I finally discovered the term non-binary, and it was also the time I began identifying as pansexual.

Even still, it took me several years after discovering the term non-binary before I felt comfortable identifying as such. As a masculine-presenting non-binary human, identifying as such has its challenges.

Constant pronoun corrections and explanations, feeling like a fraud because I cannot look on the outside how I feel on the inside, and the judgments that come with being non-binary in general, whether that is from a lack of understanding, general ignorance and the unwillingness to learn, or other discriminatory behaviour.

How does this impact sport?

Homophobia, Transphobia, and other discrimination against members of the LGBTQIA+ community have been littered throughout the history of the sport by players and fans alike. From ostracising to verbal abuse, and to physical abuse, it has all happened on and off the field. Sport is supposed to unite us, to bring us all together, and to cheer for our team together.

Pride nights/rounds are a way to help correct this. It is a way to help show members of the LGBTQIA+ community who have experienced years of abuse just wanting to be part of something they love that they are accepted by the team they love and that they can attend sporting events and be their genuine selves.

There is a fine line to manage between a pride round being a genuine event of importance and not having it come off as a tokenistic event.

On the surface, many teams and organisations claim to be supportive of the LGBTQIA+ community, and some genuinely are and have a lot of evidence to back that up, through holding things like pride nights and getting out into the community to do charity work with LGBTQIA+ organisations.

But there are also teams and sporting bodies that contradict those actions, and this is where the tokenism comes in. It is fine to have rainbow and pride-themed jumper designs, and wear rainbow laces and socks and express support once a year, but long-term commitments and support needs to back that up, which is something that is lacking from certain teams and organisations across the sport.

More AFLW News

The faces of AFLW Pride Round

AFLW Pride Round: See your club’s pride jumper for this weekend

AFLW Round 2: Who flew under the radar?

The Fans

It is all well and good for me to tell my story, but the reality is I’m not a fan of Australian Rules Football at any level. The sport I most associate with, football, and the A-Leagues, does not have a pride round. I do not have a strong connection with any team as a fan in the AFL or AFLW outside of a soft spot for the Sydney Swans. What needs to be told is the story of the fans who love the sport of Australian Rules and support an AFLW side, and what this round means to them as well as the others who are there week in and week out.

The Inner Sanctum spoke to three fans, Nikki, Matt, and George, on a multitude of subjects related to pride round to get that fan experience and understanding which is needed.

On what pride round means?

Nikki – “Pride round means a lot more than I can put into words. It’s celebrating diversity and reminding people that everyone is welcome in this safe environment. It’s a chance to celebrate who we are and break some barriers that football has had previously.”

Matt – “That I’m accepted in the AFLW community. Going to football when I was younger, trying to understand who I was in terms of my gender and my sexuality, I didn’t always feel comfortable at men’s football, because obviously, it’s far more aggressive of an environment in the crowd, (and) people have a history in the men’s football of making homophobic comments and micro-aggressions that make everyone who doesn’t identify as a cis-het man at football uncomfortable.

“I found the environment at women’s football was far more welcoming and so now to have an official pride round where almost every single club is wearing a pride-themed guernsey just shows me I am welcome at the football and I’m able to come there and be my authentic self, be non-binary, be open about my pronouns, and not have to worry about being thrown out by an angry crowd or being heckled by a supporter behind me. I can go there and feel safe with people in my community.”

George – “I think it’s super exciting to see the rainbow community visible in the media. The attention that we get over that week is a comfort I would say to a number of people in the community that they can be visible and celebrated and there’s always been such negative media attention around the LGBT community. To have so much positive attention is a turning point in the right direction.

On what it’s like knowing AFLW players feel comfortable to come out and express who they are?

Nikki – “It’s been incredibly inspiring and heart-warming. I came out at a time when being gay was still not widely accepted and you were judged. To see the AFLW players comfortable and confident with who they are is a testament to how far we’ve come but also how much support is out there that players don’t feel the need to hide who they truly are.”

Matt – “It’s meant the world. Obviously, the sport hasn’t been the most welcoming environment for queer people. In terms of having openly queer women’s footballers, not only for me is it amazing, but I know it’s amazing for younger queer people because it gives them role models. I know so many young queer people who have struggled to be open about who they are and to come out because they haven’t had the role models in their lives.

“They haven’t been able to look on TV or in the media and see people like them. To have two openly non-binary athletes, to have a myriad of openly different queer athletes in the AFLW, for me, it makes me so proud to be an AFLW fan, and then for the queer community at large I know it’s so great for young queer people to have role models like that.”

George – “I’ve loved it from day dot, in seeing Erin Philips, I think always that pivotal moment in the first season where she turned to her wife and gave her a kiss after winning the best and fairest set the tone for the rest of the league. That it was comfortable and being yourself is to be celebrated. I think AFLW has done that miles better than AFLM ever has, so it’s been a fantastic role model for women in sport and people in the sport too.

On the importance of Tori-Groves Little and Darcy Vescio feeling comfortable in being able to express their gender identity.

Nikki – “It’s extremely important that Tori and Darcy feel comfortable enough to share with the world who they truly are and the love and support from the AFLW community is testament to that. It shows the rest of the world how important support, kindness, and inclusion is to help everyone freely be themselves without the fear of being judged or rejected. We have come a very long way in the last couple of years. We still have a long way to go obviously.”

Matt – “It’s so important. Sometimes it’s easier for us on the outside as queer fans to be very vocal about who we are, to wave our flags at games, and talk about our identities and what we’ve been through because we are within our community. Everyone around us within the queer supporter group is also queer or they’re an ally and so it’s naturally a safe space for queer people and we’ve built it as such.

“But for the players themselves, to see two players, Tori and Darcy, to come out as non-binary and be open about their identity and pronouns and to see the AFLW community embrace them, especially the commentary teams making the conscious efforts to use their pronouns correctly when calling games, it just sends the signal to so many gender diverse people watching the game that we are welcome in these spaces, we are welcome in the wider football community, and we are actually valid in our identities and our pronouns are to be respected.”

George – “I think it’s fantastic to see them be able to come out and show who they truly are and that they’re supported by not just the AFLW community but by the AFL community and by the wider community as well. I’m sure there were some negative comments but that’s been completely blown away by the positive support that they’ve seen and I think it will pave the way for the next generation of people to just be themselves and be comfortable with themselves.

“And having the language to describe it as well, because there’s not a lot of promotion around the language, and seeing it out there makes other people more comfortable to be themselves.”

On what needs to be done to get pride round to a point where it does not feel tokenistic in nature for those who feel that it is?

Nikki – “I’ve had a couple of people suggest that to me actually. The build-up to pride round I think needs to emphasise that the round is celebrating all things LGBTIQA+ and acknowledging the struggles of the past that the community has gone through being accepted into society. As well as the huge contribution LGBTIQA+ people prove to society.

It has become part of the AFLW fixture and it’s a welcome part of the AFLW community. Much like in the AFL men’s as well (as in the) AFLW competition that there is an Indigenous round.”

Matt – “I think it starts by not making it exclusively an AFLW round. Almost every other round that we have in the AFLW has a counterpart in the men’s competition. We have seen a couple of male AFL players appearing in club promotional material, Joel Selwood for example at the Geelong Cats (in the) pride video announcing their guernsey and their pride initiatives.

“I think what takes it away from being a tokenistic thing is when the men’s competition gets on board as well and shows that despite having no openly queer players the AFL men’s competition is a safe space for any player in the future who might be openly queer or any player who is currently closeted and might want to come out in the coming years.

“I think once we see the AFL as a whole (and) not just the AFLW get on board with pride round, I think people will actually realise that there is an importance to wearing a guernsey for example, and not just to trend. It’s not just about changing your profile picture for pride round and putting a rainbow behind your club logo. It’s about actually taking the steps to make sure that queer fans, staff, and players feel welcome in your club and the wider AFL community.”

George – “We saw it in AFLM with the Indigenous round when that was just Dreamtime at the ‘G. When it then spread out to the whole league doing it across the board and everyone was on board, it no longer looked tokenistic. So, when we see pride round being celebrated across all the AFLW teams, but then having that then filter through to all AFL clubs I think will show that it’s no longer tokenistic, that they mean it.

On whether more teams doing what some have done this year by adding the trans flag to the guernsey as opposed to just the colours of the rainbow flag help.

Nikki – “I think definitely that all clubs who are adding the trans flag to their design is a huge step. I would love to see the designs next year also include all the flags that represent the entire LGBTQIA+ community.

The rainbow flag is recognisable and iconic so now is the perfect time to feature and include all flags for representation. A lot of clubs do feature the trans colours on their guernseys this year. That’s an amazing step in the right direction.”

Matt – “I really would love to see every club start to incorporate the other pride flags, especially trans and gender diverse pride flags into their guernsey designs. One of the clubs who’s had the most progress in terms of representing other pride flags has been the Western Bulldogs, with one of their pride guernseys having almost all of the pride flags I could imagine on there.

“The rainbow flag is obviously an important symbol within the queer community, and it represents a lot of identities, but we have a lot further to go for trans and gender diverse people.

“We’re having a big discussion around the world when it comes to trans athletes and respect for trans identities, and so I think not just having the rainbow flag, which is obviously amazing, but to have open support of gender diverse people with the trans flag, the non-binary flag, it would be amazing to see clubs start to incorporate those flags and I think that might come with time as well.”

George – “I think it’s a conversation point. That’s what the round is. It’s about educating those who aren’t sure, and it’s not educating them because they’re being ignorant. It’s because they haven’t had exposure to it.

“To be able to educate more people on the language around it is a positive opportunity. I think one of the teams a couple of years ago did have a couple of different flags, and now the trans flag is quite common on a lot of people’s jumpers. I think anything that provides the opportunity for education is a positive thing.

Besides things like including the trans flags on guernsey designs, how can the AFL and AFLW get better at reaching out to the trans community and making them feel more included?

Nikki – “Representation is great as is recognition but the AFL as a league needs to do more to stamp out the blatant homophobia and transphobia that is still rife amongst the sport. You see the comments by trolls on their socials and very rarely are these comments made an example of. We know that racism is zero tolerance and homophobia and transphobia should be no different.”

Matt – “I think it starts with a conversation. One of the things that I’ve loved being an Adelaide Crows fan is that the club has been wanting to talk to us as the Rainbow Crows. They’ve had members of our group come into the club and speak to the AFLW players, and I think that’s the first step for a lot of clubs is welcoming trans and gender diverse into the club to talk about the issues that are exclusively facing gender diverse people.

“You can talk about it as much as you want, you can have representatives of the community heading in but until you have members of the community themselves speaking to clubs and telling them this is what we need, this is how we’re going to feel included and accepted in the community, we won’t get anywhere.

“It’s the small things as well like we’ve had at Adelaide Crows home games, we’ve asked that the announcement and PA team say, ‘Welcome everyone’ as opposed to ‘Welcome ladies and gentlemen.’ It’s small things like that, that most people would think would go unnoticed but for gender diverse people it is something you hear, and you go ‘That was for me and I’m welcome here.’”

George – “It’s a tricky one in that they originally received so much negative attention around the draft and trans players being excluded from the draft. I’m not sure, I think a bit of it will come back to the grassroots level, setting the right example from the top of the chain to be able to filter back down to the grassroots level (and) making all football clubs an inclusive place.

“The discussions and having it as a topic of conversation where people can be educated is going to change people’s mind and open up doors for opportunities.”

Given what has happened recently with Adelaide United footballer Josh Cavallo, how long do you think it is before we see a men’s AFL player come out as gay, bi, or even non-binary?

Nikki – “I think in the next couple of years there will be another shift in acceptance. Josh Cavallo coming out has been huge for Australian sport and culture, unfortunately, we have also seen examples of how far we have to go with fans accepting and being respectful. Once an AFL player comes out it will start the conversations that need to be had. Much like mental health conversations that are being had.”

Matt – “I think it’s only a matter of time. For a lot of people to say it’s if a player comes out, I don’t think it’s an if, I think it’s a when. I think the big thing at the moment is how Josh Cavallo has been treated in the A-League (Men’s). There’s been much more positivity around Josh’s coming out than there has been negativity. Obviously recently with the Melbourne Victory incident where Josh was homophobically abused at a game, that doesn’t send a great signal to closeted athletes, both in the A-League (Men’s) and other sports, especially the AFL.

“I think AFL especially has this boys club culture and that’s come from the top of the organisation. The executives have always been very boyish about each other. It’s been a tough space for women and queer people and minorities within the AFL executive (environment) and that has trickled down to clubs and to the playing culture in general.

“I think what has to happen for us to have openly queer AFL players is to stop weeding out and kicking out openly queer players in the state leagues and local leagues around the country. Multiple queer communities have footballers around the country. There are openly queer footballers playing in state and local leagues, but until those players feel comfortable pursuing AFL and putting in the time and effort to become senior AFL men’s players, it’s not just going to be a matter of finding the one closeted queer player that’s in the league at the moment.

“We need to start from the grassroots and make it clear that at every level of the game, football is open to anyone and anyone can make their way into the AFL.

George – “Isn’t everyone just surprised that it hasn’t happened yet? Surely someone along the history of AFLM has been. You would like to hope that the AFL football clubs are open and supportive and you see the culture shifts and I think we saw the culture shift at Richmond in that it’s a club first then it’s a family environment and you look after each other, that people would feel comfortable coming out, so hopefully, it’s not too far away.”

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