One of the last refuges of institutional homophobia takes a giant step into the 21st century on Saturday night with the inaugural AFL Pride match.
St Kilda’s AFL clash with Sydney will feature rainbow-coloured footballs, 50m arcs and umpire’s flags in an attempt to win over sexually diverse fans.
It’s a brave new world for the AFL – given the closest it’s come to a rainbow-themed round would be when early-era Fremantle in their purple, green and red guernseys hosted the brown and gold-clad Hawthorn.
Studies show there’s work to be done.
The largest research piece into homophobia in sport – the `Out on the Fields’ report released last year – paints a frightening picture for lesbian, gay and bisexual sport participants and fans.
More than half of respondents believe adult sport is “not safe” for sexually diverse people and eight in every ten respondents have seen or felt homophobia in sport.
It’s why St Kilda chief executive Matt Finnis wants the Pride match to be embraced, and not just tolerated by the industry.
Tolerance suggests an acceptance, and perhaps a reluctant one.
Pride means to celebrate.
“When you apply the pride label, you’re saying it’s a celebration,” he told AAP.
“That’s important because pride is the opposite of shame.
“No one should ever feel ashamed to come to the footy and hold their partner’s hand, or feel uncomfortable because of homophobic language.”
The Pride match is an adaptation of the grassroots Pride Cup championed by Yarra Glen football club and player Jason Ball.
Finnis says AFL players have driven the translation to AFL level.
“To our younger supporters and players, with an average age in the young 20s, sexual diversity is far more normalised than the generations that have gone before them,” he said.
“From Brock McLean and Dan Jackson being the first players to march at Pride with Jason Ball several years ago now … to Sam Gilbert fronting this pride game this weekend.
“It would be fair to say players have been at the forefront.”
Gilbert says the occasion “is all about making the game inclusive”.
“A lot of the LGBTIQ community don’t feel welcome at the football and they don’t get to enjoy our great game,” he said.
“At the 14, 15-year-old age bracket they start to drop out of football.
“Being someone that loves football, loves going to the football and loves sport in general it really struck a chord.”
Given hundreds of thousands of fans – either at Etihad Stadium or watching on the free-to-air broadcast – will see an AFL match in technicolour like never before, Finnis is expecting some backlash.
“It’s difficult to say what everyone’s reactions will be,” he said.
“We just hope what we can do through this game is to open people’s eyes to the importance of everyone being welcome.”
The Pride match follows in the footsteps of previous social inclusion campaigns, which has championed indigenous players and women in football.