Pride Games for good sports
Through the Pride Cup footy matches, sport’s powerful ability to capture our attention is leading the way for better LGBTI inclusion both on the sporting field and within the wider community.
Growing up, Jason Ball was faced with a heartbreaking choice: continue playing the game he adored while pretending to be someone he wasn’t, or walk away from the footy field altogether.
‘I loved playing football but it felt like it was the one place I’d never be accepted.'
‘People used names like “faggot” and “poofter”, from the stands, the opposition, even my own teammates – it was considered normal.’
In this sports-loving nation, the discomfort felt by members of the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community on the field and even in the stands continues to be an issue. With support from VicHealth, Ball is working to challenge the status quo. It’s a tough task.
Research by La Trobe University found almost three out of five Aussie Rules fans had witnessed homophobic or transphobic slurs at matches. Almost half thought AFL games were not safe places for LGBTI people.
‘Much of local cultural life is viewed through the prism of sport, the club is often the epicentre of the town, so to feel excluded as a fan, a supporter or a player further compounds negative mental health outcomes for LGBTI people,’ says Ball.
VicHealth Chief Executive Officer Jerril Rechter agrees. ‘We know that inclusion is fundamental to good health and wellbeing for everyone and that a sense of exclusion – from sport or society generally – has contributed to LGBTI people having some of the poorest mental health outcomes in Australia,’ she says.
In 2012, Ball took a gamble and came out as gay to his teammates at Yarra Glen Football Club. To his relief, his teammates embraced him. The club went on to hold Australia’s first ever Pride Cup, a match with rainbow flags and kits galore, to show their support for their teammate and for the wider LGBTI community.
In the years since, Pride Cup Australia, co-founded by Ball and James Lolicato and backed by VicHealth, the St Kilda Football Club and the Sydney Swans, has helped bring that message of inclusion to tens of thousands of AFL fans watching the annual Pride Games between the clubs at the grounds and on television.
In February 2018, Carlton and the Western Bulldogs played the AFLW’s inaugural Pride Cup. The match arguably had even greater resonance in the context of the AFLW which has a number of players who identify as gay. When the match was announced, Carlton CEO Ameet Bains said:
‘The Pride Game is about inclusiveness, understanding and celebrating gender diversity and supporting the LGBTIQ community, but it’s also about celebrating the challenges these women have overcome to create the thriving AFLW competition which you see today.’
La Trobe University research from the AFL’s 2016 Pride Game saw the proportion of non-LGBTI people willing to say something when friends used homophobic language increase from 62 per cent before the match to 67 per cent after the match.
The Pride Cup has certainly been a success, but to turbo-boost the program, VicHealth and Pride Cup Australia are now working on a toolkit that will enable community sporting clubs across Victoria to take the initiative when it comes to LGBTI inclusion.
To be launched in early 2019, it will provide a simple ‘how to’ guide for clubs wanting to hold a Pride Cup game.
VicHealth Chief Executive Officer Jerril Rechter says being part of the push to increase the number of Pride Cup games makes sense for the organisation.
‘Part of our remit is improving health and wellbeing outcomes through sport so for us it’s a win-win; we have good relations with sport, we understand sport, and this is how we can support sport to be more welcoming and inclusive.
‘The Pride Game sends a message to members of the LGBTI community that they are welcome and safe in footy, and provides opportunities for clubs to open a conversation about how they can be more inclusive and offer that positive environment for players, members and supporters.’
Ball explains that Pride Cup matches are about more than a game of football, and that the new toolkit will help clubs generate community education as part of local Pride Cup matches.
‘At one match, a transgender guy shared his story with everyone, in Geelong there was a player who came out. It’s so powerful to see other people’s stories being shared to build understanding and acceptance.’
St Kilda Sharks women’s football team member Emily Rowe played in a Pride Cup match earlier this year and has seen what sport can do to bring together people from diverse backgrounds.
‘Football is a huge part of my life, but I was also using it to affirm a masculine identity that didn’t belong to me. It was important for me to explore football for who I am, rather than who I was expected to be.’
When she approached the president of a previous team to explain that she was transitioning gender, it was the first time he had met someone who was transgender.
‘Without getting to meet people individually it can be challenging for them to see we’re just like everyone else,’ says Rowe.
‘Once we’d had that conversation, he then brought the conversation to his dinner table, that everyone can be accepting of transgender people.’
New toolkit helps clubs
What began in Yarra Glen has now expanded to the top echelons of the AFL, with the Saints and Swans staging their third annual Pride Cup game in June 2018.
The La Trobe research conducted after the inaugural 2016 Pride Cup match found that following attendance at the match, there was an increase in the number of non-LGBTI fans who said they would call out homophobia and transphobia.
The toolkit aims to harness that awareness and bring it to as many grassroots clubs as possible.
‘At Yarra Glen, LGBTI inclusion has become the norm. We want to reach out to other communities so what happened in Yarra Glen occurs all across Victoria,’ says Rechter.
Ball is in talks to bring the Pride Cup concept to other codes including cricket, softball and hockey. He says he hopes to see many more rainbows at local clubs due to the new VicHealth and Pride Cup resource.
‘I don’t think it’s possible to overdo it with rainbows,’ he laughs. ‘They’re such visual symbols of acceptance and understanding and that’s incredibly powerful.’
For Rowe, feeling empowered to be open about herself and play footy is what’s most important: ‘Being transgender is part of my identity but it doesn’t define who I am. To my teammates, I’m just treated as one of the girls.’