To date, every major sport in Australia has had an LGBTQIA person represented on the sporting field. Every sport – except men’s AFL.
In cricket, trailblazing openly lesbian sportswoman, Megan Schutt, is a bowler for the South Australian Scorpions, and best known for being the first Australian woman to score a hat-trick in the 2020 Women’s Twenty20 International match. She married her wife, Jess Holyoake, in 2019 and remains an advocate for inclusion within the sporting industry.
Two years ago, the first Australian soccer player came out as openly gay, Andy Brennan, a winger and striker for Hume City Football Club in the National Premier Leagues Victoria. In October last year, Dan Palmer, a former rugby union player who represented Australia at the highest level in the Australian Wallabies team, and also played for the New South Wales Waratahs and ACT Brumbies, came out after his retirement in a Sydney Morning Herald column.
Ashleigh Brazill, who played for West Coast Fever and New South Wales Swifts in the Suncorp Super Netball League and currently plays for Collingwood Magpies in the AFLW, is open about her long-term relationship with her female partner and how they were overjoyed to have a son in January 2020.
This seemingly endless list highlights the strength with which Australian sporting spheres have sought to reform themselves in becoming more inclusive of individuals of different genders and sexual orientations. Yet with the notable exemption of one of Australia’s largest sporting leagues– the Australian Football League.
It almost appears more acceptable for women footballers to ‘come out’ in the AFLW than for male footballers to ‘come out’ in the AFL; a 2015 Monash University study in gender and sexual diversity in the sporting world found that approximately 15-20% of AFLW players do not identify as heterosexual, a proportion which mirrors that of the general Australian population.
Why? Perhaps the ideal of professional sport is tied to a notion that sportsmen represent the top echelons of masculinity, where displaying a LGBTQIA identity on the field may fracture this perception and lead to a decline in support for individual players. Perhaps the common expectation for players to be heterosexual pervades the atmosphere of AFL clubs, and so individual players are afraid to diverge from the norm. Perhaps LGBTQIA players are dissuaded from participating in sports due to potential slurs and discrimination they may experience. And perhaps, despite all the rainbow aesthetic social media campaigns ran by clubs, the AFL is not as inclusive an organisation as it might think.
Attitudes are, however, changing and the organisation is taking steps in the right direction. The annual ALF Pride Game between Sydney Swans and St Kilda Saints (2015 – present) celebrates the diversity of their AFL supporters. A study by VicHealth and La Trobe University found that non-LGBTQIA attendees of the match were 7% more likely to call out a friend for using homophobic language after attending. However, questions remain as to whether the AFL’s actions remain largely tokenistic without a true representation of Australian sexual diversity on the ovals.
On June 21st this year, Carl Nassib became the first active NFL (American National Football League) player to come out as gay, marking a new chapter for the sport with an athlete role model that children can look up to. He declared his sexuality in an Instagram video and announced a $100,000 donation to The Trevor Project– a charity that strives to prevent suicides of LGBTQIA youth in the USA. He justified his public ‘coming out’ by asserting that “I just think that representation and visibility are so important. I actually hope that one day, videos like this and the whole coming out process are not necessary, but until then I am gonna do my best and do my part to cultivate a culture that’s accepting, that’s compassionate”. This statement sent shockwaves throughout sporting communities globally, as sporting leagues once again re-evaluated the importance of having role models of the LGBTQIA community in their respective fields.
When questioned, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan explained how he wished that if there were any gay AFL players who wanted to ‘come out’, he “hope[d] they [would] feel comfortable to do so, but it’s clearly a decision for the athlete” and further suggested he did not necessarily “have the answers” to the lack of LGBTQIA representation in sports.
As Pride Month comes to an end for this year, the question remains: will an AFL player ‘come out’ to the sporting world in the near future, or does this remain a distant possibility until reforms alter sporting atmospheres and annihilate homophobic sentiments? I hope that in this red time, as we approach the end of the home and away season, we may see a splash of rainbow.