Growing up in Victoria, AFL was unavoidable. It would worm its way into my Friday and Saturday nights. Accepting a lift from my dad meant listening to AM radio with men talking about the latest footy drama.
Then once a year, in September, there was Footy Day. I would dress up in my mother's red and white, parade around and make the all-important choice between a meat pie or sausage roll. (I'm a 'both' kind of girl.)
Now we finally have AFLW. It was a long time coming, and the large turnout to the opening Collingwood vs Carlton game disputed the perception that no one is interested in women's sports.
The inclusion of the AFLW does raise questions for me, however, regarding the changes that will need to occur within the AFL, as well as our broader footy culture, to become more inclusive of LGBTI people.
In the AFLW, there are many players who have same sex relationships and are out. But in the men's leagues there have been only two players, Jason Ball, who played for Yarra Glen, and Rhyian Anderson-Morley, who plays for the Yarraville Seddon Eagles.
Ball remains active in advocating for LGBTI rights. The Huffington Post quotes him challenging the AFL to do more than just 'symbolic gestures', to put their money where their mouth is and 'invest in education' for players and clubs on the issues LGBTI sportspeople face.
You do have to wonder why not one AFL player on the elite level has come out, despite the head of AFL football operations Mark Evans saying the AFL is 'ready' to welcome a gay player.
Last year, I attended the AFL Pride Match with the LGBTI youth group Minus18. In the lead-up to the match, anti-same sex marriage protesters had flyered spectators' cars at a VFL game. I was aware of this as I walked to Etihad Stadium, but still there was something profoundly emotional about seeing rainbows mix with football colours. A huge part of my childhood was no longer alienated from my lived reality.
"In a 2016 survey of 363 AFL footballers 10.3 per cent agreed with the statement 'gay males sicken me because they are not real men'. Obviously there is work to be done."
It wasn't a perfect experience. The announcer's opening remark, 'Welcome ladies, gentlemen and everyone else who hasn't decided yet', raised eyebrows among the trans and non-binary people in the Minus18 group. As the game went on like any other, the whole experience recast itself. I felt more and more conspicuous, and I wondered how safe I'd feel if I were watching alone, waving a rainbow flag. The rainbows on the field became a sad sort of metaphor — painted on only for a day and then gone. It was hard not to feel like all of this decoration was tokenistic.
A 2015 Out of the Fields study showed 80 per cent of Australian respondents thought LGBTI people weren't accepted by the sporting community and had personally experienced or witnessed homophobia in sport. The AFL have taken some steps, like its video campaign for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Even so, in a 2016 survey of 363 AFL footballers 10.3 per cent agreed with the statement 'gay males sicken me because they are not real men'. Obviously there is work to be done.
The Out of the Fields study also shows that the majority of the homophobia takes place in the stands, with 75 per cent of respondents saying that a LGBTI person would not be safe at a sporting event. So this is not just the job of the AFL, but of everyone in the sporting community. It will take many steps to change the culture. In Victoria particularly, we need to address the fact that a sporting code that some describe as being 'like a religion' is still deeply rooted in a white, heterocentric patriarchal mindset.
This will involve an enforced zero tolerance policy on homophobic (and racist, for that matter) sledging. It will be replacing the gendered terms like WAGs and embracing the lesbian AFLW and gay AFL players. It will be accepting a diversified commentary, so that panels are no longer a convention for heterosexual white men. When the homophobia is occurring within the stands, it will be up to everyone to call out these instances, to make footy stadiums safe places for LGBTI people.
These changes are necessary for football players but also for LGBTI fans. I speak from personal experience when I say that a silent ally is not an ally. In sporting communities it is imperative that LGBTI people know they are welcome. It should not be up to LGBTI people to force their way into the football culture. Footy culture needs to redefine itself to include LGBTI people.
Neve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.