Almost two years ago, I nervously wrote a petition on change.org telling my story of being a gay footy player – I could never have anticipated what came next.
I'd grown up playing footy in a culture where gay slurs were a regular occurrence. Where homophobia was the standard. And believed that it was time for the AFL to step up and change this damaging culture.
Since the day I started that petition, it's been a whirlwind journey. In just a few days, more than 30,000 of you signed my petition, we had #AFLPride trending on social media – and together, we kick-started a national conversation and movement to end homophobia in footy.
Every major news outlet in the country has covered our message of for a more inclusive footy culture. There have been features in The Age, Sunrise, ABC News, Channel 7, 9, 10, ABC News, News.com.au, The Project – and literally dozens of others, multiple times.
It's also helped lead to historic commitments from the AFL and begun momentous shift in culture from players, coaches, AFL management and prominent footy figures. Some of the achievements include:
+ For the first time ever, the AFL included sexual orientation in its discrimination training for AFL players
+ AFL players marched in the Pride March for the first time
+ The AFL screened No To Homophobia ads on the big screen
+ The AFL Players Association launched a campaign against homophobic language
+ The AFL publicly backed an historic grassroots "Pride Cup" game
+ St Kilda and Essendon are in discussions about their own "Pride Cup"at the national level in 2015
+ The has AFL joined other major sporting codes in signing an anti-homophobia policy and inclusion framework
Our call for a more inclusive footy culture was backed by prominent AFL figure and former Premier Jeff Kennett. And I was honoured last year to become an Ambassador for beyondblue to continue the fight for LGBTI acceptance and equality.
I wanted to write this message today to say thank you. This all started with you backing me when I started my change.org petition and began speaking up – and just look at what we've been able to do together.
This isn't the end of the fight to end homophobia in footy. There's more to do. But I want to say thanks – this has been an incredible journey for me personally, and a huge win for creating a more inclusive and supportive culture in the AFL.
This is a terrifying petition to write. But it’s important. I’d like to tell you what it’s like being a gay footy player, because today there’s a real chance we could begin to change the culture of homophobia in the AFL.
I’ve played amateur footy every season since I was five - almost all in the Yarra Valley league. I was raised in a household that lives and breathes the game. But when I realised I was gay the idea that my teammates might find out was terrifying.
It’s a blokey culture -- and gay slurs are a regular part of games and training. It’s a horrible reminder that you’re different, reviled and unwelcome. It felt like the footy club would be the one place I could never come out. Whether it’s intentional or not, the reality is that the culture of the AFL is hostile to fans and players like me.
Young gay people are up to 6 times more likely to be depressed, to self harm, or to contemplate suicide. I was 12 when I realised I might be gay, and footy was my life. It was a really hard time for me and if I had known of positive gay role models in society, in football, it would have made a world of difference.
The AFL has done amazing work tackling racism -- now it’s time for the AFL to take real and substantive action to build a culture where people like me are welcomed and supported - and where homophobia is simply not acceptable.
Last week, the AFL issued a statement saying it supported the No to Homophobia campaign (www.notohomophobia.com.au). It’s a great first step, and now the AFL needs to do more.
I believe if the AFL and Andrew Demetriou are serious, they should show the No to Homophobia ad on the big screen at the Grand Final, and even add it to the footy record. It'd show to the hundreds of thousands of people watching that this time their commitment is real. They should commit to a Pride Round, just like they have done with the Multicultural and Indigenous Rounds -- it would have a massive impact in building a more inclusive and respectful culture towards the GLBTI communtiy in sport.
It was my teammates who eventually told me they knew I was gay, and that it wasn't an issue for them. I think I'm pretty lucky to have such a supportive group of players around me - especially in a regional town. It could have gone the other way - and it's no wonder to me that there are no openly gay players in the AFL. I know how they feel. But I think the players are ready for change. The clubs are ready for change. The supporters are ready for change. We just need the AFL to lead and help shift the sporting culture so that players and fans like me can openly be who we are without fear.
I want to show the AFL that there are other players and fans just like me -- who’ve experienced the highs and lows of being gay and intimately involved in the sport we all love. If you’ve got a story to share, please send it to me so that I can share it directly with the AFL: [email protected].
Please tweet about this campaign at #aflpride and join this facebook group if you want to help be part of creating a more inclusive and welcoming culture for gay people in the AFL: http://on.fb.me/Nhb5IP