The power of AFL football: Pride game helps foster change in country Victoria

Guardian Web |

By his own admission, Lachlan Beaton was the kind of footballer who participated in the macho culture that has stereotypically been attributed to men’s AFL. Playing (and later coaching) for the University of Melbourne’s Uni Blacks, he worked hard to be “one of the boys”, and admits to using homophobic slurs on the field to try and assert his own masculinity.

Related: AFLW expansion a double-edged sword for VFL community clubs | Kate O'Halloran

Although this story might be a familiar one for many men playing football, for Lachlan it was personal. At the age of 14 he knew he was attracted to men, but, growing up in country Victoria – in a town named Casterton – Beaton found himself “in an area where it felt wrong to be gay”.

As he says in his coming out video of 2015, “I hated myself. I would cry on a weekly basis. I was self-destructive, drinking too much, trying to numb the pain. I thought I would be hated, and no one would ever love me again. I would go to great lengths to hide it, to make sure no one would ever find out.”

For Lachlan’s twin brother Charles these revelations were a shock. Although Lachlan had come out to Charles a year earlier, it wasn’t until that video that Charles said he fully understood the mental health impacts associated with those struggling with their sexuality or gender identity; particularly those in rural areas, and those in football environments.

“Lachlan didn’t feel like he could come out; he thought he would lose his place in the community and the football club,” he says. “From my experience and Lachlan’s, there are people who have hidden their sexuality because they’ve been involved in footy clubs, and they believed they wouldn’t be accepted into the club. Lots of clubs have been rampant in their homophobia and macho culture. I think footy clubs have a responsibility to right some of those wrongs.”

Fortunately for Lachlan, his experience of eventually coming out to his club was a positive one, and he has since apologised to the targets of his slurs. Charles says he wanted to make Lachlan’s story public to help others like him. He therefore started the Gay That’s OK initiative to “help people come to terms with their sexuality a bit earlier in life”.

“When you’re in a hole,” he says, “you think you’re the only one going through these issues, that you’re going to lose everything and it’s not going to be OK. I think people need to be told it is going to be OK.”

Gay That’s OK has so far run two pride games – one between the men’s Uni Blacks and Collegians teams in 2015, and the most recently, last weekend in Hamilton, one featuring the two powerhouse women’s VFL sides, the University of Melbourne Women’s Football Club (MUWFC) and the Darebin Falcons. Beaton said he chose Hamilton as a venue for the game because this was where he and Lachlan went to high school, and it was here that Lachlan had struggled with the lack of LGBTIQ role-models in the area.

“It was very conservative, neither of us knew anyone who was gay,” he says. “Those who are gay leave. It’s not an ideal set of circumstances; they don’t want to leave, and they have to give up family and friends and their support structures.”

Beaton thus focused his energy on getting the town on board with the initiative, and by the look of Hamilton on the weekend, Beaton and those who supported him – notably ex-local and celebrity blogger Annie Nolan – succeeded. A majority of the town’s main shopfronts – from hairdressers to pharmacies to menswear stores – were covered in rainbow decorations, with messages such as “love is love” and “don’t let anyone steal your pride” scrawled on their windows.

And, some happy snaps from the Hamilton town centre going rainbow for Gay That's OK Pride & Inclusion game. Who knew eternity was forever? O'Halloran (@Kate_ohalloran)

The symbolic show of support did not go unnoticed by Ross Simpson and Kathryn Pomeroy, members local Southern Grampians LGBTI Support Group, who spoke at the pre-game luncheon. A local farmer, Simpson talked of the “stigma” in the town around LGBTIQ issues, and said his house had been egged after he spoke at the National Centre for Farmer Health about his sexuality. Nonetheless, he said he was one of the “lucky ones” and spoke of losing three friends to suicide – all LGBTIQ locals.

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Pomeroy, who lives on a property north of Hamilton and runs her own farming business, likewise spoke of her difficulties coming out as a trans woman in a country town. Pomeroy said she knew she was transgender in high school, but “in those days they talked you out of treatment, sent you off to counsellors. It makes you very confused, and makes it very hard to come out later on.” Once she did start the process of transitioning – 16 months ago – she was startled by the attention from locals.

“When I was mowing the grass in Terang in the first few weeks [after I came out as trans], people wanted to pull up and look at me. People wanted to take photos of me, especially after I had laser surgery for facial hair.”

Both Simpson and Pomeroy, however, argued that the community had undergone significant, progressive change in attitudes towards LGBTI issues within the last 12 months. They attributed this change to events like the rural and regional LGBTI Equality Roadshow (facilitated by Victoria’s commissioner for gender and sexuality, Rowena Allen, who was in attendance on the day) as well as the Pride and Inclusion game. Both said they were “really happy” to see the rainbow shopfronts, and felt that the game was a particularly successful initiative given that football clubs are often the heartbeat of rural towns.

Those who were involved in organising and playing in the women’s game agreed that football has a special capacity to raise political issues in a way that is amenable to changing community attitudes, and said that participating in the day had been a “no brainer”. This included Laura Kane (MUWFC president) and Lou Caluzzi (MUWFC secretary) from Melbourne, and Jane Lange (head coach at Darebin, also recently appointed assistant coach of the Melbourne AFLW team) and Darcy Vescio (Darebin and Carlton footballer) from Darebin. Vescio was best on ground on the day, kicking four match-winning goals, and said football was unique for its “accessibility”.

“Everyone’s obsessed with it in Australia,” Vescio said. “It’s a really powerful vehicle to send strong messages, and change community standards. Talking about these issues through football means it’s not as confronting.”

Kane is on the same page. “[Australian rules] football is our national game, people love it and support it. For the real diehard supporters, it takes over and you can’t control your passion. When people couple that with something that they aren’t sure about or feel uncomfortable about, they think, ‘well it must be OK, because it’s footy, and I love footy’.”

All four women also acknowledged that the arrival of the women’s game on the national scene – in particular through AFLW – had brought issues of sexuality to the fore in a way that has yet to be broached in the men’s game. They pointed to Erin Phillips winning the inaugural women’s best and fairest – and her nonchalant kiss of her wife as she accepted the award – as symbolic of its impact.

“The response to Erin Phillips’ award and the simple act of kissing her wife, was quite significant,” said Lange. “I know personally to see that as something that’s normal, and a natural and lovely act, it means a lot. It means a lot to young kids to be able to see that. I have a young daughter and creating a space where everyone’s accepted for who they are – that’s really valuable.

“Hopefully people will see it on their TV and have a conversation around the dinner table about it. They won’t always be positive, but they will be sometimes. The more we see it, surely the greater impact it’s going to have.”

For Vescio, however, it is important that conversations about sexuality were not “about tolerance”.

“You might get told that everything is OK, and by law there’s no punishment for being gay – but to have people putting rainbows in their shopfronts, saying they love you for whoever you are, whatever sexual orientation you have, it’s on a whole other level. It’s not about tolerance. It’s about celebration. I grew up in a country town [Wangaratta] and I know if something like that were to happen in my local area, it would send a really strong message to the schools.”

Related: Will the AFLW herald changing times for gay players in the men's game? | Kate O'Halloran

Vescio said that the women’s game was in a unique position to broach issues like LGBT rights because they are unhampered by the same cultural issues and structures that affect the men’s game.

“No one [in AFLW] feels like they have to be a certain way, because we’re creating a space and we can make it whatever we want it to be, and hopefully that’ll spread across to the men’s game, and there’ll come a point where one of the men or a group of players will feel comfortable in coming out and being able to share with the footy community and Australia who they are.”

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