The footy is changing. This week's first ever Pride Game between St Kilda and Sydney is testament to that. Imagine going to a footy match 20 years ago where players were regularly taunted with slurs of 'faggot' or 'poofter' and have fans comfortable with their teams openly supporting diversity and inclusion in this way. That is the footy environment mad Saints fan Brett Stirling grew up in. And through his role in setting up St Kilda Football Club LGBTI supporter group, Saints Pride, he is adamant no young person will have to deal with again.
"When I was younger I felt a lot more threatened. When you go through a lot of these issues, you have the support of friends and family around you but then you go to a fairly masculine space like the football and you get these random (homophobic) comments coming out of nowhere – as a younger person you feel quite vulnerable. That's my concern – I'm a lot older and don't care what people say about me anymore. My concern is about the younger people who haven't built up that defense structure and for them it can be quite devastating."
Brett has been a member of the Saints since 1999 and part of the Cheer Squad for the past few years. As one of the select few who sit behind the goals waving flags and giant banners and give up their time to create the run through banners, his enthusiasm for the game and particularly his club can not be questioned. And as a gay man he is proud of the leadership role his club is playing in anti-homophobia and LGBTI support within the AFL.
"It's been a natural progression in how St Kilda has been reorganizing itself as a club. Supporters were asked to provide feedback to the club four or five years ago and one of the biggest things that came out of that was a desire for equality and inclusiveness. There's a new generation of supporters coming through the ranks and feel that generation tends to be a little bit more progressive with their views. So that is definitely changing."
However, that doesn't mean that homophobia and ignorance don't still appear at the footy. It is the footy after all. And as long as the Sam Newmans of the game retain their soapboxes to spit homophobia and normalize bigotry, there will always be those football supporters stuck in the bad old days who think it's still OK.
"I have heard a few recently. Quite horrible comments, to be honest. But someone else has sent through complaints to the club via twitter, senior club officials came through down to the zone with the security and had the person removed. Within five minutes there were people down, which is a great response. I think we're minimizing a lot of this these days. People are unhappy with people being treated in a demeaning manner so in a lot of ways the crowd will respond and shut it down pretty quickly."
As for this week's Pride Game, Brett and his Saints Pride crew are getting involved by hosting a pre-match get-together of the other LGBTI supporters groups in the league. Melbourne, Collingwood, North Melbourne, Essendon and the Saints' opponents on the day, Sydney all have groups, and Brett says one of their major missions over the next twelve months or so is increasing that number.
"One of our main focuses is to assist other clubs to create their own groups. I think this type of moment must come from the clubs and supporters rather than as an AFL edict."
Saints Pride isn't taking their role lightly. Since setting up the group as a safe informal place for LGBTI St Kilda fans to congregate on Facebook at the start of the year, Brett and his committee have been in regular contact with the club. They still don't have an official status, but have been concentrating on this first ever Pride Match in the short term. And, Brett thinks, this is not going to be a short road, nor is it going to be all smooth sailing. In recent weeks even, there has been a backlash from anti-gay groups with homophobic fliers left on the windscreens of cars at VFL matches.
"My feeling is that the football world will go a couple of steps backwards before they go forward. I think there might be a few horrible incidents that might occur before everyone says collectively, 'this is not acceptable any more'. One of our aims is that in the next 10 or 20 years, there is no need for our group any more. It's just; everyone is welcome and everyone is valid. Fingers crossed."
St Kilda play the Sydney Swans at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night, August 13th. This will be the first ever AFL Pride Game