THE AFL has a challenge on its hands next year. It must give meaning to the Pride Game, the brain child of the St Kilda Football Club. A show of support for the LGBTI community isn’t enough. A long lasting message that will change hearts and minds and increase acceptance is.

The AFL and the St Kilda Football Club should be given a huge pat on the back for bringing the Pride Game to the national stage. It is a big achievement, considering the heteronormative culture that has existed for decades in sport.

[showads ad=MREC]St Kilda and Sydney Swans will play the game during round 21 on August 21 next year. In another coup, the game will be played during prime time, on a Saturday night.

Jason Ball was a trail blazer, instituting the first gay pride game ever. This year, Melbourne University Blacks followed suit. The story of my own mental torment coming to terms with my sexuality drove the idea behind the game.

I thought I wouldn’t be accepted when I came out, but I was accepted. The gap that exists here, which I call the “acceptance gap”, is something that can be fixed by playing and giving meaning to Pride Games in sport. It creates dialogue. It makes LGBTI youth feel it will be okay and takes a lot of pain away from those struggling to come to terms with their own sexuality.

I had a long conversation with a conservative male after the game at Melbourne University, and it wasn’t an easy one. He questioned why we needed to even have the game. He said that “we accept gay people, it’s not an issue any more, we don’t need shows of support like this”.

He may have been right that the community is more accepting then ever, but many gay youth don’t know that this is the case. Rather, they put themselves through unwarranted agony, assuming they won’t be accepted. 16 per cent of LGBT people have suicidal thoughts and a perception that they won’t be accepted plays a huge part in this stat.

The game at Melbourne University had a simple message. A message of acceptance, attempting to bridge the “acceptance gap”. The game had a meaning, a message. The rainbow pride flag wasn’t enough. What does that flag even mean to ordinary folk? I suspect not much.

Herein lies the challenge for AFL and St Kilda: bringing the game to life, giving meaning to the flag, and telling real stories that people can relate to. Games like the Pride Game next year provide this unique opportunity and ensure there is a message that discrimination is not negotiable and acceptance is real. Let’s embrace it and make the most of what this huge show of support might be able to actually achieve.

It would be easy to just focus the game on just sport too, but the game is so much more than that. It must reach out to all parts of the community and focus on rural areas.

Aussie Rules football is unique. It attracts and captivates every part of our wonderfully diverse nation. It crosses cultures, sexes and sexuality. It’s the perfect vehicle to educate those that may discriminate and reach out to those who are not comfortable with their sexuality.

Matt Finnis, chief executive of St Kilda, is on a winner. He claims that many LGBTI people don’t feel welcome at the football and he hopes the game will change this. He is right. I have heard countless stories of those who don’t feel welcome. One story involved someone I know leaving a game in Perth after being shouted at for being a “poofter”. No one should have to endure this sort of bullying.

Rowena Allen, Victoria’s Gender and Sexuality Commissioner, is on the steering committee preparing for the game. A warrior for LGBTI rights, her advice will be paramount. Her challenge will be to make sure the game isn’t just a spectacle but one that it is accompanied by real stories that will make a difference.

The AFL should be judged on the outcome, not ratings, performances and colour. The LGBTI community need all the acceptance they can get. Young same-sex attracted people will find life much easier if they know they will be accepted. This is a legacy that St Kilda, Sydney and the AFL can deliver.

Lachlan Beaton is a writer, PR consultant and equality and youth mental health advocate. He has worked as a freelance public affairs specialist for more than a decade, and most recently worked on a number of local campaigns highlighting the issues associated with inequality.

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