The AFL might be busy navigating coronavirus, but its fans remain as loyal as ever. For LGBTQI+ Australians who have previously reported feeling unwelcome by the men's game, they have been mobilising to forge a new sense of belonging.
Paul Coniglio has been a paid member of the Essendon Bombers for 26 years.
But like many LGBTQI+ Australians, he’s faced difficulties reconciling his sexuality and love of Australian rules football.
The 41-year-old is the current president of the Purple Bombers, one of 16 LGBTQI+ supporter groups associated with their respective AFL clubs across the league.
“What we do is create a safe space for LGBTQI+ fans at the football and a sense of belonging,” he told SBS News.
“But we also seek to educate AFL fans around Australia about LGBTQI+ issues. We want to share stories and talk about real-life events so people can understand what it’s like to be a member of the LGBTQI+ community.”
Mr Coniglio said “there is a lot that you have to contend with'' when attending AFL matches as an LGBTQI+ person.
“If an umpire or opposition player does something a supporter doesn’t like, they may choose to use homophobic language in an environment where there may be gay or lesbian people present. It makes you feel like less of a person, and in some ways, you don’t feel safe.”
Mr Coniglio said the group started after he and the group’s founder went to an Essendon function in 2014 with their partners, but didn’t feel comfortable to be themselves.
“We went home really frustrated and decided to call the club and check whether there was interest in supporting an LGBTQI+ fan club,” he said.
And there was.
The Purple Bombers has continued to grow each year and almost all AFL clubs now have dedicated LGBTQI+ fan groups, which operate as part of a coalition called the AFL Pride Collective.
Representatives from each group meet a few times a year to discuss common issues and collaborate at various AFL events and pride festivals around Australia.
The Rainbow Crows, the supporter group of the Adelaide Crows, started in August 2016 as a Facebook page.
Since then, “things have blossomed really quickly”, said its president and founder Brett McAloney.
“There is a real camaraderie - and that’s not just within the Rainbow Crows.”
“We also have a real close camaraderie with all the other queer supporter groups across the AFL. We travel interstate and catch up with the other supporter groups.
“It is providing that safe space and creating visibility ... telling those kids at home, those adults still struggling [with their sexuality], that it's okay to be who you are.”
A study by Western Sydney University and Cricket Victoria was commissioned last year to understand how LGBTQI+ supporter groups could be initiated and supported in the Big Bash League.
As part of the study, which was released earlier this year, eight participants shared their experience of running LGBTQI+ supporter groups within the AFL.
“One of the things that struck us most about the AFL supporter groups was how much it positively improved LGBTQI+ people’s lives,” lead author Ryan Storr said.
“They could engage and meet people and have new friends, have a purpose that weekend, be part of a club and have an identity.
“Some people spoke really deeply about how it affected them through the uncertainty of the marriage equality survey, when their mental health was not in a good place, but the support of their supporters group and their friends there really helped them through it.”
Dr Storr said there were several transgender people who said they would never have otherwise engaged with the sport.
“But because they knew people and there was a supportive group, they actually started attending matches.”
Dr Storr said the study found many of the AFL groups began due to a perception that matches were not as welcoming as they could be.
“It all started with a very passionate and dedicated bunch of volunteers who did all the work off their own back,” he said.
“Some of the people interviewed said they grew up with AFL ... but they didn’t really feel like they could be part of it and included.”
“The AFL supporter groups realise that and that they can provide a way to feel connected to the club in a way that means something to them.”
Previous research has shown AFL environments have not always been as LGBTQI+ friendly as they could be.
A VicHealth report on LGBTQI+ inclusion in the AFL in 2017 showed that half of LGBTQI+ respondents did not view general AFL matches as a safe or welcoming environment.
A 2015 study found 80 per cent of Australians involved in sport have witnessed homophobia, which led to the creation of The Pride in Sport Index, an instrument specifically designed to assess LGBTQI+ inclusion in Australian sport.
Fans, clubs and sports leagues of all persuasions benefit from having an inclusive environment, Dr Storr said.
“When sports organisations engage in LGBTQI+ diversity, it can attract new fans, bring people to the sport,” he said.
“They’ll post on social media, maybe go to the pride games. It benefits everybody because the sport is getting new fans and increased revenue.”
Prior to the start of the 2020 season and the coronavirus shutdown, the Purple Bombers had more than 100 members signed up and a raft of events planned for the year.
Mr Coniglio said while the virus “pretty much stalled” most of what was planned - including a large in-person International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia celebration - the Purple Bombers have been rallying together online.
“We came up with some fantastic ideas that I know we wouldn’t have even considered in a non-COVID environment. It’s probably strengthened our commitment to community engagement as our number priority moving forward,” he said.
“We are currently rolling out our online watch parties for the first few rounds where members and supporters can watch the game together whilst connected to Zoom to celebrate the game and discuss tactics.”
Mr Coniglio said he and other members have helped each other get through the pandemic.
“We have had regular meetings and regular catch-ups to keep our connection and momentum during the pandemic - it was great to have the committee connections as something to look forward to.”
Mr McAloney said many of the Rainbow Crows’ scheduled activities, including a meet-up with the Purple Bombers for a game in Melbourne, have also been unable to proceed.
But like the Bombers’ pride group, Crows members have been finding ways to keep in contact.
“We have also held a few online 'watch parties' when old Crows games were being played on TV so people could catch up, and a group of members went camping on the June long weekend when South Australia’s travel restrictions were lifted.”
“We held a dinner at a pub a few weeks ago, in which we booked out the dining room to keep social distancing but watch the game together and catch up for the first time in months. We are excited to have footy back on!”
Inclusivity in the women's game
Mr Coniglio said “there's a lot of work” to be done before the AFL could match the LGBTQI+ acceptance in the women's league, the AFLW.
There are several openly-gay players, including a couple, in the AFLW, and earlier this year several hundred people lined a street in Melbourne's west to watch a pride march in the lead up to a match between the Western Bulldogs and the Carlton Blues.
“If you look at the AFLW, they are doing some great things in the queer space. But I think we are not moving forward as quickly as we could be in the men’s game,” Mr Coniglio said.
The AFL did not respond to a request for comment from SBS News.
In 2017, the AFL was named the inaugural Organisation of the Year at the Pride in Sport Awards, a year after it held the very first ‘pride game’ between the St Kilda Saints and Sydney Swans.
With the match now an annual fixture, there have been calls for a pride round, but they have been unheeded.
“I know some people are a little bit funny about that and say ‘why bring politics into football?' But making sure an environment is inclusive, friendly and accepting of everyone - how is that a political thing?” Mr McAloney said.
Mr McAloney said pride groups will provide support for future generations of young LGBTQI+ AFL fans in Australia.
“It certainly took quite a number of years to come to an acceptance of who I was."
“I don’t want other people to go through what I felt and experienced.”