It was just a kiss. It shouldn’t have been a big deal. But this was unique.
When Erin Phillips kissed her wife, Tracy, after winning the AFL Women’s inaugural Best and Fairest award on Tuesday night, it was more than a touching moment between two spouses. It was history.
It was the first time an AFL footballer has publicly embraced their same-sex partner at the game’s most glamorous night of the year.
In a season of firsts from a competition which has empowered girls across Australia, once again women were leading the charge for equality, proudly showing the world that love does not wait for permission.
Commentators were quick to point out that Phillips kissing her wife in the spotlight is proof that the footy world has “grown up”.
AFL boss Gillon McLachlan has said that the visibility of gay players in the women’s league has helped to further normalise same-sex relationships.
But while these footballers should be applauded for being out and proud, it is hard to imagine two male players being celebrated in the same way.
It remains an uncomfortable truth that in the hyper-masculine world of Australian Rules football, the sight of women kissing is still more palatable to many men than their male heroes doing the same.
And in some cases it is a cause for titillation.
In a column on Wednesday, The Herald Sun’s chief football writer Mark Robinson wrote about Phillips and the “kiss that travelled around Australia”, noting that it “encapsulated happiness, love, appreciation, understanding and, let’s be honest, it was probably a touch sensual for a number of men.”
The outdated notion that gay women exist to fuel straight men’s puerile schoolboy fantasies is a big part of the problem, and speaks to the fragile masculinity that helps keep many gay men in the closet.
While Robinson’s piece was well-meaning and made a strong case for marriage equality, it was undermined by the objectification of the very people he sought to support.
As a lesbian friend of mine wrote on Facebook, “I’ve spent much of my life being conscious of some blokes doing a double take whenever I’ve held my partner’s hand in public – let alone shared a quick kiss – and just when you think that we’re finally used to the normality of such things, you read this.”
The AFL has a part to play in changing this narrative. It must pay more than just lip service to the notion of equality.
It is a sad indictment on the game that not a single male elite footballer has felt comfortable coming out in the game’s 121-year history.
There remains a perception that the AFL environment is not safe for a gay man to openly be themselves.
Indeed, a landmark study of Australian sport showed that 85% of gay athletes have seen or experienced homophobic abuse. The least welcoming sport was AFL.
Phillips and the other gay AFLW players have this season made history and paved a path for a male footballer to come out.
Collingwood’s Penny Cula-Reid and Melbourne player Mia-Rae Clifford should also be applauded for last month becoming the first elite AFL couple to come out as gay.
But when it comes to acceptance of displays of love and affection it seems there is a different standard for out male athletes.
When Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend after he was selected in the NFL draft – becoming the first openly gay player to do so – the AFL Footy Show’s host Sam Newman described it as “annoyingly gratuitous.”
It prompted Jason Ball, the first openly gay Aussie Rules player at any level of the game, to note that this was an example of gay people only being accepted “just as long as they don’t do anything ‘gay’ in public.
Against this backdrop it is hard to imagine a male player publicly embracing their same-sex partner and being applauded in the same way Phillips has been.
Football has come a long way in promoting acceptance and paving the way for a male player to take that ultimate step.
Last year’s inaugural Pride game between St Kilda and Sydney sent a powerful message of inclusion to gay supporters and players alike.
The rainbow 50 metre lines were more than symbolic. They were a sign that the queer community is a welcome part of this great sport.
Without visibility there is no equality. Without visibility young LGBTI people – who suffer disproportionately high rates of self-harm and suicide as a result of discrimination – cannot imagine a future free from fear and exclusion.
But this landmark match was driven not by the AFL but by the St Kilda Football Club, most notably chief executive Matt Finnis, who has become a powerful champion for equality in sport.
There has been a long-standing reluctance from the AFL hierarchy to offer its support for LGBTI inclusion with the same weight it lends to other social causes such as indigenous issues or violence against women.
As Caroline Wilson from The Age noted, AFL boss Gill McLachlan’s signature was conspicuously missing from a letter supporting marriage equality signed by the chiefs of Australia’s other major sporting codes.
It is not the AFL’s job to change the world, but it does have a duty of care to make the environment as welcoming as possible for all fans and players.
We will not have true acceptance until an AFL player walks his same-sex partner down the famous Brownlow blue carpet without fear of criticism or ridicule.
That day may will come a lot sooner if the men who run the game stand up for the supporters and players whose rights are currently being denied.