“It’s so empowering because I was bullied so badly for years by all these guys who played football at high school, and now I’m the one performing on the MCG in full makeup and a dress.”
By
Louis Hanson

22 May 2018 - 1:39 PM  UPDATED 22 May 2018 - 1:39 PM

Recently, cast members of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, accompanied by a team of dancers, opened the Hawthorn versus Sydney match as part of the “beyondblue Cup”, a night promoting positive mental health discussion. This follows recent efforts by the AFL to encourage diversity and inclusion in the game.

The promotional video for the night featured Hawthorn players going to Priscilla and taking part in a rehearsal with the cast. 

“Underneath all of Priscilla’s glitter is a message of tolerance, acceptance and mateship,” said Michael Cassel, in a statement prior to the show, “which is why we’ve joined with the Hawks to put mental health in the spotlight at the beyondblue Cup.” The musical, which is produced by Michael Cassel Group, has recently completed its Melbourne leg of the tour.

Donning costumes designed by Oscar-award winner Tim Chappel, and with AV screens around the MCG field projecting rainbow flags, cast members Euan Doidge, Adam Noviello, and Tom Handley performed “Colour My World” and “We Belong”.

One of the dancers, Elijah Ziegeler, is still beaming from the performance. “It was just the most overwhelming, incredible experience of my life to date. Literally, it was just amazing.”

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He was chosen by Andrew Hallsworth, the director of his course and choreographer of Priscilla, to perform with the cast.

For Elijah, this performance was an important achievement that signifies how far he’s come since growing up, when he was receiving a relentless amount of homophobic bullying in Warrnambool. “It’s so empowering because I was bullied so badly for years by all these guys who played football at high school,” he considers, “and now I’m the one performing on the MCG in full makeup and a dress.”

“It’s like I’m showing them, this is me.”

For many, the AFL’s decision to showcase a segment from one of Australia’s most iconic queer musicals is nothing short of monumental. “You just can’t put it into words how important this is for LGBTQIA+ people,” Elijah notes, “seeing a culture so masculine as the AFL supporting us and reaching out to us, saying 'this is okay', and merging these two cultures together.”

After all, football and theatre may have more in common than many would initially think. “At end of the day, it’s all performance,” he says. “It’s all theatre. Football is theatre, too.”

This merging of two cultures, crossing the boundaries between sport and theatre, the masculine and the feminine, is a huge step forward in the name of tolerance. As Elijah points out, “even the most historically-masculine spaces of society are beginning to welcome us and accept us, and that’s a massive win”.

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However, not everyone was as embracing as those at the MCG. Following the performance, Elijah went out for a friend’s birthday dinner, make-up still intact, and was subjected to homophobic slurs. “Two guys, on two separate occasions, walked passed me saying “look at that f*g”.

Coming from the highs of the pre-game show, this turned out to be an empowering moment for the performer. “I just turned around and gave the biggest smiles. Here I was, walking in public in full drag makeup, being so comfortable with who I am.”

“Once upon a time,” he notes, “if someone called me a slur I would just curl up, go inside myself and try to be as masculine as I could.”

Elijah has seemingly come a long way since then. “I didn’t ever want to take the makeup off. I looked beautiful.”

As those slurs demonstrate, we still have a long way to go before all Australians can walk down the street in their preferred clothing and makeup without being subjected to verbal taunts.

However, if the success of the AFL’s partnership with Priscilla and headspace is anything to go by, embracing diverse aspects of Australian culture will always result in resounding positivity and a message of inclusivity.

You can check out the full video of the Priscilla pre-game show on HawksTV.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has now made its way to Sydney. Tickets can be booked via Ticketmaster.

Louis Hanson is a Sydney-based writer and activist. Check out his work here or on Instagram.