There was a moment during the inaugural AFL Pride game between St Kilda and Sydney that will stay with me for life.
As the Etihad stadium lights dimmed and Cyndi Lauper’s "True Colours" rang out, the stands were bathed in a dazzling rainbow light show.
I turned to the couple next to me, a suburban footballer Sean, and his partner Mike – whose story had been beamed on to the big screens - and saw they were both in tears.
As a young gay man, Sean routinely heard his teammates use the words f****t, p*****r and h**o on the field. For many years it kept him in the closet.
In 2016, he was watching elite AFL players pull on rainbow jumpers in a nationally televised game to promote LGBTI+ inclusion.
It was a powerful symbol that drove cultural change and sent a message of acceptance to young fans all over Australia struggling with their sexuality.
Symbolism matters, but when it’s not backed up with action and a genuine commitment to change, it can undermine the push for equality.
On Wednesday, the AFL Women’s competition announced its first Pride Game between Western Bulldogs and Carlton in round four on February 23.
With many openly gay players in the women’s league it is an important step forward and will help make the game more inclusive for fans and players alike.
But while the fixture itself is a positive move, many supporters were left asking, “Carlton? Really?”
During the marriage equality postal survey, while the AFL replaced its logo at head office with the word “YES” and many clubs including North Melbourne, Western Bulldogs, Collingwood, Sydney, and St Kilda publicly supported the Yes campaign, Carlton refused to get involved.
In a statement, the club declared themselves to be a “leader in engendering equality” but respected that the issue was one of “personal choice” and would therefore not campaign either way.
The statement read: “We do strongly reinforce our club’s absolute commitment to equality – and a community that is free from any form of discrimination.”
Carlton supporters described their club’s position at the time as “weak”, “hollow” and “disappointing.”
Now, after others have done the heavy lifting and it’s commercially less risky to throw their weight behind equality, Carlton are ready to wave the rainbow flag.
On the surface, it smacks of the most cynical form of tokenism and is an insult to those clubs who had the courage to speak out despite accusations that they were “bringing politics into sport.”
You can’t sit on the fence during the most important movement for equality in a generation, and then cash in on the rainbow dollar after the dust settles.
In a post marriage-equality age, we can welcome organisations rushing to be more inclusive but we cannot forget their silence when the LGBTI community faced the most despicable public “debate” on their basic human rights.
Carlton’s involvement in the Pride Game may be a well-intentioned attempt to make up for a disappointing record on equality.
Or, given this was a fixture driven by the Bulldogs Pride supporters group, it may be that the club was just happy to be invited along for the ride.
But if organisations want to be flag-bearers for diversity, they must first acknowledge and own their past.
It was telling that Carlton’s CEO took no questions from journalists at the Pride launch, leaving it up to Brianna Davey, a gay player, to defend her club’s lack of action during the postal survey.
And while we can applaud the AFL for its gradual progress on LGBTI inclusion, it’s worth noting that the Pride movement has not been driven by league bosses.
In the men’s competition, it has largely been led by the AFL Players Association and St Kilda – which modelled the fixture on the grassroots Yarra Glen Pride Cup – and is now being pushed forward by LGBTI supporter groups across the competition.
Inside AFL House, there seems a reluctance to make the tough leadership calls that will truly make the game open to everyone.
Last week, transgender player Hannah Mouncey was forced to front up to the league’s headquarters to get answers after repeated emails and phone calls left her with scant information about her playing future, four months after she was banned from the AFLW draft.
Real inclusion in sport is more than just window dressing. It has to be backed by education investment, as well as fair and sensible participation policies.
But I look forward to the first AFLW Pride Game. While I believe it should be contested by two teams that were brave enough to stand up for equality when the heat was on, I know that it will be an important vehicle for change.
Research after the inaugural Pride fixture in the men’s competition found gay supporters felt safer watching football and straight fans were more likely to call out homophobia.
Rainbow 50 metre lines matter. Visibility matters. Every Pride Game is a step towards greater acceptance.
But organisations that have been either complicit participants or passive bystanders in fostering inequality can’t be allowed to jump on the bandwagon without being held to account.
If you’re going to wave a rainbow flag, you have to have the courage to stand up when it matters and admit when you got it wrong.