Fitzroy FC player Kirsty Marshall writes on her experience playing in a Pride Game and what this kind of celebration and visibility means to her.
On Sunday the 2nd of May, Fitzroy Football Club and Melbourne University Women’s Football Club came together to compete in the first ever official Pride Game in the Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA). It was a symbolic and special occasion for many people, and for me, it gave me a sense of closure for both the internal and external struggles that I, and others have faced in gaining acceptance in amateur sport.
Grassroots sport can be one of the most positive influences on a teenager growing up. It creates a sense of community and belonging that is often lacking in other areas of modern life. However, it’s no secret that these sports clubs can often directly, and indirectly exclude members of the LGBTQIA+ community, which for many kids can have a ripple effect for years. Up until participating in the Fitzroy and Melbourne Uni Pride Game, I never realised I too was one of them.
As a teenager, basketball was my passion. I was never going to go far with basketball, but I had some sort of training or game eight times a week, plus I reffed. I lived at the basketball stadium, and it was my happy place. In 2009 when I was fourteen; my sexuality dominated my thoughts. Being attracted to the same gender as yourself in a culture dominated by heteronormativity is well, confusing to say the least. And, when this pivotal experience just so happens to take place the same year that pop culture icon Katy Perry releases a song about kissing a girl and liking it, everything gets thrown into whack. This song completely normalised the concept of being attracted to women, all the while denying lesbianity. It was the ‘out’ I had been looking for in my feverish teenage attempt to ‘be normal’. When my classmate told me she wanted to experience kissing a girl and invited me round to her boyfriend’s house to experiment, I was ‘straight’ over there. Unfortunately, as quickly as the kiss happened, the news of it spread like wildfire through my school and then to my beloved basketball stadium to some disgruntled mums. This was the start of years of denying the accusations, followed by years of self-denial to make the facade easier to maintain.
In 2011 when a group of girls formed a school football team, I refused to join out of the fear that rumours about my sexuality would be spread again, and also, largely out of fear of admitting it to myself. At the time playing footy felt like a bold statement that I was masculine and therefore queer. Well, that’s a sixteen year old brain for you with a sweet mix of the patriarchy and homophobia having some damaging influence.
The truth is, football is for everyone. The recent development of the AFLW and the increased participation of women at grassroots footy is something we should all be proud of. It’s thanks to an incredible group of trailblazing women, many queer, many not; all to whom I am incredibly grateful.
This year, two years into my living in Melbourne, the spiritual home of Aussie rules football, I finally decided to play some footy myself. Thanks to my good friend becoming the new head coach, and first woman senior coach in the club’s 136-year history, I joined the Fitzroy Football Club and my god, do I love it.
Truth be told, I’m still learning many of the rules, and the level of fitness required to complete an 80-minute game is above any level of fitness I’ve previously required—and am yet to acquire—but the participation is about so much more than that. It’s about allowing yourself to try something that you know you might not be good at, something far too many people will never do. It’s about riding the wave of the growth of women’s participation in sport and being a witness to the incredible levels of talent, skill and knowledge that are coming through. It’s about knocking off work and having a run around with a group of people from all different sexual, cultural and economic backgrounds, all united by the same goals.
It’s about finally doing something you want, without the fear of what others may think.
As a 26-year old, running out onto the field with a rainbow jersey and rainbow socks, alongside a team full of pride, I could feel my inner-child’s legs moving mine forward as she ran off the feeling of shame that was forced on her in that basketball stadium in 2009 that perhaps never really left.
I’ve been out and proud for eight beautiful years now and I had no anticipation or expectation that participating in such a historic event would impact me so much. In a progressive city like Melbourne, the understanding of the importance of Pride games for amateur, adult sport is perhaps overlooked.
It is quite beautiful knowing that an event that had such a profound influence on my sense of belonging and self acceptance can also go towards also stopping teenagers from feeling the same way so many athletes would have once felt. How I once felt. If only as teenagers, we knew how extraordinary it is to be different. If only we were empowered through our differences, rather than shamed by them. I hope that is now a thing of the past.
So far, this Fitzroy and Melbourne University Pride partnership is the only Pride Game that currently exists within the VAFA with Melbourne University’s previous Pride Games being held in the VFLW level. I’m sure this will change and things will continue to grow as many footy fans watched on and saw the impacts such an event can have. I hope so. Because whether your sexuality is something you are still navigating, something you are already proud of or you are an ally to your friends, family and teammates, footy is a space you can belong to and these Pride Games are strong symbols that show that.