A-Leagues' Pride round a positive first step on a long journey

Before anything else, it needs to be emphasised that measures of progress and success from initiatives such as Australian football's recent celebration of Pride and push for LGBTQIA+ inclusion can only be measured in a long-term timeframe -- what actual impact and change did it end up making? That's important.

Nonetheless, the moves over the past month by the Australian game to make itself a more welcoming and safe place for the LGBTQIA+ community were positive, thoughtfully undertaken steps on what will be a long journey. This wasn't rainbows and hashtags cursorily slapped on proceedings otherwise continuing as normal, but events paired with ongoing commitments to undertaking the necessary work and observing the required care in a genuine process for providing a more inclusive and safe environment for the LGBTQIA+ community, and a recognition that any of these steps need to be done in partnership.

And Pride matters. According to Pride in Sport, Australia's national not-for-profit sporting inclusion program, 80% of sporting participants have witnessed or experienced anti-gay sentiment in sports, while traditional male sports have developed a reputation as an unwelcome and toxic space for those with diverse sexualities or genders. 87% of gay men and 75% of gay women are completely or partially in the closet while playing youth sports, compared to 55% within the Australian corporate sector. 75% of people believe an openly gay person would not be safe as a spectator at a sporting event, while 60% believe a sporting organisation's positive track record on LGBTQIA+ inclusion would positively influence them to join that sport.

Per Pride Cup CEO James Lolicato, only 6% of LGBTQIA+ young people, a group five times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population, benefit from the emotional and social benefits of being involved in a team sport. For trans and gender-diverse young people, who face even greater barriers, approximately one in two will attempt suicide by the time they turn 25.

"In football, it is very often seen as an unsafe environment for the queer community," A-Leagues commentator Taryn Heddo told ESPN's The National Curriculum podcast.

"I have friends and people very close to me that still refuse to go to a men's game because they feel like they're not welcome, they feel like they can't go.

"There would have been people [at Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United] that went to their first game, genuinely. There would have been people today who had never been to any game of football or maybe had never been to a men's game who have gone for the first time and who feel safe and welcome.

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"I'm 26, but just in the last few years there's been an enormous change and we forget. Dressing rooms growing up were some of the hardest experiences I had and some of the places I felt the least safe. You were terrified of stereotypes.

"I grew up playing cricket and there were no out female cricketers. You kind of knew ... but no one was out, and no one spoke about it. It was completely silent. It was frowned upon if you were out because it wasn't the thing that you did.

"Those simple things, being able to say this is my partner or post a first anniversary Instagram post. Those sorts of things, for so long, people have felt they can't do that. For football to create a space where that is ok, where kids coming through now have people they can look up to ... that's huge.

"It's combating those feelings of shame, it's incredibly powerful. It's difficult to put into words."

Australian football's efforts across the past month started on a national teams level, where in their Cup of Nations win over Spain, the Matildas marked the first occasion that an Australian national football team participated in a Pride initiative during an international fixture: players wearing progress-themed numbering and coach Tony Gustavsson sporting Pride paraphernalia on the sidelines. Midfielder Chloe Logarzo marched in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade for the second consecutive year, while the federation reiterated its commitment to engaging with Pride in Sport to provide educational and training programs for its employees and other members of the footballing community.

Matildas players have never shied away from their status as proud members and/or allies of the LGBTQIA+ community and, in addition to the Socceroos' statement of support for the community in Qatar ahead of the 2022 World Cup, their act was yet another statement from the national teams, the ultimate symbol and reflection of Australian football, of their values.

"We have such an inclusive team -- always have and probably always will be," Matildas captain Sam Kerr said. "So it was something we were really excited about.

"I think the response has been great, [the numbers on the kits] look great, and I think it's always nice for the team to kind of stand in unity and show that we're all together and stand with all those types of communities that maybe don't get seen as much as they should do."

Alongside this, the A-Leagues marked their first-ever round dedicated to Pride, including the first of what will become an annual Pride Cup contest for at least the next five seasons between Victory and United. Though not the first league to stage such celebrations, league organisers the Australian Professional Leagues won praise for the genuine and sincere manner in which they organised their efforts, contrasting other attempts that have come across as being feigned, rushed and/or ill-prepared in their good intentions.

"The A-Leagues have shown elite sports what the blueprint for meaningful cultural change looks like -- and this is only just the beginning," Lolicato wrote in a letter to supporters.

"We hope that the future of football is now in a position to become a brighter, safer and more inclusive place because of the incredible work of the clubs over the last 18 months."

Pride Cup partnered with the leagues and players' union Professional Footballers Australia to stage over 65 hours' worth of educational programs with every A-Leagues club, as well as league officials and PFA staff. Staff at AAMI Park, who hosted the Pride Cup fixture, were given speciality training that will now be rolled around to staff at other venues, and steps were taken to update signage and facilities around the venue to recognise the diverse identities that would be in attendance. Nearly a thousand free tickets were delivered to mental health and wellbeing staff and volunteers that work with LGBTQIA+ populations, a special Pride Bay was set up for the Cup and a dollar from every ticket sold across the round was donated to the Pride Cup organisation to support its efforts at a grassroots level.

Genuine efforts were made to make stadia a more welcoming place for LGBTQIA+ spectators to attend. It wasn't just putting up some rainbow flags around the ground and calling it a day, but a process was started to make these venues a place that addressed long-held apprehensions and concerns.

"I'm the first to be often really cynical about these things," said Heddo. "But this was implemented in a way that was genuinely the way you implement these things.

"Those education programs are the crux of changing a culture. Because it means that the vast majority of us in the men's and women's game, who are good people that want to make an environment that is safe and inclusive for everyone, have the tools to do that.

"You know that it's going to lay the foundation for initiatives to continue into the future."

At the Pride Cup fixture, volunteers for Transgender Victoria, Switchboard, Pride Cup and Proud2Play were at AAMI Park, handing out literature and raising funds for their work in the community. For them, scepticism is an unfortunately well-earned starting point when it comes to these rounds, but there was a consensus that the A-Leagues' first attempt at Pride had been executed well.

There was also cautious optimism and tempered hopes that this would serve as a platform for future progress. Trans rights were broached as an area to be explored in future projects and efforts by Australian football; hopes it could become a leader in supporting the trans community, particularly young trans people, to participate and consume the game in a safe and welcoming environment. So, too, were greater efforts to support Pride at a grassroots level.

This, really, is the marker in determining if Australian football's work across the past week can be considered a success, why any praise for its work across the past month has to be tempered in scale. Making sport a place where LGBTQIA+ people feel as welcome as any other group is a long journey, and the past month is but one, positive step upon it.