This week’s AFL Pride Match acknowledges the importance of embracing and providing a safe and inclusive environment for gay and lesbian men and women in our game.

This is an important milestone. It acknowledges openly and publicly the reality that the game is played, coached, umpired and supported by all people. Not just heterosexuals. It is anticipated it will lead to further strategies, at all levels of football, to strengthen the feeling of inclusion for the many gay men and women in our game who may still feel uncomfortable and not able to be their true selves. Building broader community understanding of the great value and opportunities associated with fair, supportive and inclusive sporting cultures is an important objective – and something we all have a role with.

As a gay man, I umpired most of my life feeling I had to hide my true self. And do it in the context of performing at the same standard as everyone else- despite the despair that often accompanied this. At times it brought me much unhappiness. For example, I limited the inclusion of my partner, when others would include their wives, just to maintain a sense of the “acceptable” position. I hid my relationship, became less a person, because my whole life could never be part of umpiring. I still regret this and I imagine that there are people who may experience this personal conflict to this day.

It’s time we all made everyone’s contribution to the game, at all levels, welcoming and safe. 

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Goal umpire flag for Pride Match

The AFLUA and its members have a leadership role with this. I know many umpires who are gay and outwardly feel safely part of the current umpiring community and that’s truly fantastic. However, I know many who still today (at all levels) hide this for fear of retribution or rejection – being seen a lesser person. This is the greatest fear of a gay or lesbian person. Not just in football circles, but life itself. It generates hurt and creates enormous anxieties.

Umpiring has a great opportunity to leverage from this weekend’s Pride Game. We should acknowledge the contributions gay men and women make to umpiring and to the game. We should acknowledge historical challenges associated with this. And offer a better way ahead so that everyone has the same opportunity, from grass roots to the AFL, to fulfil their potential without the fear of being stereotyped or treated differently. Umpires who are gay do not want it to be their defining feature. They just want to be part of the ordinary.

I look forward to working with the AFLUA to support the umpiring community’s ongoing strategies in this regard. And in the meantime I salute gay and lesbian men and women for being part of this great game. I hope this weekend’s game is an important signal to all levels of footy that inclusiveness remains a fundamental guiding principle of Australian Football, and is important to our community values more broadly.

Article written by – former AFL Goal Umpire Anthony Black.

Anthony umpired between 1994-2007. Anthony umpired 252 AFL games including 25 finals and 7 grand finals.

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