Ready: Coaches Simon Caldwell (Yarra Junction) and Dean de Munk (Yarra Glen) with the Pride Cup the two clubs will play for. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Australian football's first gay-pride game will be staged next month in a landmark AFL-sponsored event, led by country footballers.
Organisers of the inaugural Pride Cup hope the event will help combat homophobia and show young gay players that football clubs can be safe, welcoming places. In a celebration of diversity, 50-metre lines will be painted rainbow colours for the match between fierce rivals Yarra Glen and Yarra Junction on May 3.
Coaches and players have called on the AFL - which will fund a pre-game lunch and send senior executives to support the match at Yarra Glen Football Oval - to follow country football's example and use it as a template for a pride game at elite level.
It comes a week after the AFL joined with other major sporting codes at a launch in Sydney, pledging to institute anti-homophobia policies around training, education and sanctions at both national and local levels.
Yarra Glen coach Dean de Munk said he and assistant coach Sam Hills came up with the idea as a show of support for Jason Ball, who plays centre half-back for the team and remains the only openly gay player at any level of the sport since sharing his story in The Sunday Age in 2012.
''Jason's got more courage than anyone I know and he's helped me and our players mature through the stand he's taken. He feels safe and proud in his environment at Yarra Glen but it's time that other gay players feel the same,'' de Munk said. ''Imagine how much easier it would have been for Jason to come out if someone had done this groundwork years ago at AFL level and grassroots level.''
Yarra Junction coach Simon Caldwell said the club did not hesitate when asked to be involved. ''A lot of AFL players start out playing footy at a country club so if we can stamp out homophobia at this level it's only going to make its way through the game,'' he said.
All players will take part in an education session on the impact of homophobic abuse and attitudes and stereotypes around masculinity and sporting prowess, run by the Victorian Equal Opportunities and Human Rights Commission.
''The suicide statistics are much higher in the gay community and one of the reasons is institutionalised homophobia,'' de Munk said. ''I'm 43 years old and I feel guilty that over the years I might have called someone a faggot or a homo because they wore particular football boots or a particular top. I know now the effect that language can have and we're hoping that this Pride Cup game will open up the eyes of a lot of people and encourage the AFL to take the next step.''
Jason Ball said he was ''blown away'' by the support. ''When I was growing up as a 13, 14, 15-year-old kid struggling to come to terms with my sexuality, if I'd seen country footballers doing something like a Pride Cup game it would have changed my life and gone a long way to making me less ashamed and less frightened to be myself. A game like that on the national stage would have a massive ripple effect for young gay kids.''
Last year league bosses floated the idea of a themed Pride game between Hawthorn and Sydney but the event did not go ahead.
AFL spokesman James Tonkin said it had not been ruled out but a number of ventures were being discussed.
''The AFL wants to ensure Australian football at every level provides a safe and welcoming environment for everyone, regardless of their race, religion or sexual identity. We will continue to support impressive efforts such as the Pride Cup to break down barriers and to combat homophobia wherever it exists,'' he said.
Ball said the AFL's commitment to the national anti-homophobia strategy was a significant development but was only part of the picture. ''It's one thing to say no to homophobia but it's another to say we accept gay people and we want to celebrate that.
''That's what they signed up to with this strategy - a commitment to inclusion as well as tackling discrimination and I'd like to see them follow through on it.''