SAM GILBERT, gay icon. It might not be a descriptor the St Kilda defender ever expected, but, according to Jason Ball (Australian Football's first openly gay male player), the description is quite appropriate.
Ball, a 28-year-old centre half-back for Victorian country club Yarra Glen, explained how highly Gilbert is thought of by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ) community.
"He's become a gay icon in a way," Ball said of the veteran Saints defender.
"Cartoonists and artists have drawn and painted him. The community is just so appreciative of him standing up and being a voice for us, and for pushing for change."
The two have become close friends, with Gilbert having taken up Ball’s invitation two years ago to join him at speaking engagements.
The pair has addressed sporting, community and special interest groups including an Australian Marriage Equality fundraiser about inclusion and the importance of breaking barriers and encouraging diversity.
"I thought it was more powerful for him to have his voice in the conversation as a straight ally to the community," Ball said.
St Kilda and the Sydney Swans are staging the inaugural Pride Game on Saturday night at Etihad Stadium.
The game – believed to be a world-first in professional sport – celebrates diversity and inclusion of all people in sport, in line with St Kilda’s broad community stance on initiatives including supporting marriage equality.
"We believe everyone should feel welcome, included and equal. This belief is at the heart of our How I Want To Be spirit and it's key to our values. We want to help connect people and communities by wrapping football in the unique spirit of St Kilda," the club’s website says.
The game had its origins two years ago when Ball, with help from his club, staged the first Community Pride Cup, an event that attracted national media attention.
An initiative that started at a country football club (50km north-west of Melbourne) has evolved to the national stage.
Ball's links to St Kilda originated through his friendship with Gilbert, and he will attend the Pride Game function with Gilbert's wife, Georgina.
Gilbert and Ball met in 2014, after Ball had contacted the AFL Players Association searching for more footballers to join the Pride March, recognising and celebrating Victoria's LGBTIQ community. Saints CEO Matthew Finnis was in charge of the AFLPA at the time.
Then-Carlton midfielder Brock McLean and Richmond hard nut Daniel Jackson had walked with Ball the previous year and Ball was looking for more support from players at the elite level.
Gilbert was one who joined the cause. Out injured at the time and in a moon boot to help heal a stress fracture in his foot, the Saint nevertheless took part in the walk through the streets of St Kilda, the inner Melbourne suburb with longstanding and strong LGBTIQ community ties.
"That was testament to his dedication," Ball said. Having Gilbert and other AFL players join Ball helped break down a lot of stereotypes.
"It sent a message to other people in the sporting world that saying no to homophobia doesn't make you less of a man.
"It actually means you're a good bloke and you’re prepared to stick up for your mates, regardless of their sexuality."
The alternative to not creating an open environment is what Ball used to experience at his local club.
Comments and insults made by teammates and opponents during games hurt him, even if they were not intended that way.
"I came to understand a lot of the homophobic language and behaviour wasn't coming from a place of hatred towards me or gay people, but rather just ignorance and not knowing the impact on me," Ball said.
"Once I was out, that homophobic language faded. It was the best thing.
"It became (obvious) to them that (the words) would have had a negative effect on me.
"(They weren't) necessarily directed at me, but every time I would hear those words, it felt like a reminder if they found out I was gay, I wouldn't be accepted."
Ball was 12 when he realised he was gay. "At the time, I thought that was the worst possible thing I could be," he said.
"I made a promise I would never act on those feelings, (would) go through life, get married to a woman, have a family, do everything everyone expects of me and no one would ever know."
According to the study Out On The Fields, which documented the experiences of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in team sports, 87 per cent of young gay Australians felt compelled to hide their sexuality in some way.
Ball hid his sexuality from his football club for many years, but he had made a promise to himself he would not lie about it if ever asked.
He knew trying to fabricate tales about experiences with women would get him caught out.
He was openly gay while studying at Melbourne University, so when an old school friend came to the football club, Ball's sexuality soon became an open secret, although he remained unaware others knew.
One night after training, while talking to a teammate, the conversation shifted and Ball was asked about his personal life.
"What about you 'Bally', aren't you seeing someone?" his teammate asked.
"Yeah, I'm seeing someone," Ball replied.
"Well, what’s his name?"
Unsure if he was being tested, Ball replied: "His name is James."
"Well, has he come to any footy matches yet?"
"Nah, he hasn't."
"You should bring him down, it would be really great to meet him."
For Ball, that sentence was incredibly powerful.
"That felt like a weight got lifted off my shoulders," he said.
"At that point, I'd never felt more part of the football club. All of a sudden I could be myself and didn’t have to worry so much."
Ball said he no longer had to worry about people finding out his secret. He was able to proudly identify as a gay man.
His decision to come out publicly was supported by Yarra Glen, which continues to back Ball in his journey.
Ball's experiences have shown him people are capable of change. An apology he received from one teammate confirmed that and left him speechless.
Ball said one of the club's gun players – viewed as a tough player and a 'man's man' – sought him out to right his wrongs in using offensive language.
"He said, 'I put my hand up – I'm probably the worst offender, and never thought about it until now'.
"(Change) didn't just happen, but (people at the club) were conscious of it for the first time.
"Not only did the club culture shift, but if language was used by an opposition person over the fence, people would pull them up on it, and say, 'You can’t say that'. In terms of a turnaround of culture, that was extraordinary."
Listening to Ball's story, Gilbert reflected on some of the language he had encountered early in his AFL career, on and off the field.
"It was never over the top, but that's not the point. Even if it was in a fun tone, it still could be very hurtful," he said.
Never feeling completely comfortable in an environment where he spent so much time was something the 29-year-old Gilbert – who is dyslexic – was able to relate to.
Although reluctant to compare his situation with Ball's, Gilbert said the pair shared some sort of affinity.
"That understanding of not feeling like you fit in, not fully understanding what you're trying to learn, that’s something I struggled with at a young age," Gilbert said.
"Jason's story reminded me of some of the things I went through."
Gilbert said the AFL landscape had changed in recent years. He was confident calling out behaviour that made people feel uncomfortable would happen at St Kilda.
"There are different ways of speaking up. It's not always about pointing the finger. Sometimes it's about education," he said.
"It might be something little, like 'That's not on here', or not engaging in what's being said.
"That's what we're about. We want to make a big stand overall. We want to be able to be strong enough to stand up when it matters."
Gilbert believes the AFL is ready for its first openly gay player, but only when a person feels comfortable enough to go down that path.
"We're definitely ready if that did happen, but in saying that, there's no pressure for that to happen," he said.
"The steps we're taking now are about making more people comfortable to continue playing sport. That's the main goal."
This is an edited version of a story published in the round 21 edition of the AFL Record, available at all venues.