GayFL – how an iconic piece of queer literature helped me find the game

Image: Fox Sports

Dyson Heppell is doing a post-match interview to camera and I find myself fighting the urge to get misty-eyed.

“I’m super proud of the development of a lot of our players. I’m so proud to play for the Essendon footy club.”

It’s been a rollercoaster of a season and it’s written on the captain of the Bombers gorgeous face as he wraps up what’s been a blistering final match against the Bulldogs.

My Bombers have been knocked out of the finals for the 2021 season.

And while I’m gutted, I can’t help reflect on how fun this year’s matches have been.

The boys have played some great (and also some terrible) football.

There have been highs (we obliterated Collingwood… twice), lows (we were obliterated by Port Adelaide, Richmond and Brisbane) and abject nail biters.

If you missed the August 1 match between the Bombers and the Swans, you missed one of the greatest games the league saw all year.

But even so, I’m a little astounded at how much enjoyment I’ve gotten from a game I’ve only followed for four years now and a team I picked because they’re in a book called Holding the Man.

Tim Conigrave wrote the story of his relationship with John Caleo (right) in the Australian gay literary classic Holding the Man.
Image: ABC

It’s said you move to Melbourne, you pick a team.

And to begin with, I picked the Bombers to have a ready answer to a half-serious social question.

In the intervening four seasons, while my chosen team has won no premierships (like Richmond) and farewelled no icons (like Geelong’s Gary Ablett Jnr), they’ve somehow managed to make me an insufferable die-hard.

Even as a Queensland-born Australian, it’s impossible to name a time I was unaware of the game.

My maternal family was originally Victorian and so they brought teams and lingo north with them, like quaint idioms from a foreign culture.

I remember watching Carlton win the grand final on TV at the tender age of ten and relaying the match’s development to my parents in the garden.

Who knew what a rare moment that was then?

More than two decades later, my first memories of the rush that comes with being invested in a match return fond and familiar everytime I put on a red and black scarf.

But as a gay guy more comfortable in row J of Her Majesty’s theatre than on a footy field, serious fandom hardly seemed like a guaranteed match.

As a gawkish High Schooler, I wrote Hollywood slash fiction and hoarded Broadway cast recordings.

As an out(ish) Uni student in Brisbane, my one encounter with a Lion came with a strict warning that I’d regret it if I ever told anyone.

A decade living in Sydney, the theoretical NRL heartland, was a mix of State of Origin defeats, players domestic violence scandals and an understanding there was no compulsion to follow the menagerie of teams.

I didn’t see why Melbourne would be any different when I moved here, but it was.

For starters, in Melbourne, people talk about AFL all the time, and if you express even basic, conversational interest, you’re going to get sucked in.

I got taken to my first Bombers match at the MCG on a date, having been asked out by a gay man in all seriousness because I identified as an Essendon supporter.

He was cute, so I decided it was time to #DonTheSash.

The match was more than the ironic, softcore-porno panoply I had expected of fit tweens in silk shorts, though it was that too.

By the end of the match, I suddenly understood what had previously been just another painfully hetero Aussie institution… though it is that too.

Now, I rarely miss a home match and across two years and 262 days of lockdowns, they’ve been a godsend.

The Bombers were a left-of-centre choice of team. They haven’t won a premiership in over 6,000 days I’m told. In Melbourne that’s a thing people count.

I initially lived and worked in Footscray and a year out from their last premiership, the Bulldogs were (are) very much in vogue.

In Tim Conigrave’s autobiography Holding the Man, his footy-playing partner John Caleo is a dyed-in-the-wool Bombers fan.

It was one of the first positive cultural depictions of Australian gay men I ever encountered and when it came time to pick a team, somehow it became obvious I was going to pick John Caleo’s.

The Bombers have had a queer fan collective, the Purple Bombers, since 2014, and they do publically support them, to the point of having a rainbow pride guernsey.

But there’s still a Disney-esque and painfully hetero naivete about AFL that speaks to its lack of queer engagement and a hard pass on its place in queer history.

Anthony “Walla McDonald-Tipungwuti is a mainstay of the Essendon Bombers, capable of deciding the direction of an entire match with a handful of plays.
Image: Herald Sun

On a weekday in-season, the Bombers Instagram account is a meticulous balance of “look how hard the fellas train” and “look how hot they are doing it”.

The marketing analysis clearly wants the mums and bubs crowd, so any raunch that comes with displaying these precisely gymned bodies has a wide-eyed “well, gee, shucks ma’am” quality to it.

Nevertheless, there is a camp glamour that comes with being an AFL player and why it’s remained an unintentional side effect is a waste of good revenue and good queer culture.

My Bombers are a prime example.

There’s an Aretha Franklin-esque magnificence to Anthony “Walla” McDonald-Tipungwuti, who can appear out of nowhere, deliver a match-saving high note, and then merge seamlessly back into the line.

There’s towering, blue-eyed ingenue Harrison Jones, who moves like lightning and lands goals like Taylor Swift lands boyfriends.

There’s forward Jake Stringer, who crashes through matches like he’s Pink playing a stadium gig.

And let’s not forget our captain, Dyson, who combines the lithe body of a Calvin Klein underwear model with the earnest professionalism of Billie Eilish.

There’s a genius and an elegance to it all that sits outside the usual gaydar of jocks gymning and twinks pouting but still manages to be distinctly queer.

AFL is yet to have a Tom Daly “coming out” moment.

Despite professions of inclusivity (think Purple Bombers) and a fast-rolling, league-wide cultural update, the queer community still views the game as a profession for closet cases, and not without evidence.

A successful career player can retire in their thirties, a brandable household name with millions in the bank.

Hollywood has shown queer people for over a century, it’s easier to cash a cheque than rock the boat.

But the times they are a-changing.

Just like NRL had Ian Roberts, Australian soccer now has Josh Cavallo. Ready or not, AFL is next.

Here’s hoping it’s a Bomber. John Caleo would be proud.