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Kicking goals for gay pride

Kicking goals for gay pride Dimitri Petrakis is courageously standing up to homophobic abuse. The AFL and regional leagues need to follow his lead

Michael Sweet 8 September 2015 1:33pm Facebook Twitter: @NeosKosmos Instagram

Aussie Rules is a tough game, and for one young footballer from Oakleigh, it got a lot tougher this season. “I don’t care what happens to me. It’s about the kids who are coming through who are too scared. There are kids out there who have faced this kind of stuff and killed themselves.” Bentleigh Football Club’s Dimitri Petrakis has always loved the sport with a passion, but after opposition players and supporters abused him on four occasions earlier this year, the incidents left scars; wounds deep enough for him to question whether he could ever run on to a footy field again. Aware that 22-year-old Petrakis was gay, the archaic slurs about his sexual orientation were the usual put-downs. From the touchline, “poofter” and “faggot”, they barked, and on the field of play itself, as Petrakis kicked, tackled, marked and contested with his hallmark passion, the insults continued. Despite his team mates sticking up for him, that wasn’t going to stop the bigots, eager to rile the gifted player. Complaints to the referee didn’t help, with the official – untrained to deal with the vitriol of small-minded discrimination – powerless to intervene. Remarkably, while the abuse unsettled and appalled Petrakis, it did something else: it confirmed for him that someone needed to make a stand. Speaking from home this week, the quietly-spoken footballer told Neos Kosmos that while being abused for his identity was nothing new, that it happened on the football field was a shocking and isolating experience. “At the time I tried to ignore it but it did affect my game. I didn’t play as well as I could have,” says Petrakis. “These instances affected me because it was while I was playing, and I love my football. It’s my second home, my sanctuary, and I feel safe there.” For Petrakis, it’s not simply about his own situation. “I don’t care what happens to me. It’s about the kids who are coming through who are too scared. There are kids out there who have faced this kind of stuff and killed themselves, and I’m just not going to let this happen.” Unfortunately, the reluctance of the Southern Football Netball League (the administrators of the competition Bentleigh plays in) to back Petrakis’ stand after the first cases of abuse compounded the problem. Bentleigh wrote to the league making them aware of the incidents, but the league, claiming lack of evidence for their inaction, made the situation worse. “Because we made a complaint, it became public knowledge,” says Petrakis. “All of a sudden the whole competition knew that I’m gay. I became a target, and the people who wanted to insult me weren’t worried about any consequences.” Bentleigh coach and former AFL star Paul Dimattina has nothing but praise for a player he describes as “super tough”. “We as a club and his team mates support him. These days with racial and religious vilification there are certain things you can’t say anymore and it should be the same with homophobic comments. Enough is enough.” Highly critical of the Southern League’s silence on the matter, the former Footscray player says football’s highest authority must carry the torch for gay players, with lower leagues unsure of how to deal with intimidation on the basis of sexual identity. “Ultimately the AFL has to make a stand and every other league would follow suit.” This week Victoria’s Minister for Mental Health and Equality, Martin Foley, appealed to the AFL and football’s authorities to ramp up their efforts to support Petrakis and other gay men involved in the sport. Speaking to Neos Kosmos, the minister said: “Dimitri’s to be congratulated in the leadership he’s shown, and he needs to be supported. “The club, his coach, and his team mates are also to be congratulated for rallying around him, Their actions are precisely what you expect from an inclusive, supportive community. “What’s disappointing is that the league so far has not taken upon itself to show such leadership and support.” Meanwhile, Dimitri Petrakis’ quiet campaign continues. In the off-season he’ll be hitting the gym, gathering his strength for next year. Before then he hopes things might change. “It’s about educating people,” says Petrakis. “Those who make these insults have no idea what someone who is gay is going through, or has gone through. Words can be a very dangerous weapon. It’s just a matter of being careful what you say, and thinking before you speak.”

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