With just minutes to go in the top of the table clash between the Dockers and Magpies, a woman’s voice is picked up on a nearby TV microphone: “Marry me, Duffy!” she screams.
It’s a timely moment of comedy for those watching on at home, as Fremantle player and star forward Sabreena Duffy tries desperately to defend a three-point lead in front of a rowdy home crowd at Fremantle Oval.
The spontaneous same-sex marriage proposal is just another of those many elements that make the culture of AFL women’s (compared to AFL men’s) so unique.
It’s fitting, too, given two official Pride games were played in this round of AFLW (up from one in the two seasons prior), and the fact that Fremantle just so happens to sport the first ever married couple playing in a national Australian Rules Football competition.
New name, fresh start
Better known to her peers as “Juddy”, Dockers captain Kara Antonio changed her surname over the off-season after marrying partner Ebony Antonio, who also plays for Fremantle.
And while the name change inevitably draws more attention to the couple, the Antonios have been out for several years — first telling their story to media in 2018.
Speaking to Danae Gibson for RRR’s AFLW radio show Kick Like A Girl, Kara Antonio explained that the couple had wanted to use their platform to “hopefully help a number of other people to be able to express who they are and feel comfortable with that”.
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“It’s normal for us, it’s who we are, and we’re proud to be who we are,” said Antonio. “Hopefully that gives the confidence to others to be loud and proud.”
Surname changes are somewhat more common in the AFLW than the AFL, given women are more likely to change their names after marriage, but it’s still unusual for a recognisable star of the game and captain of the club to change hers.
On this, however, Antonio said the decision was an “easy” one.
@kate_ohalloran Opponents today but still unified, Bulldogs and Blues celebrate pride
“My previous surname was linked to my father who unfortunately wasn’t around at all,” she said.
“I was raised by a single mum who was my mum and dad, and she did a bloody good job of it. That name was linked to a part of my life that I wanted to leave behind, to start a new chapter with Ebony and her surname.
“I’m really proud to be able to don that surname. They’re an incredible family the Antonios, and they’ve been very supportive of Ebony and I and our careers and life thus far.”
‘The stories are so much more emotional’
Earlier on the same day, on the eastern coast of Australia, simultaneous AFLW pride celebrations were taking place.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Footscray, cars honked and onlookers cheered as drag queens and a number of the clubs’ LGBTI supporter groups weaved their way down Barkly Street for the first official Footscray Pride March to an AFLW game.
A couple of hours later, prior to the main event at Whitten Oval, and in a tradition now three years old, the Western Bulldogs and Carlton ran through a single banner that read: “Opponents today/But still unified/Bulldogs and Blues/Celebrate Pride”.
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Fiona Newton, who was part of JOY FM’s official broadcast team on the day, and has covered several AFL men’s and women’s pride games, told the ABC these touches were part of what made the culture of AFL women’s stand out.
“The one big thing we [Chicks Talking Footy] have noticed with doing both the broadcasts is that the stories the women [players] tell you are so much more personal,” Newton says.
“It’s about their experience, their children, their relationships. With the male players, it might be about their sister or someone they know, but we just found the stories so much more emotional with AFLW.”
Indeed, the number of openly LGBTI women’s players provides a startling contrast to a men’s competition that, despite origins dating back as far as the mid to late 19th century, still has not had a single out player at the highest level — past or present.
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For Newton — who is also a co-founder of Hawks Pride (the Hawthorn football club’s official LGBTI supporter group) — having “out” women’s players means everything to football fans who crave recognition and representation.
“I remember when Erin Phillips kissed her wife Tracey [at the best and fairest] and then had her twin boys holding up the cup [at the grand final], that meant so much to me because it was around the time of the plebiscite,” she says.
“We were experiencing some really hard times in our community. Her actions just normalised it [queer sexuality].
“To see yourself and your community celebrated at a football game is really significant and something I never thought I’d see.”
Kate O’Halloran is a sportswriter and former Victorian cricketer. She hosts AFLW radio show Kick Like a Girl 12:00-1:00pm Mondays on RRR.