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Famous footy family fights for what’s right

It is a family of rare sporting pedigree, and yet it could also be any family. Loving, supportive, solid. Nuclear-looking, even, from the outside. And yet not without a degree of delicate challenge.

Angie Greene grew up surrounded by exceptional sportsmen. Her granddad, Frank Sedgman, won 22 grand slam titles across three disciplines, five of which were in singles competition.   Her dad, Russell, was a highly decorated Australian Rules footballer. Making his debut for St Kilda as a 16-year-old, Russell became a hero in a famous triple-premiership dynasty at Hawthorn. He was voted the VFL’s most valuable player in 1984 and retired having notched 304 games.

Angie’s two brothers, Steven and Brent, also had sporting gifts. The former following the footsteps of his dad to Hawthorn, where he played 42 AFL matches. The latter an outstanding 400 metre runner who was a regular schoolboy champion and, in his last year school, was athletics captain of prestigious Melbourne Grammar.

Sport was unquestionably a heartbeat in the Greene household and yet young Angie always had a strong sense, that her brothers, separated by three years, were having very different experiences.

Steven had all the things going for him that others may have envied: good looks, popularity, a girlfriend at 15 who is now his wife and the kind of affirmation that comes from captaining a Melbourne private school footy team in which he was regularly voted best player.

AFL 2001 Rd 20 - Hawthorn v Western Bulldogs

Brent never took to footy. “He played for two years – under nines and under tens,” recalls Russell Greene, inducted into Hawthorn’s Hall of Fame last month.

“We used to video the games. He flapped his arms, he did cartwheels in the goal square, and we missed the only goal he ever kicked.”

At the Greene’s home base in Bayside Melbourne this mattered little. Brent found his sporting niche on the track instead. Being a gun 400 metre runner gave a boost to his self-esteem similar to that Steven got from footy. It included him, and distinguished him, in a sporting community. And yet Brent struggled more than most kids.

Angie remembers the night he got home from a party and confided that he’d had a cigarette butt extinguished on his skin. Russell remembers what he terms “the mood swings”.

“There was a stage when we were quite concerned because they were very dark periods and they would last for sustained periods of time. It wasn’t just a bad afternoon,” he says.

All these years later, Brent says he was just very frustrated. It was an aspect of family life that was left largely unspoken. Russell, a schoolteacher, and wife Roxy believed the best thing they could always be for their kids was rock-like.

It wasn’t until the day he finished his last year 12 exam – 14 November, 2002 (that date is etched in Brent’s memory) – when he told his mum and dad something they’d long sensed: that he was gay.

About 18 months earlier Brent had told Angie, and a couple of close friends, that he was bisexual. He knew he was gay, but bisexual felt like an easier picture to present; that way the possibility of wife/wedding was still there.

It changed the course of his life and, years down the track, it also changed the course of Angie’s.

Brent understands better than most the role that sport – and particularly elite sports – can play in ensuring that all shapes, sizes and sexualities feel welcome.

“Mate, I’m not crying because you’re gay. I don’t care what your sexuality is. It’s just all those years when I could have helped you.” – Russell greene to his son, brent

Growing up, he felt that around tennis. He felt it around athletics and swimming. Brent said this week that being good at running “saved me in a sense”. But he did not feel good or particularly welcome around footy.

“I always felt separate from football,” says the now 30-year-old PhD candidate in landscape architecture at Melbourne University.

“Because of the type of terminology that was thrown around, in crowds and through the very masculine, heterosexual presence of these men.

“Then you’d have this huge internalised battle between yourself and what you’re hearing around you.”

Brent remembers how ostracised he felt from Steve’s footy friends who, in their downtime, seemed to spend hours sharing stories about sexuality – exploits, desires and the like – but not of a leaning to which Brent could relate.

When he went to the footy, he began anticipating homophobic slurs even before they’d been hurled over the fence. It became simpler not to attend.

“You remove yourself from that situation just so you don’t have to deal with it,” he says. “So I haven’t been to a footy match for years and years and years just because I haven’t felt welcome.”

Understanding his second son’s experience has caused Russell to deeply consider the sporting culture he thrived in.

“Using the word ‘faggot’ and ‘poofter’ was just par for the course in footy. I still reflect on how many people I might have hurt,” he laments.

When he spoke to Insight, Russell broke down when remembering what he said in the father-to-son exchange that acknowledged Brent’s sexuality.

“I said: ‘Brent, all you’ve wanted to say to me is that you’re gay’. And I started crying.

“I said: ‘Mate, I’m not crying because you’re gay. I don’t care what your sexuality is. It’s just all those years when I could have helped you’.”

All the way through, Russell and Roxy have supported their son in every way they could think to. Steven, Brent says, was instantly “very supportive” when the news was shared and now Angie has formed a budding enterprise driven very clearly from her familial roots.

Just five months ago, she registered the name “Stand Up Events” as a business, describing it as an organisation “dedicated to challenging the present heteronormative culture of Australian sport”.

The idea came on a overseas backpacking venture that had few set goals other than finding a life plan. What was clarified for Angie on this trip was an urge to do something tangible about her sense of injustice that still burns over the contrasting growing-up experiences, and ongoing life realities, of her brothers.

“I witnessed two very different journeys of two men growing up. Both were freak athletes but I feel like one was celebrated and one was not so much celebrated,” she says.

“I definitely couldn’t articulate it. I don’t know what my intuition was telling me, but my two brothers were different and one was so unhappy for a really long time and the other wasn’t; he was swimming through life.”

Stand Up Events has a big vision: to stage an annual fun run called “Move in May” and run satellite educational events to talk about sexuality-related suicide, the importance of language and more inclusive sex education in schools.

Determined to make the fun run happen next year – timed to recognise the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia – Angie is now meeting with a stream of experts, giving up two days temp work a week to do so.

Using her social media savvy, contacts of family and friends, and a large dose of instinct, Angie has recruited an astoundingly decorated list of Move in May ambassadors from AFL ranks. She has interviewed each and every one of them to satisfy herself that the fit is right.

The esteemed bunch includes Chris Judd, Trent Cotchin, Matt Spangher​, Brendon Goddard and Jobe Watson. Angie’s godfather. Molly Meldrum, heads the ambassadorial list beyond football.

Recently, Angie has met with the AFL Players Association and is planning to meet with the AFL to discuss her vision, opinions and plans.

“Standing up against homophobia, or celebrating sexual diversity is not recognised enough – at all – in the AFL,” she says.

“They’re the biggest sporting organisation, along with the NRL, in Australia. And so I think they have more responsibility. Almost every ambassador that I’ve spoken to has said that kind of language is still very prevalent in the locker rooms. But they’ve also said that if someone came out we would be absolutely all for it. I get the impression, honestly, that the players don’t have an issue.”

Not liking what she wasn’t hearing about homophobia in Australian sport, Angie Greene has taken matters into her own hands.

This article first appeared in The Age. The AFL Players’ Association will launch the IDAHOT video on Saturday Night Footy (May 16) on Channel Seven to #influencechange.