29/01/2016 5:05 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Pride vs Prejudice: The Match Of A Lifetime

Pride is the opposite of shame. It is the antidote to that corrosive feeling that makes people hide who they really are. Pride is everything, because for some, shame can kill.

Fairfax Media Dean Acuri

I had never been one to fly the rainbow flag. I was an out gay man but I didn't really understand why 'pride' was such an important part of the queer movement.

Now I know why pride matters. It matters because pride is the opposite of shame. It is the antidote to that corrosive feeling that makes people hide who they really are. Pride is everything, because for some, shame can kill.

When I first realised I was gay, I began to wonder if it would be easier if I didn't exist. I was 12 years old and I thought I wasn't natural. I thought my parents would be disappointed in me. One of my biggest fears was that the football club I had played with since I was five would reject me.

In the end, people didn't think less of me. I was embraced by everyone -- even at my footy club. Those same teammates I hid my true self from for so long stood shoulder to shoulder with me leading Pride March three years ago. It was one of the proudest days of my life.

The honour was given to me after I publicly came out as the first openly gay Aussie Rules player. I launched a petition that garnered almost 30,000 signatures, successfully lobbying the AFL to show 'no to homophobia' adverts during the 2012 finals series and do more to make the LGBTIQ community welcome in football.

When I led that march down Fitzroy Street in St Kilda, the rainbow festooned crowds cheering, it all clicked into place. Pride matters. Visibility matters. Allies matter.

And although I was humbled by the honour, in my eyes it was my teammates from the Yarra Glen Football Club who were the real heroes that day, as were the AFL footballers Brock McLean and Daniel Jackson, who marched by my side.

They become the first AFL players ever to do so, marking a watershed moment for LGBTIQ rights in Australia. As straight footballers marching for gay pride they broke down stereotypes, sending a message to the community that equality is everyone's business.

The following year, they were joined by more players, and last year St Kilda Football Club became the first team to march in club colours. It led to Saints CEO Matt Finnis -- who has become a champion of equality -- lodging a submission with the AFL to play the league's first Pride game this season.

The fixture between St Kilda and Sydney will take place on August 13 at Etihad Stadium, broadcast live on national television as a celebration of diversity and inclusion. I am so proud that the game is modelled on Yarra Glen's Pride Cup, which in previous years has seen rainbow-coloured 50 metre lines and team jumpers -- a visible display of acceptance.

How far we've come #PrideCup #AFLPride

A photo posted by Jason Ball (@greensjason) on

This is why pride matters. It tells the young footy fan at home struggling with their sexuality that they are okay just the way they are. When St Kilda players again march down Fitzroy Street on Sunday it will be a statement that says all of their fans are equal.

We need to take pride because it hasn't always been this way. In 1980, homosexuality was illegal in Victoria and in several other Australia states. It wasn't until 1997 that it was decriminalised nationwide. The elders in our community have faced persecution and violence, the likes of which younger generations can only imagine.

The inaugural Pride March Victoria, held in 1996, came only 18 months after an infamous police raid of a popular gay Melbourne nightclub in which witnesses said officers ordered "faggots" to put up their hands as they subjected more than 450 people to a humiliating strip search.

We've come a long way since then. Last year Victoria Police apologised for the raid. But as recently as 2014, on Pride March morning, homophobic graffiti was scrawled across Fitzroy Street, reading "Proud of what? Filthy fags. Keep in your closet". Just this week, homophobic stickers appeared on Chapel Street calling for violence against gay men.

This is why we march...

A photo posted by Jason Ball (@greensjason) on

This is why we keep marching. We must celebrate pride, together. We must create a space for the LGBTIQ community to feel proud of who they are. We must build resilience and belonging. We must send a message to society that equality is paramount, and counter discrimination with love.

On Sunday 31 January, I'll be marching in Pride again, and this time I'll be marching with the Greens. As a candidate for the federal seat of Higgins at this year's election I am campaigning strongly on LGBTIQ equality and I am proud to belong to a party that has led the way in this area.

Bob Brown, a founder of the Greens movement, has been an incredible role model to me, as an openly gay man in Parliament. It was Christine Milne's Bill that decriminalised homosexuality in Tasmania in 1997, after more than a decade of campaigning and negotiating. Every time marriage equality has come up for a vote, every Green MP has voted in favour -- every time.

I have worked in youth mental health for the past three years and am acutely aware of the disproportionately high rates of suicide, self-harm and mental ill health experienced by young queer people. This is not because of who they are but because of inherent and systemic discrimination, some of which is enshrined in our laws.

This has to change. We are on the cusp of achieving marriage equality in Australia, with pressure mounting on Prime Minister Turnbull to drop Tony Abbott's plebiscite in favour of a vote in Parliament before the next election. This year's Pride March is the first time in its 21-year history that there will be a single theme: marriage equality. It provides us with an incredible opportunity to show Mr Turnbull that we want equal rights now, not after the next election.

Queer or straight, you can show your support for the LGBTIQ community at Pride on Sunday 31 January, Fitzroy Street St Kilda. March by my side, with the Greens, or with one of the over 200 other contingents taking part in this free and family friendly celebration of love, acceptance and diversity.

I hope to see you there.