home AFLW, Op-Ed Representation of diverse communities in the AFLW a strong sign for future of sport

Representation of diverse communities in the AFLW a strong sign for future of sport

Our Siren Emerging Sports Writer, Courtney Hagen has written a beautiful personal piece as part of the program about the power of representation in sport.

Ellie Blackburn starred for the Western Bulldogs, while wearing their 2021 Pride Guernsey. Image: Megan Brewer representation
Ellie Blackburn starred for the Western Bulldogs, while wearing their 2021 Pride Guernsey. Image: Megan Brewer

Sport, despite its amazing ability to bring people together can also do the exact opposite. 

In my own personal journey with sport in its many facets, sometimes it has made me wish I wasn’t a woman, gay, short, outspoken, or even at times, a brunette—it has made me feel different or unsafe to have culture.

Sport didn’t make me feel safe to be who I am. 

My story is one of millions globally. For years the rhetoric continued as I signed up to some early entry program to a new and exciting ‘bright pink’ version of a sport that I just wanted to play because I loved it already. Growing up as quite the tomboy, I felt an ‘ick’ around having to wear bright pink uniforms or pink shoes because they were the only type made for girls at the time. It’s not that I didn’t like the colour, I just didn’t see myself in the tall blonde, beautiful, thin athlete that was advertising them. Nor could I watch said athlete on television anyway, participating in (traditionally) male-dominated sports. 

I felt like an outcast in my friendship groups. I was too rough and slightly gumby for netball and I hated being still—so any other sport would do! But they would all come with their own challenges for me.

And it wasn’t just sport inflicting these feelings on me, but it was definitely a space which exacerbated their intensity. Sport is my favourite thing to do. It should be a place I can be my best self, which is my whole self. 

The worst moments for me were during the time when I wasn’t out. I would hear my teammates say things about a fellow teammate or people on the opposition who were. I remember lines like, ‘okay, she’s gone we can change now’ in the locker room, or negatively stereotyping players’ competitive intensity or even their haircut with their sexual orientation. Hearing your friends, your sporting family, make fun of people so easily impacted heavily on my own self-perception, despite feeling relatively supported as a First Nations person. My ultimate low was quitting cricket after a ‘friend’ questioned my sexuality because I played the sport.  

Over time I’ve witnessed the human rights of both these communities, as a First Nations LGBTQ+ person, used as a pawn in politics, in corporate social responsibility initiatives and as a popularity contest with no genuine impact or relationship outside of a dedicated Pride month or NAIDOC week periods. These are important gestures, but they need to be connected to broader action and long-term commitments to inclusion and diversity 365 days a year.

We often see news articles and online click bait play host to an array of odd public debates and trolls who make comments on demographics they don’t belong to when these events come up. Mix this with historical homophobia and racism embedded systematically into the foundations of sport in this country and we’ve got a dangerous and frightening cocktail. It makes it hard for those of us who are part of these communities to keep fighting the battle and keep defending our place in sport which we sometimes don’t feel loves us back enough.

Related—Pride in Our Game

I had the absolute privilege of watching an AFLW game for the first time in my life last Friday—take it easy, I’m a Queenslander still learning the ropes of Melbourne. I tuned into the Western Bulldogs hosting Carlton in the first match of the Pride round, the staple match from previous seasons. I was amazed to see the rainbow 50-metre arcs, the bright rainbow uniforms, the giant Pride flags and the exciting atmosphere. But on closer look, the really enlightening part, the part of this game I connected to the most, was seeing the women and folk in those guernseys, the fans attending, the advertising and promotions of the matches. 

The AFLW hosting both a dedicated Indigenous round and Pride round this year in its short, twelve-week season, shows incredible leadership from the national league. It is not often within our national sporting landscape that intersectionality is championed and celebrated, not only through dedicated rounds but through a greater intention that speaks larger volumes than any uniform will. 

Stephanie Williams runs out for her debut AFLW game, donning the Geelong Cats' Pride Guernsey. Image: Megan Brewer Representation
Stephanie Williams runs out for her debut AFLW game, donning the Geelong Cats’ Pride Guernsey. Image: Megan Brewer

We are presented with a moment in time now where some athletes participating in the sport at the elite level, and all the way through to grassroots, are no longer products of the past system and have pushed their way onto our fields and television screens, dismantling that system and creating space for Australian sport to change our ‘pale, male and stale’ sporting identity.  

The stories from the athletes and club staff, fans and community really played a huge role in linking these gestures, rainbow guernseys and flag and face paint, to such a broader magnificent initiative in the AFLW. However, there’s still more work to be done in this space and not everyone can share in this important and empowering experience. One key area where there needs to be more work is in transgender representation both off and on the field. I look forward in hope, knowing there are other sporting codes prioritising deep, robust consultancy and establishing strategies, guidelines and opportunity for safer and stronger participation for transgender athletes. 

The major takeaway for me from my AFLW watching debut was the diversity on the field. There was a mix of age, race, culture and backgrounds—and the celebration of all that intersectionality wrapped up within these communities. Watching along I noticed it wasn’t just one or two players. The diversity of both teams, umpires, fans and the supportive broadcast—it was just this beautiful melting pot of people reflective of the society we live in. And suddenly, for the first time watching women’s sport, I saw myself and my community reflected in all facets of that game and the others I tuned into over the weekend (I’m hooked now!). 

As an intersectional, Aboriginal, gay, footy newbie woman, I applaud the AFLW for continuing to change the record. You can tell these incredible players and clubs stand on the shoulders of giants who fought a lifetime for equality on and off the field. With these strong foundational steps, we can continue to climb to break through this raised ceiling. Embracing this traction and pushing further, the power of sport can continue to raise the bar to achieve an equitable and united society.

Now I can call myself an emerging footy tragic, I can’t wait to watch these legends shine for seasons to come. 

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