Reportage

No limits

Trans sporting lives

…transgender – is a futurity of the here and of the now, a virtuality that does not belong to the past nor does it lend itself to projections of the future, but it is totally immersed in the very now of the present.
Caterina Nirta

 

My vision of utopia would be where I wouldn’t have to choose
(between queerness and cultural identity).
Willurai Kirkbright

I WANT TO PLAY

‘I want to play football,’ I remember saying to my parents. It is as close to a demand as it can be. An insistence. No extra words are required.

I am eleven years old. My brother Ben (three years and three days younger) has already been a registered player for four seasons at our local club, Albany Creek Excelsior (ACE). Every day we match each other in the backyard. I attend his games jealously, playing around with a ball on the sideline and, yes, maybe showboating my juggling a little bit at half-time in the hope someone will notice me and insist I should be placed in a team. I don’t feel like I fit in with the mums who try to coax me away from the field to come sit still with them on their fold-up chairs on the hill and listen to their conversations about things other than football. No thanks.

I don’t remember when I first kicked a ball. The ball is always there at a foot’s length, ready to attach itself to me. The charge I feel between me and the ball is electromagnetic and irresistible.

I talk and strategise football all day into evening, watching games with my dad. When I need to zone out of something unpleasant (the dentist’s chair, for example), I recall the formations played by Barcelona or Arsenal or Man U I’ve
memorised. Starting with the forwards. All the way to the back line and the goalkeeper. Football webs creep all over my mind and keep me balanced.

Our backyard is our church of football, which spills out into the park outside our house and to the nearby cricket net we use as a goal.

The protagonists:

my bro Ben – light-footed, tricky, quick

my dad – Wilhelmus ‘Wim’ – dogged Dutch football fanatic

me – Ellen ‘Eff’– two-footed, tries hard

our dog – Max – always up for piggy in the middle

my mum – Marie – occasional cameo player, upstairs to nurse scrapes and injuries, cuts up fruit to eat later – truth is I never remember being tired – I never remember anything that stopped me playing.

‘I want to play football.’ To play, to actually play, beyond the backyard, is the first desire that I express out loud. When I name this desire, it stirs something in me and something in my family and the people around us.

Reflecting much later, I realise that growing up assigned female at birth and Blak in a racist nation-state, I was not meant to have desires that were outside the desires of the colony. Everything around me was telling me I needed to know my place.

There is a perceived difference between Ben and me. He is a ‘boy’ and I am a ‘girl’. For me to play football, as a ‘girl’, is not as simple as it is for Ben. ACE has numerous boys’ teams – so many teams that in one age group, the teams are named after all the clubs in the English Premier League. But no girls’ team. And there are no girls playing on the boys’ teams.

I am also a child who rarely speaks, whose words and confidence come later in life. Of my dad and me, my mum says, ‘You’re scared of your own shadow.’ She tells me I have inherited my dad’s shyness. I’m also told I am like my dad’s mother, my Oma. I’m proud to be compared to her. Oma was a beautiful, kind, gentle soul, incredibly intelligent.

‘I want to play football.’ After months of my insisting, my mum agrees. My dad drives around the local area with me looking for a club that has a dedicated girls’ team: I can play and he can coach. They are hard to come by, and we almost give up.

But one day, Dad tells me we are going for a drive. We drive north, along Old Northern Road. We go over Cash’s Crossing. We turn left at our old church in Eatons Hill. We drive west, on the scenic Clear Mountain Road. We drive over Clear Mountain. We drive another fifteen minutes on the mountain range before descending into a farming area and the township of Samford. We turn right at the service station and drive through bush and farms for another five minutes. There, on a nondescript road, down a hill and next to a pony club, is the ground of the Samford Rangers. All up it is a thirty-minute drive.

It is 2002. My dad signs up to be my first coach.

A week later, Dad takes me to Amart All Sports in Stafford to buy my first pair of football boots. This remains one of the most joyous days of my life. I still remember ripping open the paper in the shoebox when I got home and touching the soft black leather. Italian. Shoelaces on the side. They don’t make football boots like that anymore. They are somehow on sale too, so they don’t break the bank.

‘At least you’ll look good,’ Dad tells me as I walk out of the house with my boots, socks and shinnies on ready to play our first match. I’m number eight. Our strip is baby blue with black shorts and blue socks that fade quickly. (My blue socks turn white by the end of two seasons at Samford.)

Years of playing in the backyard have given me a soft touch, and although I favour my left, I am conveniently two-footed. (Dad, right-footed only, tells me I need to learn to kick with both feet, that it’s important for footballers today. It didn’t used to be. Take Maradona, for instance: he was notoriously only left-footed! As were his politics.) But I have to learn stamina and match-fitness. My dad likes to tell people I tried to come off after just five minutes during my first game at Wynnum, a game that required us all to play the full ninety minutes as we only had ten players.

‘I’m hot,’ I said, apparently, and tried to sit down. But Dad didn’t let me. I was though! It was a fucken hot day.

 

IN MARCH 2021, from my home in Turrbal and Yagera Country, I spoke with Maddee Clark (he/him), Zakaria Shahruddin (he/him and they/them) and Louis Blake (he/him) to get an insight into their fitness and sporting hopes and desires. We spoke about utopias (and dystopias) in direct and indirect terms. Talking about sports is a way of talking about life, and our conversations flowed into the personal and the relational.

Trans and gender-diverse (TGD) participation in sport is about inclusion. TGD people, particularly First Nations, are the most systematically marginalised people in society. This is a group of people who accounts for some of the highest mortality rates across the world.

A year ago, I was told a story of a local trans girl who loved running but whose parents were told she was not allowed to run in a representative school competition. When the parents argued that their daughter’s right to participate in the event was within the rules – her testosterone levels were still low, pre-puberty – it was suggested she could run but not get a placing.

This is not acceptable.

The parents protected their daughter from this information so as not to upset her. She’s just a kid. How would a parent tell their daughter she is not allowed to run because the state sees her gender as invalid, her very being as a threat?

Fewer than 20 per cent of trans people play sport in Australia, and even fewer participate in team sport. Often LGBTIQSB+ children grow up feeling like they don’t have a place in sport where they can authentically be themselves without fear of judgement, harassment, abuse or violence. When TGD people are denied sport, they miss out on enduring friendships that often transcend many divides. TGD people do not pose a threat to sport, but they are the survivors of vicious transphobic campaigns to exclude them from doing what is a fundamental human right.

If sport is ‘sex-segregated’, heteronormative and explicitly trans-­exclusionary, what kind of world is created, violently policed and upheld? These spaces are forceful dystopias, complete departures from the liberated lives our ancestors had.

These dystopic places are the places where I’ve been told:

Line up according to your skin colour.

If you are a dyke you should find another team to play in.

Girls can’t play with boys.

You can’t play with the girls either because you look too much like a boy.

I have been subjected to degrading questioning of my gender during games. I have witnessed homophobic and transphobic slurs to oppositional players from my own teammates and have stood in frozen silence. I’ve witnessed anti-Blak, anti-Black and anti-Asian racism. In these dystopian places, First Nations cultures and peoples are continuously erased and violated.

I grew up in these places.

 

SOVEREIGN GENDERS

Let’s not forget we live and play sport on First Nations land. Let’s not forget the impact of colonialism on gender identities. Colonial gender binaries hold up the Western patriarchy. TGD identities – including sistergirls and brotherboys, pan-First Nations terms that describe some TGD people in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities – don’t fit into the rigid colonial understandings of gender.

These identities have always been part of our cultures. Brotherboys are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are assigned female at birth but live their lives through the boy spirit. Sistergirls are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are assigned male at birth but live their lives through the girl spirit. ‘Brotherboy’ and ‘sistergirl’ encompass both gender identity and cultural identity as well as roles in community and society. In the Tiwi Islands, sistergirls are traditionally called yimpininni. Identity is respected regardless of how sistergirls might look, as it’s the spirit on the inside that counts.

In other parts of Australia, some of the First Nations language around gender identity has been lost due to genocide. Some of this language is being revitalised.

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific, Jaiyah Saelua, the first transgender player and fa’afafine (an umbrella term in Sāmoa for someone who identifies as a gay man or a trans woman or as non-binary but with female characteristics) to play in a FIFA-sanctioned game, explains how sport and Indigenous gender identities co-exist in Sāmoa. ‘It’s very common, actually, for fa’afafine to play sports,’ Saelua says in an interview with The Guardian. ‘Sāmoan society has no limits on what fa’afafine can pursue in life.’

 

THE FIRST SPORT

Maddee and Zakaria have been friends since 2015, when they met at a party. Maddee is Yugambeh (Kombumerri) from the Gold Coast area. He grew up in Ocean Grove and Queenscliff in Victoria on Wathaurong Country. Zakaria grew up in Malaysia. Maddee and Zakaria tell me that talking sport with each other is a way to take a break from their identity politics; sport is something they have in common apart from both being trans.

MC: The first sport was basketball. I was eight. I played in a team that was, in theory, mixed. But I was the only girl on the team. I played tennis… It was pretty fun. When I played tennis in town, I played on a boys’ team because there was no girls’ tennis in town.

In Ocean Grove at the time, girls played netball, and boys played footy or cricket in the summertime. It was [a] very gendered binary. I remembered seeing one boy playing netball once. When I played netball I was Goal Defence (GD) and Goal Keeper for five or six years and I loved it. I got really excited by being good at playing defence. I got a real power trip from interrupting other people’s scoring. I had a bit of a role for myself there.

ZS: I was also a netball GD so I had the same brawl! And I did really like defending my people. I come from a sporting family. My dad played football [soccer] for his state growing up. It’s hard to assign class in Malaysia, because it’s a youngish country, but my dad would consider his family lower working class. There were not a lot of opportunities to get Western-standard education in the village: playing soccer was a way for him to get out of the village. He got scouted at an away game and then moved to [Kuala Lumpur].

My dad met my mum while he was playing soccer. Just imagine his long curly hair; he had a Vespa and he was playing soccer for the state. My mum was like, I think you need to go to school. He got into university because of soccer.

There were no girls’ soccer teams when I was growing up so I went into all sorts of other sports. In primary school, I did a lot of shot-put and long jump, which I was very good at. I got in the state finals for badminton, which I was very proud of. Before high school, I was always in three different team sports at the same time. I really like team sports. I had ADHD so I wasn’t very good at chatting with people but in team sport [I had] a structured goal. In high school, my family told me to stop doing sports and focus on my education. There was an understanding in my family that sports was good to build the person you are but not something you should pursue. My dad always said, ‘I was never going to play internationally, I just wanted to get out of the village.’

We loved sport. There was six of us kids so we could play a lot of sports in teams of three. You can play a real game with six. Dad played with us. We had a ping-pong table. We had a badminton divider. We had a soccer goal: Dad would always be the goalkeeper. I don’t know if this happens [in Australia] but in Malaysia we’d put the Adidas slides on our hands: that’s how you would [play] goalkeeper. Everyone wants to be goalkeeper for some reason in my house so we’d have to find a slide and put it on one hand and whoever put it on their hand first was goalkeeper. But because my dad was the person who decided when we play, he would have already had his hand in. Sport is still a big part of the family: we watch badminton almost every night.

MC: I was a Collingwood fan through my mum’s side of the family – they grew up in the Altona/Williamstown area and would go to Victoria Park on weekends. I got into Collingwood real intense and one person I remember keenly following as a kid was [Noongar player] Leon Davis. He was the star shooter, the small forward. I watched him a lot.

I remember the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. That was one of my earliest sport-spectator memories. I was watching everything, but I especially liked watching track and field. I loved watching the runners.

ZS: In 1998, the Commonwealth Games were in Kuala Lumpur. I was part of the dancing troupe at the opening ceremony. That was a very proud moment.

 

DIFFICULT JOY

Physicality is not easy for me. I was born prematurely with a neurological developmental disorder called dyspraxia and my parents, with the assistance of an occupational therapist, work hard with me for the first six or seven years of my life to do simple things such as sit upright, tie my shoelaces and write my name.

These things make my brain hurt. It’s something that continues into adulthood slightly invisibly (though doctors and sports physios pick it up: ‘You were a floppy baby’, they tell me). I am really happy when Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe talks about having a mild form of dyspraxia and how it sometimes prevents him from doing simple activities, such as writing or tying his own shoelaces. Everyday things that still make my brain hurt and my hands tremble include buttoning up a shirt, cutting a slice of bread and learning any new skill. The thought of doing anything complicated with my hands or legs in front of others can make me feel panicked because of my perceived difference. When I’m a baby my mother is told by the occupational therapist to enrol me in ballet to help my co-ordination. The classes are expensive for my single-income family and in my first-ever production as a Christmas pudding, I dance the wrong way in the opening. I maintain that all the other ballerinas went the wrong way and I was the one who got it right!

So it’s safe to say my ballet career doesn’t stick. At least my costumes get worn: my brother enjoys wearing them more than me. I’ve always been a bit butch like that.

In all the ways ballet is difficult, football is joyous. I can’t put into words how much I love going to training and playing games in my first season at Samford. I feel useful, proud. I think I love training even more than games. I love small-sided games the most, trying things out where I have the opportunity to learn, to grow, to play.

In some ways it is miraculous for my mother that I can play football. And play well. Even during my first season I am getting rave reviews and rewards. It is an immediate confidence boost. I am a striker. I am fast. I am skilful. I score goals. It is the ultimate affirmation. My mother notices the difference between my on-field and off-field personality.

‘When I first saw you play,’ she says, ‘I was surprised at how aggressive you were.’

It is where I can express myself. On the field I am determined and proud. I am finding faith in myself.

My first season draws to an end. At my first club presentation night, I sit in the Samford clubhouse beside my parents, watching a powerful electrical storm hit the field and humming the lyrics to Avril Lavigne’s ‘Complicated’ in my head. I feel different to the other kids around me; this is my soundtrack. After the storm, a beautiful rainbow begins to paint itself onto the sky. Next week is my twelfth birthday. I’m growing up in years and height. In a few months I will graduate from primary school and attend my local high school.

 

LOUIS

When I first meet Louis Blake in 2019, he is about to start testosterone therapy. He knows he will soon have to quit playing elite futsal with his team, as they compete in the state women’s league. He knows he has to tell his team he is quitting and why.

Louis Blake grew up in Essendon in a sports- (especially AFL) obsessed family, with a sports journalist for a dad, a cousin who played over 300 games for the Sydney Swans and an aunty who was a champion runner. He played women’s footy at high school but fell in love with another sport when he was fifteen.

‘Prior to Australia being in the [2006] World Cup, I thought soccer was boring – they play the whole game and don’t even score. Following Australia play in the World Cup – I realised less scoring can make it more exciting. [I’ve been] hooked since then.’

Louis’s AFL tackling and hand skills transferred well to goalkeeping, which became his natural position. He joined a futsal team, an indoor version of the game.

‘I loved it even more because I’m a short guy and I play in goal. Sometimes in outdoors you see a goal sailing so high above your head and going in and you go ugh, there’s no way I could do anything about that. With indoor I can reach the top of the net. I was hooked with that. And you’re more a part of the action.’

In 2016 he joined the elite women’s league in Futsal Oz and helped the team to a 2019 Australian championship.

‘I was operating my whole life under the assumption that I’m a cisgender straight woman. Transmasc people aren’t represented in sports whatsoever. To see trans men in sport you have to seek it out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything about a trans man doing well. Mainstream society doesn’t even know transmasculine people exist…let alone play sport, let alone be good at it.’

Louis speaks about inclusion in AFL, the sport he has grown up with. He tells me that during the AFL Women’s (AFLW) season they had a pride round, and the Western Bulldogs had a jumper with a number of pride flags printed on it.

‘That was really powerful. But I still note there are no trans women in AFLW: Hannah Mouncey was blocked from playing. You put [a flag] on your jumper, but do you walk the walk?’

Mouncey, who represented Australia in men’s handball before transitioning, was barred from entering the 2017 AFLW’s draft. The decision the panel made ‘took into account the stage of maturity of the AFLW competition, its current player cohort and Mouncey’s individual circumstances’. Mouncey’s testosterone level in serum has been below the recommended 10 nmol/L for at least twelve months.

The AFL later says it was ‘concerned about the disparity in body size and bulk that Mouncey may have over the existing AFLW cohort after only a year of semi-professional training’ and that she may nominate for future AFLW drafts. The AFL came under fire over its handling of Mouncey’s case and she withdrew her nomination for the draft the following year, citing poor treatment from the league.

‘She still gets so much shit and abuse,’ says Louis. ‘She’s become the poster girl for transphobic abuse, designed to discourage other transgender women. The message is: you’re not welcome.’

Meeting Louis Blake again in 2021, he is no longer playing women’s futsal. ‘I had to walk away from the elite level and the elite club. My teammate was like, why can’t you just keep playing? And I was like, are you serious? Because I’m a man.’

Not comfortable playing in a women’s league and not sure if a men’s league will accept his registration without questions, he plays in a mixed futsal team in a social league. He is anticipating another process that will affect his sport: gender-affirming top surgery, due a few weeks after we speak. ‘I think I’m still seen as a woman; I think it’s because of my chest.’

Mixed futsal league rules that require a minimum of two women on the field at a time enforce a gender binary and create discomfort for Louis.

‘They should just say what they mean: you must have at least two people on the field who have been disenfranchised due to their upbringing and haven’t been able to train in this sport since they were a little kid… The whole thing is not set up for me. I don’t fit into this whatsoever. Well I do – I’m just a man – but I don’t think they see it that way… I think it will be interesting to see what happens when I come back after top surgery, whether that changes. Over time I’ll be even more masculine. I’m in this weird in-between stage at the moment and partially that’s why I didn’t want to play and take six months off to transition a little more. I’ve wanted to avoid the whole in-betweenness because sport is not set up for anyone who is in-between in any way.’

After surgery, Louis will be unable to exercise for at least six weeks. He doesn’t know how long he will not be able to play futsal, but he assumes as a goalkeeper, it will be longer than an outfield player. In keeping, there’s a lot of getting hit in the chest, a lot of chest trauma, and he will ask his surgeon how much more time he’ll need to let it heal.

Louis is daydreaming about what playing sport might feel like after surgery. He can’t wait to see what it’s like. He wants to know what it will be like.

 

POWER

There is an active movement to exclude trans girls from sports, community and opportunity. Articles in the press ‘ask’ if cis girls will be safe if trans girls compete in girls’ sport, failing to care about the safety of trans girls and trans women. To put the inclusion of TGD people in sport up for ‘debate’ in this way can do real damage.

‘It affects me,’ Louis says. ‘I’m like: they’re talking about us again, the people who have no idea of what we go through or any of the science, even though they think they do. Do I want to read the comments on this, or do I want to have a good day?’

After a problematic and insensitively written ESPN article profiled former American college basketballer Kye Allums, who had just come out as a trans man, Allums attempts suicide.

‘Forty-one per cent of people in the trans community have attempted suicide – I was one of them,’ Allums says later. ‘That was all because of someone who didn’t take the time to listen to what I said – who didn’t care, who didn’t value me as a person and who just saw me as, “Oh, you’re just this story.”’

Intersex athletes, such as South African runner Caster Semenya, who has naturally occurring higher testosterone levels, have been vilified in the media and told by their sport their bodies are wrong. They are not wrong.

‘Muscles aren’t gendered,’ writes Siufung Law, a gender-fluid athlete from Hong Kong. ‘My body is a genderless body. Masculinity is different to muscularity: having muscles doesn’t make you masculine.’

 

STOPPING SPORT AND STARTING AGAIN

ZS: I stopped playing sport when I was fifteen. Stopped altogether. I had an injury while playing rugby, a slipped disc in my spine. My parents told me to stop playing at around the same time. Up until then I had been playing for my state in badminton and I had to stop. There was no real conversation about needing to heal; I just didn’t play again. I think it was my parents slowly manoeuvring me out of sports.

I definitely didn’t miss sport at the time. I was quite busy being a teenager and having a lot of queer feelings. Around that time, I had my first relationship and it was all-consuming. Now though, I wish I had had the support to stay physical.

MC: I stopped sport when I left my hometown and I moved to the city. I didn’t have any money or any social connections in the suburb I moved to. My mental health was terrible and I took up drinking and partying – that was also quite fun. Being physical wasn’t a priority. I didn’t come back to regular exercise until 2015.

That’s the year me and Zaky met at a party. I was quite deep in addiction – I had been for about five to seven years. That night was one of the last nights I got drunk…I wish I could remember what we talked about.

I got into boxing in 2015 with a good friend. The boxing gym was a fairly positive social environment for me for a time. There was a lot of people of colour there. There were a lot of strangers who had different lives to me. Heterosexual people in their thirties who had careers – who I never would usually come into contact with or have a conversation with. We would pair up and be given exercises to do. It was a way for me to safely come into contact with parts of the world and parts of the community that I had no confidence talking to. I was like, these people are so different to me, we probably don’t agree on anything, though we would spend quite a lot of time suffering. I like combat as a sport. The idea of hurting each other but it’s okay… You get punched in the face; it’s fine. Nobody shames you for that. It happens to all of us. It’s sort of like a safe place to be a little bit of a failure.

I took up powerlifting in late 2015. Both powerlifting and boxing gave me something to do while I was trying to quit drugs and alcohol. After a while, doing both at once became too demanding. I had to choose whether I liked being punched in the face more or lifting weights more and I chose powerlifting.

Powerlifting has become the most important thing for my overall health. It’s saved my life. It helps me to stay focused. It’s helped me build skills that I’ve been able to transfer into my work life and social life and it’s given me a lot of tools for sobriety as well.

My first competition was in 2017. I spent some time in Vancouver. I didn’t go to Canada to train but I got to experience a more developed powerlifting culture in North America because they have a lot more of a community and it is a bigger sport. I competed again in 2018 and 2019.

During the lockdown, competitions weren’t happening. I’m about to compete again so it’s been eighteen months. Under lockdown, working out became a bit of a lifesaver. I clung to it to give me some routine and make me feel like life continues. But it was a bit hard because my training space moved from the gym to my home. The gym is this outside space that I feel like I’ve studied... Instead of the journey from my house to the gym letting me build a mental space in which to train, now that space is literally ten metres away; just open a door in the house and you’re there. Having to build that space mentally for myself here is a different process. That affected my training a bit but once I got used to it, the transition back to the gym was hard again.

There’s been a lot of self-esteem talk for me recently. I’ve been working through a lot of inadequacy, self-doubt, vulnerability and fear. Also, every time I approach a competition, in the lead-up, there’s a point, three or four weeks out, where I consider quitting the sport and doing something else.

That point was last week. Last week I felt weak and bored and I wanted to try something else. I felt intimidated every time I went to the gym. This week feels a little bit better.

 

MADDEE LIFTS

Maddee lifts in his garage in Footscray. He wears a loose muscle tee and short shorts and Cons. Tattoos adorn his muscled calves and his left shoulder. His long curly hair and moustache gives me ’70s vibes. He has that cheeky Kombumerri twinkle in his eye and a wry smile.

Maddee lifts in his garage on a schedule: four days on, three days off. The weights are set against the brick wall. On his off days he jogs along the Maribyrnong River. Running is a different discipline, another kind of body knowledge, that he’s not sure has helped his lifting but that has helped his anxiety.

Maddee lifts the bar without weights first to warm up, squatting, pulling and thrusting his hips in a precise motion. He then starts to set up the weights on the bar, beginning with twenty kilograms on each side. His set of 200-kilogram weights were a combined birthday present from a group of close friends for his thirtieth birthday.

Maddee lifts with a weight belt around his waist. He practises taking deep, deliberate breaths before he attempts a heavier weight. He is trying to create a moment for himself of less than one minute, focus directed towards a singular movement. It’s a mental habit honed over a number of years. His aim is to perform carefully and well. In this moment, he wants to be confident, careful and precise, to be in a sweet spot where his arousal level will be just right: not too excited, not under-excited.

He sighs and shakes out his arms and legs before approaching the bar again. He claps the bar and wiggles his feet so his heels are facing inwards, almost touching, and his toes are facing out. His feet straighten up and his arms tremble. Larger weights are applied to the bar.

He closes his eyes and breathes in, prepares to deadlift 150 kilograms

Maddee lifts the weight. Triumphant.

 

I WANT TO LIVE

In my teenage years, the butch-shaming and gender-policing laced with racism amp up in both my school and sporting environments. This comes from adults too; sometimes teachers and parents are just as bad. Between the ages of twelve and seventeen it is relentless and I disassociate to get through it. They tell me I am different but at the time I do not have the words to explain, and I shouldn’t have to.

I have never felt like a girl or a woman. I feel masculine in some ways and feminine in others, as if there are two spirits living within me, harmoniously.

As a person who is often paralysed by fear of disappointing others and making mistakes, at some point in my life, I tell myself: it is very difficult, E, to be anonymous, and you’re going to have to push through your fear. It is going to be difficult for you to do nothing.

When I come out as trans non-binary in my late twenties, I do so slowly and as if I’m dipping a toe into hot water. I know many of my family and friends have fixed ideas about my identity and I fluctuate between being patient and firm with them. I remember saying to Zaky in 2018, ‘People always get my pronouns wrong, so I don’t care what pronouns people call me. It’s not life or death.’

Reflecting on this now, I realise I was in a place then where I couldn’t see a way forward. When I told Zaky this, I wasn’t being honest with myself or with him. I was not respecting myself. In the years since then, the more I listen to myself, the more being misgendered begins to gnaw at me.

Poet Essa May Ranapiri writes, ‘when you transition your memories become fluid’. Recently I’ve been feeling increasingly uncomfortable in my sport, as if the gendered systems and articulations and exclusions are ones that I can no longer ignore. Negative experiences such as transphobic abuse from spectators and microaggressions from coaches and teammates as well as the collisions between the personal and the political give me a soul ache. I hear whispers in the dark on a quiet night. I am asking myself do I belong here? For now, my desire to play has waned and been replaced with the desire
to live.

 

ZAKY WALKS

Zaky walks twice a day, before and after work. He walks five kilometres in the morning and five kilometres in the afternoon, sometimes more. He walks his rescue dog Kichu along the Merri Creek Trail, which is near his and his wife Caroline’s house in Fawkner. Kichu, a fluffy white Japanese spitz with heaps of personality, has helped Zaky solidify this routine. He has trouble prioritising his own wellness, but Kichu makes it easy.

He often walks Kichu through Bababi Djinanang, the Wurundjeri name for ‘mother’s foot’, which forms part of a system of Wurundjeri names for native grasslands along the Merri Creek that make up parts of the mother’s body. The grass is very green and lush and the creek is bubbling from recent rain.

Today, Zaky is in the mood for climbing a tree. Caroline holds Kichu’s leash; Zaky scales the tree, gets really high. As a kid Zaky loved long jump; it made him feel like he was flying.

Growing older, he remembers how agile he used to be. When he was younger, he would jump off and do a flip on the way down. Now he thinks he might die if he tried this. The fear. The uncertainty. He doesn’t know how his body would respond.

Zaky slowly makes his way down the tree and down to Earth.

In the last few years, no sport or fitness regime has stuck with him. There’s always been something. Work. Community. Family. There’s the pain in his back. He has to be careful with it. There’s the capitalism of fitness and sport that has often put him off. But walking feels like something that can’t be commodified.

Zaky walks.

Walking makes Zaky feel like he is in control of his life again.

 

FUTURES

In 2019, Sport Australia partnered with the Australian Human Rights Commission to develop guidelines for the inclusion of TGD people in community sport across Australia. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said at the launch, ‘unfortunately transgender and gender diverse people are sometimes excluded from sport or experience discrimination and sexual harassment when they do participate. While some reported positive experiences of inclusion, others described how they had been excluded from the sports they loved because of their sex or gender identity.’ These guidelines aim to help organisations create and promote an inclusive environment for TGD people. In theory, trans people’s right to participate in sport is protected by human rights laws and anti-discrimination laws. Yet they are still excluded. Barriers still remain.

The pressing need for change, for things to get better, often leads to utopian-imagining discussions within marginalised communities. The German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch says the essential function of utopia is to critique what is present. And so I ask Louis, Maddee and Zaky to share their visions for a queer and trans sports utopia.

LB: It would just be where trans people are free to play as the gender that they want to. I don’t know whether that means we abolish the gender segregation of sports. That in itself involves lifting women’s sport…but this is of course a utopia. It would just be that women are encouraged to play sport at an early age in the same way men are. And there’s absolutely no difference; the pay is the same.

People think women need protection from men; they are in their own category because they couldn’t possibly compete with men. But in my experience they absolutely can. People only ever talk about the absolute top elite level, Olympic- and World Cup-level.

Assuming the barriers for women in sport were knocked down and they could compete on an equal level with men…I don’t know if you’d have to have a testosterone-level category almost in the same way they have weight categories in boxing. Exercise is so much easier since I’ve taken testosterone: I recover faster, I see results quicker, I can go for longer.

In this utopia, it will be fine to be gay. In women’s sport, there are a lot of gay players. It’s much more normalised – but it’s still not great: there’s still homophobia. In men’s sport there’s absolutely nothing. I would love to see a world where you could have two boyfriends on the same team in the AFL – or on a World Cup team, maybe.

In this utopia I would have been able to see myself represented in the AFL. There would have been guys like me. Trans guys and queer guys like me. I wouldn’t have had to live the first twenty-five years of my life with something presented to me as life and nothing outside of that: I would have seen myself. By seeing myself, I would have realised I was trans and queer much earlier and it would have been a normal thing.

Some people say, how can you be into sports as a leftist? Because it’s so hyper-competitive, hypermasculine, so brutal, all of those things? But I think that ignores what sport can be: and that’s community. What I really love about sport is the story – I get that from my dad being a sports journo.

I don’t feel like I could ever turn my back on sport, no matter what. Even if sport turns its back on me.

MC: For me, the gym is full of people running towards their own utopias. There’s this famous statistic that people who go to the gym as a New Year’s resolution tend to quit by Valentine’s Day. They are so invested in a future body that they have in mind. But being so invested in the future means expecting and waiting and building towards something to such an extent that you miss what’s going on in the present and prevent yourself from existing in that moment. As a trans person, you watch this happen around you, month after month, year after year at the gym; you see cis people in that kind of utopian pursuit all the time.

My former coach, Mary Gregory, is a trans competitor in masters powerlifting. She was allowed to compete in the women’s division until she broke records. There are some interesting proposals being put forward by organisations like the International Association of Trans Bodybuilders and Powerlifters in the United States where they are suggesting that federations have an MX category and everything will be okay. They are trying to re-envision the gender categories in the sport and it’s just rehashing the same things over and over again. Every time you create a gendered structure around the sport, it’s going to affect the way that people see themselves and engage in the sport. They are trying to design a perfect system that works for everyone…that doesn’t work because the whole idea of sports being fair in the first place isn’t real. Most of the time trans people just want to get out there and exist in a sport and enjoy training. If you can’t pause and exist in that moment there’s no point.

There’s something really interesting happening in Melbourne now. There’s a trans man, Sam, who’s the second trans man to compete in powerlifting in Victoria; I am the first. He’s a personal trainer. He’s lovely. He’s building his own gym for trans and gender-nonconforming people.

ZS: I would like to play sports with some people who are trans and some people who are not trans. I enjoy the company of people who are not trans. Those people are my community. I deserve to have a community that is not separate: spaces that are niche give me creepy vibes. The tools being used to create these separatist spaces are also the tools that have been used to oppress us. I have never felt more dysphoric than when I produced one of the shows with Myriad, our trans art collective, and someone asked, ‘are you FtM or MtF [female-to-male or male-to-female]?’ And that was at a trans space. 

[EvN: This intrusive question is an example of a microaggression. Often people don’t know what microaggressions are and commit them unintentionally – even ‘woke folk’, as Zaky illustrates here.]

My utopia isn’t a trans utopia. My utopia is a utopia where everyone gets to find pleasure and joy in moving their body, be aggressive and be strong and be together in that space despite their gender. Which in itself is a trans utopia. It’s my utopia and I happen to be trans. This is what I hope for the future.

I’ve been thinking, if I have children, what would their lives be like when they are my age? What do I want to do in my community to ensure they have that? A part of me feels like if they have a safe world, where we are not so hot that we are burning, they can choose what they want for the future for themselves.

 

NO LIMITS

Louis, Maddee and Zaky’s utopic visions make me feel hyper-aware of my own hope for the next generation of LGBTIQSB+ children who want to play sport. For these kids to grow up with ‘no limits’ on their lives, in Jaiyah Saelua’s words. For there to be no limits and no fear for these kids. Maybe this could even inspire me to connect with football again.

The young trans girl I mentioned who was told she couldn’t run for her school at representative level? Her parents did get a response from the relevant sporting organisation, backtracking on the suggestion she could run but not have her place recorded. She kept her spot in the race and she competed with the other girls. She ran her heart out. She ran her race in the category of the gender she identifies with.

As it should be.

I couldn’t help but pause here with emotion, a whole lot of emotion.

And as I finish writing this, I hear of weight-lifter Laurel Hubbard’s inclusion as the first out trans athlete to compete at the Olympic Games – in Tokyo’s midsummer, 2021. This feels like wonderful news, but there should be nothing new about it. My utopia looks for a day when TGD people’s inclusion in sport is not news and not up for debate, when no one has to fight to have a space and when we move on from reports of inclusion to reports of playing.

Playing – and living: I insist on doing both.

 

 

References

Caterina Nirta.  Marginal Bodies, Trans Utopias (2018).

Willurai Kirkbright, Queer Utopias, https://soundcloud.com/user-886337325/queer-utopias-artpractices-willurai-kirkbright?in=user-886337325/sets/queer-utopias-art-practices-1

https://www.playbytherules.net.au/resources/videos/peter-hyndal

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/01/footballs-first-faafafine-trans-rights-trailblazer-jaiyah-saelua-on-stardom-and-sisterhood

https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/oct/17/afl-cannot-play-equality-card-when-denying-transgender-footballer-hannah-mouncey

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/kye-allums-trans-espn_n_4637391

Essa May Ranapiri.  Australian Poetry Journal 10.2. 2021

https://www.sportaus.gov.au/integrity_in_sport/transgender_and_gender_diverse_people_in_sport

https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/05/16/stripped-womens-records-transgender-powerlifter-asks-where-do-we-draw-line/

https://barbend.com/iatbp-trans-nonbinary/

https://www.tgenerationtraining.com

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