Identity and acceptance in the male world of sport

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Don’t look away: A memory of identity and acceptance
By Danielle Laidley
Harper Collins, Melbourne
2022, 352pp

“Fearless, tough, uncompromising” are the traits for which Danielle Laidley, an elite AFL player who played and coached 300 games for the West Coast Eagles and North Melbourne, has become best known for. “Fearful, vulnerable, uncertain” is what Laidley has felt throughout her life and career, having been born a man but knowing she was a woman from an early age.

Memoirs of Laidley 2022 Don’t look awaytells the story of her life – from her childhood in the northern suburbs of Perth, through her career as a professional footballer, to her publicly exposed transition by the Victorian police.

Born in 1967, Laidley’s alcoholic father kicked her out of the house at age 12, saying, “I can’t pay you; you will have to go there. Laidley says in her memoir that addiction was a common problem on the male side of her family and affected her after her AFL career ended.

Laidley was signed by AFL side Western Australia West Perth in 1984 aged 19. She had become a father and ran a sporting goods business at the time. She made her AFL debut in the inaugural West Coast Eagles team in 1987.

Due to her aggressive style of play as a defender, Laidley became known as “The Junkyard Dog”. However, due to injury or suspension, Laidley would only play 52 games for the Eagles, missing all of their Finals matches in 1990–92.

After missing out on the Eagles premiership in 1992, Laidley was traded to the North Melbourne Kangaroos and played 99 games in 1993-97. In 1996, Laidley was finally able to play in a Grand Final. The Kangaroos beat the Sydney Swans with Laidley taking an important defensive mark against Swans striker Tony Lockett.

Although she initially felt relieved to have won a premiership, Laidley realized that winning a flag did not settle the emptiness she still felt. Despite signing a contract extension that would last until the end of the 1998 season, Laidley decided to retire at the end of 1997, taking on various coaching roles between 1998 and 2015.

Through Don’t look away, Laidley describes his journey to discovering his true self. This includes the time she went to the markets of Subiaco in 1991 dressed in women’s clothing. At one point she spotted a West Perth official but went unnoticed. Once she got home, her first reaction was “never again”, but that changed to “when can I do this again?”

During her teens and twenties, Laidley bought women’s clothes and makeup and hid them in the trunk of her car. She made friends at queer nightclubs, like Melbourne’s Three Faces, with transgender women, or in online spaces where no one knew about her football career.

Laidley coached 151 Kangaroo games between 2003 and 2009. During that time, she continued to suffer from gender dysphoria and had to hide it, which is no easy task in a male-dominated sporting world.

From the breakup of his marriage to his battles with ice cream addiction, Laidley makes no effort Don’t look away.

Laidley was arrested and then placed on three-month bail for good behavior, after breaching a domestic violence order in 2020. While in custody, police shared photos of her wearing a dress and a wig without her consent – ​​an act that police have now acknowledged was an invasion of her privacy and human rights.

Laidley announced that she was suing a police officer for sharing photos of her at Geelong Racecourse in November last year, without her consent.

After the forced exit, her lawyer Rob Stary told the media that Laidley had been going through a gender transition since 2019 and wanted to be called Danielle May Laidley, with the pronouns her and her. From then on, Laidley was committed to using her experiences to advocate for the transgender and non-binary community.

Laidley got a lot of support from the AFL world, especially the North Melbourne Football Club. She refers to the club and the transgender community as her “two tribes”.

Laidley attended the January 2022 AFL Pride Women’s (AFLW) match between the Kangaroos and the GWS Giants and a November 2021 press conference in North Melbourne celebrating the club debt-free for the first time since 1987.

It is heartwarming to see the support of former Eagles and Laidley Kangaroos teammates on his journey. The world of football has always been very masculine and the AFLW was only formed in 2017. Even more heartwarming is his recent relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Donna Leckie.

The book’s postscript mentions that 85% of transgender and non-binary people are diagnosed with lifelong depression and 43% attempt suicide. Eighty percent of trans youth between the ages of 14 and 25 have self-harmed, compared to 11% of non-trans teens.

In this context of the evils of transphobia, Don’t look away serves as an example for overcoming difficulties in “finding” one’s true self. Hopefully this can inspire transgender, non-binary and other members of LGTBIQ communities and the general public to overcome prejudice.

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