Image: Supplied.

Two simple words that made a footballer

Gender inequality continues to limit and define the experiences of women and gender diverse people across the Australian sporting landscape in all codes and at all levels.

During the Covid19 lockdowns of 2021, I walked out of my local supermarket in Castlemaine, regional Victoria, and saw a lone A4 poster stuck to a closed cafe window. It read: “Mt Alexander Falcons football club - all women and gender diverse people welcome, no experience necessary.”

Despite an active youth, I’d previously had no interest in AFL — in fact, I had a visceral dislike for the sport. Like many people, despite the code’s recent efforts to update its reputation, I’ve always felt the AFL seemed to perpetuate racism, misogyny, and violence against women. I felt perturbed by the spike in gender-based violence on Grand Final days. For people who play professionally, male players take home more pay than their female and non-binary counterparts, and the league has often excused — even celebrated — atrocious off-field behaviour.

This is not unique to AFL of course. As I write, a pair of Broncos rugby players are apologising for a “late-night drunken fight”, which warranted nothing more than a “stern talking-to.” Unfortunately, rather than condemning the behaviour as out of line for professional NRL players, Broncos coach Kevin Walters was quoted in ABC news as saying “Sometimes it’s not easy. Rugby league is a competitive sport, lots of testosterone and boys like that have fun.” Poor fellas, it’s all just a bit of fun and violence right?

As an adult, I steered away from male-dominated sports, until now. I had never seen those two simple, yet often politicised words ‘gender diverse’ used in a sporting context. Seeing those words on a poster stopped me in my tracks, I pulled out my phone and took a photo. In 42 years, I had never so directly been invited to participate in a sport in this way. How could I not go along to find out more?

Following a series of COVID19-impacted false starts, I finally got along to the first ‘come and try’ session. I kicked a football. I talked to other women and gender diverse people who had turned up. For the first time in my life, I felt that I’d found a place where I was welcome by people who accepted me without condition or judgement.

By the second training session, then club president Lou Conwell informed us that the club’s application to field a team in the AFL Central Victoria league (AFL CV) had been rejected without reason. Our team would not be playing football in 2022. This didn’t make sense to me. In the wake of Covid19 delays and closures, and at a time where community sport was struggling to re-engage players, why would a team of women and gender diverse people be excluded from playing?

Gender inequality is often difficult to explain to those who’ve never experienced it. But what unfolded over the course of the next twelve months chalked up every example of gender inequality imaginable, including: a lack of access to grounds, facilities, and umpires; a power struggle between the male-dominated decision makers and our fledgling club; and a community divided. Inside our own club however, was an active demonstration of what a world might look like when it’s built from the ground up, with women and gender diverse people’s needs at its core. And the club attracted players and volunteers in droves.

Gender inequality continues to limit and define the experiences of women and gender diverse people across the Australian sporting landscape, all codes, all levels, regional and urban. As I filmed our experiences, the feature documentary film that began to take shape — Equal the Contest — became a clear demonstration of both the impact of inequality, but also the power of making real world material changes.

While the initial exclusion of the Falcons’ was the hook that made me pick up my camera, I soon realised that my own lived experience of exclusion in sport as a queer, non-binary person was also tied up in the narrative. In immersing myself as a player, I was able to draw not only on my own experience, but also create space for my teammates to share their own stories. These stories encompassed bodily autonomy, breaking down gendered expectations, building confidence, finding community, and becoming visible. My camera became a tool to record these stories and experiences through still and moving images and I ultimately created a feature documentary film, along with a photobook.

In realising that my experience coming into the traditionally male-dominated sport of AFL is sadly not isolated, I strongly believe that there is value in creating spaces in sports designed specifically for women and gender diverse people. While the space may be traditionally male dominated, we must question its ongoing relevance and suitability to a broader range of participants as we redefine outdated understandings of gender. The Mt Alexander Falcons demonstrates that ‘different to’ does not mean ‘less than.’

We are in a space of change, but the work is far from complete. Equal the Contest is our small but important contribution to the production of essential counter-narratives and the visibility of women and gender diverse people in sport. By documenting our experiences, we have created a model for other clubs and players to be more inclusive. To change the game. To equal the contest.

Equal the Contest has been selected for 7 film festivals in Australia and abroad. It is available for viewing on BeamaFilm and is launching to Buy and Rent on Amazon, Fetch, AppleTV, Google and YouTube on March 6th 2024.