‘Open training’: Why this footy club invited trans players in

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The muddy footy field is a place where Olivia, a transgender woman, never expected to feel welcomed.

In fact, Olivia didn’t expect to be here at all. In January, the isolation the 28-year-old felt, coupled by the loss of family and friends she suffered as a result of her transition, culminated in a suicide attempt.

Yet here she was on Saturday morning, five months later, huddled arm-in-arm and grinning ear-to-ear, warming up with her teammates on the University of Melbourne’s oval ahead of the team’s pride round match against the Kew Bears.

The Mugars thirds team with their coach Carter O’Regan (centre). Credit: Eddie Jim

Olivia first discovered the University of Melbourne Women’s Football Club in April, after spotting a Facebook post advertising an open training night held by the club for trans and gender-diverse people.

The grassroots footy club, better known as the “Mugars”, has three teams that compete within the VAFA, Victoria’s amateur football league.

“I really thought that sport full-stop was pretty taboo,” Olivia said. “But as soon as I turned up at the ground at the uni oval, I was welcomed in like a long-lost friend.

“[Playing for the Mugars has] changed a lot of the mentalities and those preconceived ideas that led to some of the worst mental health of my life.”

That open training night, said club president Maddie Sheedy, was held to provide a space for trans and gender-diverse people who, like Olivia, felt unwelcome at sporting environments.

This has been especially important at a time when trans rights have become increasingly politicised, putting a vulnerable community at the forefront of a debate, and often, the target of abuse. (Olivia’s last name has not been included in this article because of this concern.)

In America, some states have banned trans women from competing in grassroots sports leagues, while some adults find themselves restricted from accessing gender-affirming care.

In Australia, at grassroots level, footy players are welcome to join whichever league best aligns with their gender identity. It’s the same for most sporting codes. At the elite level, however, there are thresholds: the AFL requires female trans players’ testosterone levels to be at or less than five nanomoles per litre continuously for at least two years, and to provide physical and athletic performance data.

Melbourne University Women’s Football Club invited trans and gender diverse people to train and playCredit: Facebook

Victorian mental health services are reporting an influx of distressed phone calls from LGBTQ+ people alarmed by recent anti-trans events. In NSW, an anti-trans lobbyist is facing two separate restraining orders after she allegedly harassed two soccer players, who both compete in women’s competitions.

In the face of this volatile environment, the Mugars’ commitment to inclusion extends beyond rainbow flags, though there are many on display at Saturday’s pride match.

Posters plastered on the clubhouse’s windows echo their values: “Transphobia is not tolerated here”, one reads. “All genders, identities, expression, pronouns welcome here”, says another.

Although the club’s name originally was an acronym for Melbourne University girls Australian rules squad, today they avoid using gendered terms like “ladies” and “girls” at training sessions, instead referring to players as “mugs” or “mugars”.

Sheedy said some players initially pushed back against this decision. Screaming “go girls” was an empowering battle cry for some, she explained, particularly as women’s footy leagues are still working to carve out their own place in a sport historically dominated by men.

But an open discussion led to those opposed agreeing that making the club inclusive for all, regardless of gender identity, was a greater priority.

Another club in the league, Brunswick West, have a similar stance. Players on both the men’s and women’s teams often introduce themselves to their opposition with their name, followed by their preferred pronouns.

It’s an initiative that West Brunswick president, Evan Lloyd, said has mostly been player-driven, although the club does implement inclusion education sessions ahead of each season.

“It’s been incredibly helpful for our club to be an inclusive space,” Lloyd said.

“We’ve had better welfare opportunities for our players, we’ve had better revenue opportunities for the club through sponsorship and through grants, we’ve had better social events, we have more chances of on-field success.”

But others within the amateur league have questioned the intentions of the Mugars’ open training session, speculating whether the recruitment of trans and gender-diverse players had more to do with bolstering the team’s on-field performance than it did with creating safe spaces.

One opposition club representative, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of a potential backlash, believed it was a recruitment tactic aimed at winning more games.

Both Lloyd and Sheedy reject this.

“The idea that trans players have a ridiculous physical advantage – and that’s a way to get a win during the season – it’s completely unproven,” Lloyd said.

Out of the six participants who joined the April training session, only one joined the Mugars – Olivia, who is “just happy running around in the thirds”.

Christine Granger, CEO of the LGBT+ organisation, Proud2Play, also disagrees with the concern: “The reality is, there are so few safe places for [LGBT+ people] to participate that when places actually do make an effort for us to be included, we will go there.”

But it’s not just clubs’ executive members who have outlined worries. Sheedy said some players on opposing teams have previously expressed apprehensions playing against the Mugars, because of a perception that trans players are more physically dominant than their cisgendered counterparts.

Mugars club president Maddie Sheedy hangs pride flags in the commentary box ahead of their pride round match. Credit: Eddie Jim

One club approached Sheedy this pre-season, outlining concerns their players had voiced. Sheedy handed over relevant league policies and educational documentation which addressed their concerns.

The president accepted her response, she said, and relayed that information back to the players.

“In most cases people are willing to learn, particularly in the women’s football space, but it’s just that external commentary that can be quite challenging,” she said.

When asked about a seniors match last year when spectators, who played for the opposition men’s team, were witnessed yelling transphobic comments from the sidelines, Sheedy said this was a common occurrence.

“In the past three seasons, there’s not been a season where we haven’t had male opposition teams, or supporters of our opposition, make commentary around our trans and gender-diverse players,” Sheedy said.

The league itself, VAFA, acknowledges there is work to be done. Last week, it announced a three-year partnership with Proud2Play and CM Sport (the centre for multicultural sport) to improve inclusion practices in the league, particularly for LGBTQ+ and multicultural communities.

“The VAFA is totally committed to ensuring our competition, the largest Australian Rules community competition in Australia, is a leader in inclusivity and delivers a safe and welcoming environment for all,” said VAFA CEO Jason Reddick.

The belief the women’s competitions are generally more inclusive than the men’s is a commonly held one, and one that’s echoed by Carter O’Regan, a transgender man who has played in both men’s and women’s leagues. O’Regan, who is coaching the Mugars’ thirds team this year, grew up playing footy with the Kew Rovers women’s team.

“I really enjoyed the women’s team. Everyone was so supportive. I came out to all my teammates at a pride round,” he said.

O’Regan continued to play for the women’s team after he socially transitioned, and after he underwent gender-affirming top surgery.

But when he decided to start hormone therapy, O’Regan knew he had to give up the community he found in that team.

“I was very stressed out about the whole thing because I love my football. Like, I love it. Playing for Kew and the women’s team helped me through a heap of my personal journey,” he said.

After suffering an injury that kept him off the field for a year, O’Regan has rediscovered that sense of community coaching the Mugars. As the final siren sounded on Saturday, he clapped from the sidelines, before he brought his team together for a post-match huddle.

The players’ faces were covered with mud, exhaustion and joy as they wrapped their arms around one another.

From the loud cheers, whoops and laughter that echoed from within, you’d be none the wiser the Mugars were thrashed, losing to the Kew Bears, 16-3.

Lifeline is on 13 11 14.

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