Winning with tolerance | Sydney lesbian club shows Australia it is bats for football

Barbara Baird, head of the women’s studies department at Flinders University in Adelaide, refers to sport as a “vexed sphere” for Australian women. Before 1920, women earned the right to compete in Australian Rules football and rugby league, but their competitions were consigned to Sundays, the only day the grounds were available. For playing on Sundays they were chastised by clergymen.

Similar disputes over playing space colored the development of women’s football in the UK, where women were banned from Football Association grounds for 50 years. To this day, conflict over use and availability of soccer fields continues worldwide. Warby writes in June that men’s leagues have sometimes been granted precedence when allocating pitches in northwest Sydney, causing concern over a threatened merger of the North West Sydney Women’s Soccer Association—the sole women’s-only association in New South Wales—with a men’s association. “Women’s football is a special entity that needs nurturing,” Warby writes, “and by merging with the men’s association, we’ll become marginalised further.” Conversations regarding the merger are ongoing.

While Australian women have excelled athletically, from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics through the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, it’s an open question where lesbians fit in the grand sporting narrative. Baird in a 2004 article mentions the prominence of women athletes among torchbearers at the 2000 Olympics, writing that their place at the opening ceremonies represented a “feminist statement of political achievement for women” and “begged a lesbian reading.” But public discomfort is such that torchbearers Dawn Fraser, a gold-medal-winning swimmer in 1956, and sprinter Raelene Boyle, a four-time Olympian, were persuaded not to discuss their sexual preferences despite disclosing same-sex relationships in their autobiographies (David Mills, “Quiet Outings,” Sydney Star Observer, 10 Apr 03).

Such cases lead Baird to write about lesbians’ invisibility in Australian life, unless they are targeted for abuse or stereotyped by appearances in events such as Sydney’s gay Mardi Gras. She quotes an analysis of the closing ceremonies in 2000 that “the inclusion of drag queens, gay icons like pop singer Kylie Minogue and her pink-tuxedoed dancing boys, and the army of lifesavers” managed to celebrate gay male culture while ignoring lesbians.

Warby acknowledges these issues and the problems for sportswomen in coming out. But the reality at the amalgamation of fields on which the Flying Bats compete sounds more practical: playing football, bonding as a community and working through everyday problems. Says Warby: “We think to ourselves, ‘We don’t like to be discriminated against. We don’t like people to make assumptions about us.’ … Pretty much treat others as you like to be treated.”

Sources

Barbara Baird, “Contexts for Lesbian Citizenships across Australian Public Spheres,” Social Semiotics 14 (April 2004): 67–84; Johnny Warren, with Andy Harper and Josh Whittington, Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters: An Incomplete Biography of Johnny Warren and Soccer in Australia, rev. ed. (Sydney: Random House Australia, 2006).

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2 comments on this post.
  1. Guido:

    Great article. Another example about Australian soccer being the most “representative” sport of Australian society.

    Other codes such as Rugby League and Australian Rules football do have people which are of non-English-speaking backgrounds, but their exposure to international competitions is small or in the case of Australian Rules nonexistent.

    The other team that represents Australia overseas, the cricket team, remains resolutely Anglo.

    If you look at the names of the players in the national soccer team you will get a great mix of Italian, Greek, Croatian and German names—a much more true reflection of Australian society. There haven’t been many Asian Australians coming through, but there have been some African Australians making some impression.

    Regarding gay players I hope that some day they will feel comfortable enough to proclaim their sexuality openly in teams that are “mainstream” rather than solely gay.

  2. Dan:

    Hi Guido,

    The Flying Bats may be a lesbian club but we also play in a “mainstream” league with “mainstream” teams, many of whom also have gay players. You assume that all lesbians that play soccer play with us! Now wouldn’t that be nice… :-D

    It’s not about comfort, it’s about choice.

    Rgds, Dan.

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