Attired in bat wings, wearing trademark rainbow socks and marching behind a batmobile, the Flying Bats Football Club celebrated its “I Love Soccer” theme in March at the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, one of the largest such parades worldwide. (theflyingbats.com)
Editor’s note: The following represents the first in a series of articles related to women’s soccer cultures in the 16 nations participating in the fifth FIFA Women’s World Cup. The tournament begins in China on Sept 10.
Sydney | The Flying Bats’ fifth-division representative in the North West Sydney Women’s Soccer Association suffered its worst outing of the season on Aug 5: a 0–6 loss to Thornleigh. The taste of humiliation still lingered the following morning for team member Danielle Warby, who called the experience both “embarrassing” and “painful.”
But the community liaison for the Flying Bats Women’s Football Club, the longest-running lesbian soccer club in Australia’s capital, offers more fundamental reasons for the club’s existence—more fundamental than its four teams compiling impressive win-loss records. Socially, the club injects fun into competitive sport and, according to Warby, provides a network, especially for younger players, that does not revolve solely around the drinking culture that is strong in Australia and among Sydney’s gay community.
Further, the club offers an ethos of acceptance that has come about from having been on the receiving end of discrimination following the Bats’ establishment in 1986. The preamble to the club’s Code of Conduct (Aug 06) sets out the principles of diversity, tolerance and inclusion that, as Warby tells us from Sydney during an interview Aug 6 (see podcast below), were acquired after joining a competitive association.
When we joined that competition there was quite a lot of confrontation and hard work to get accepted. A lot of the people didn’t have much interaction with gay people. It was kind of a shock I think to some people, especially the younger lads who were there supporting their girlfriends—we’d get a lot of lip from them. Over the years things have changed dramatically.
Thus, the Flying Bats uphold tenets of fair play and the “spirit of sportswomanship.” The club’s policy on tolerance offers a nuanced reading of the topic that might have come from a philosophy seminar or from an enlightened roundtable discussion on theological ethics:
Tolerance is of two kinds. The first is a begrudging acceptance of some diversity, so long as differences do not impinge too uncomfortably on daily routines, habits, or attitudes. The second is actively seeking and welcoming differences, enjoying comparisons, and using the energy associated with the resolution of tension and conflict creatively.
For such strength of organization the Flying Bats have gained international attention. They form part of a network of women’s and lesbian-identified clubs in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Ukraine, Germany and the United States. Players commit to weekly training and instruction, to Sunday matches over a five-month season and to pre-season grading by ability and fitness to determine placement in the appropriate division.
The Bats’ rainbow playing socks
The Bats’ public presence may not seem surprising in the context of Sydney’s Oxford Street, where the city’s gay district is centered. But more widely, within a nation governed by four-term center-right prime minister John Howard and still held in thrall by the values of “mateship,” the club makes a de facto political statement while remaining, as stated in club policy, avowedly “non-political.” Mateship embodies positive Anglo-Australian qualities such as fidelity and friendship, but can also exclude those who defy the qualities of the Australian “benchmark man”: non-natives, women, gays and … soccer players.
The thread running through the late Australian international Johnny Warren‘s autobiography, Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters (2002), is the lifetime battle against a provincial, white Australia that feared influence from abroad and from its migrant communities of Eastern Europeans, Italians, Greeks, Dutch and Germans. Warren might have fit into the normative group, having grown up in Botany, a solidly middle-class suburban Sydney neighborhood, playing tennis, cricket and golf with his brothers and growing into an accomplished all-around athlete: a pinnacle of Australian identity. “Sport to many Australians is life and the rest a shadow,” writes critic Donald Horne. “To many it is considered a sign of degeneracy not to be interested in it” (see Chris Middendorp, “This Sporting Life,” The Age, 19 Mar 05).
But because Warren chose soccer rather than the prevalent Aussie football codes he took on a “missionary role” of advocating for the sport as a player and broadcaster. He recalls being confronted in the late 1960s by punters outside a Sydney bar, who showered the parading Australian national soccer team with epithets like “f—– poofters” and “Dago [Italian] bastards.” Warren over time began trying to debunk the stereotype, alluded to in the Aussie slang words that form the title of his book, that soccer was soley for women, migrants and gays:
Despite the fact that I played a complete range of sports like most Aussie kids, my nickname at school was “Wog Warren” because I also played soccer. Only sheilas, wogs and poofters played soccer, was the prevailing narrow-minded attitude. It was all a product of the area’s working-class allegiances and roots—of being suspicious of anything new or difficult to understand and instead exalting the image of bronzed Aussie machismo and the physical demands of work and struggle, best epitomised by the brutality of rugby league. Sport was a natural extension of the working week. The league players were society’s heroes. Rugby league neatly defined the way things were. It was an unsubtle game played at the end of a week of unsubtle work. Society and its sport, sharing and reinforcing each other’s values. A man was defined by his work and his play, so of soccer players it would be asked, “Why don’t you play a man’s game?”
Through recent achievements of the Socceroos and launch of a new men’s professional competition, the A-League, the sport may be overcoming these prejudices. Yet women’s soccer, as Warby agrees, still fights for recognition.
At the elite level, the Matildas, despite high standing in the Asian confederation, have lacked a women’s league since 2004. Soccer’s grassroots popularity among girls and women has also failed to improve the situation. National coach Tom Sermanni, former coach of the New York Power of the Women’s United Soccer Association, notes the paradox that netball, basketball, field hockey and water polo support national leagues for women (Michael Cockerill, “Matildas Desperate for a League of Their Own,” Brisbane Times, Apr 7).
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.”
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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The Clarkston Community Center, Soccer in the Streets, the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA and the International Community School collaborated on an MLK Day soccer tournament on 19 Jan 09. The sport helps bring together displaced children from Angola, Burma, Burundi, Kurdistan, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and elsewhere.