I started playing water polo at high school and ended up representing Australia in the under-18 and under-20 teams, travelling to Europe to compete at world championships. Then when I was 20 I stepped back from playing at that top level. I did it to concentrate on study, but I was also at the point where I wasn’t fully enjoying it anymore. I’d lost a bit of the love for the game.
One of my old coaches was Rebecca Rippon, who is a two-time Olympian, a very out lesbian woman in the water polo community, and someone I really looked up to. The Sydney Stingers, which is a gay men’s water polo club that’s been around since 2000 or 2001, had tried to bring in women but had never had the critical mass to get a team together. So earlier this year they approached Bec and me to help drive the recruitment and we were able to get 35, 40 women. Two months later we entered two teams in the New South Wales metro comp.
The new teams were really embraced by the others in the competition. I think they see us and are like, “Wow, they’re having so much fun.” They know it’s not just a lesbian team – it’s for everyone, with straight friends playing as well.
It can be a really powerful thing, especially for a person who may be coming to terms with their sexuality, to see this club and think, “That’s something I want to be a part of.” It’s about sport, but more importantly it’s about community and making friends. It’s reignited my love of water polo for two reasons. First, the socialising and support brings back that aspect of why you get involved in team sport in the first place. Second, seeing new people get enthusiastic about water polo and wanting to learn from you makes you feel really excited about the sport again.
Whenever you tell people you play water polo they say, “Gosh, it’s so rough.” But it’s funny because when I was at primary school I was quite a good runner and really enjoyed netball, but I had bad knees by the time I was 12. In all my years of playing water polo I’ve never had an injury. It is rough but that’s probably what I love about it – it’s a really empowering sport for women to play because you have to be really strong, but it’s also a game where you can be a lot of different shapes and sizes.
The world Gay Games are held every four years and a lot of the teams are mixed, to be inclusive to everyone regardless of gender. I’m the only woman in the Stingers competition team [there are also recreational teams]. I think there are almost 10,000 athletes in Paris for the Games, and it really does feel like a mini Olympics. We had the opening ceremony last Saturday night and everyone was so excited for each other. It’s like the feeling you get when you go to Mardi Gras – at other times you can feel like you’re a minority, but here you are like, “Oh my god, I’m surrounded by people like me.” It feels really really cool. Everyone is well aware that everyone’s situation back home is very different so, for example, when the Russian team walked in to the opening ceremony everyone stood up and clapped. It was a small team and everyone realised it was hard for them because there’s continued persecution of gay people in Russia.
In my day job I work as a management consultant, and do a lot of work for the government on strategy and public policy. But then outside of that I’m involved in a completely volunteer-run organisation called Out for Australia, which is in essence a mentoring program for LGBTQI people going from tertiary education into the workplace. I was appointed CEO a couple of months ago and I’m responsible for about 60 volunteers around Australia. We also do a lot of events in partnership with different firms. It’s all about visibility and role models and sharing experiences.
Internally I battled with being gay for a couple of years. But then when I came out it was quite seamless. I was extremely lucky that my parents and friends are very open and the workplace I was in was really open and there were other people around who were out. Not everyone has that. Part of the reason I’m involved in Out for Australia is because I have had such a good experience. I think for some people who have battled and had to struggle to be included, you kind of want to step up for them. One of my bosses who is an older gay man talks about when he was my age and it was illegal to be gay. It’s so hard to comprehend that.
Marriage equality definitely helped but the challenge is that some people can think that it’s all fine and over. It’s easy to focus on the success stories in the places where it’s great, but you can’t do that at the expense of strong pockets where it’s not. It’s still hard for young people in the workplace in certain industries. And even in the sporting world, young people who are struggling with their sexuality or their gender identity still hear jokes and comments that make them feel uncomfortable.
The most critical thing is visibility – it’s what young people always say helps them the most. So you want people to come out and you want every sports team to be inclusive from the get-go, regardless of whether there’s someone who’s out in their team. Teams need to call people out on inappropriate behaviour or comments. And they need to set up an environment where it’s easy for people who are struggling to come out to do so.
This week’s highlights…
• Golf: US PGA Championship
Until Sunday, Bellerive Country Club, St Louis, Missouri
• Swimming: Pan Pacific Championships
Until Tuesday, Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Centre, Japan
• AFL: Hawthorn v Geelong Cats
Saturday, 1.45pm (AEST), Melbourne Cricket Ground
• Netball: Major semi-final – Giants Netball v West Coast Fever
Saturday, 3pm (AEST), Quaycentre, Sydney Olympic Park
• Athletics: City to Surf
Sunday, from 7.50am (AEST), Hyde Park to Bondi Beach, Sydney
• NRL: Melbourne Storm v Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
Sunday, 4.10pm (AEST), AAMI Park, Melbourne
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 11, 2018 as "The strong side".
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