Sport

In 2017, trans athlete Hannah Mouncey looked set to be drafted into the AFLW. Tackling the scrutiny surrounding the bid, and the subsequent rejection, was to prove her biggest challenge. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Hannah Mouncey on the court of public opinion

Hannah Mouncey playing for Darebin Falcons in the VFLW in 2018.
Credit: AAP / David Crosling

This is part two of a two-part series.

In the middle of 2017, trans athlete Hannah Mouncey was trialling with – or at least being courted by – three AFLW teams, all while effectively homeless. Living in Canberra, Mouncey would make the seven-hour drive to Melbourne to meet with clubs or train with them. Melbourne, Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs had all shown interest.

“It was a bit of a weird time, if I’m honest,” Mouncey says. “I did a lot of kilometres. But football was really my best chance of getting a job and therefore stable accommodation at that stage. I know the Bulldogs knew I didn’t have anywhere to live, because I got out of the car for the first meeting with their list manager, and I had all my shit in the back of the car. And I was like, ‘Look, I’m really sorry, I’m not fit at all. I’ve been living in my car for two months.’ They said it was fine. It didn’t put them off. I had a really good feeling at the time that the Bulldogs were going to take me, and everything I’ve learnt since has confirmed that.”

For a while, Mouncey was optimistic about her chances of being drafted. But then the AFL called her in for a few meetings, and she began forming the impression they were inclined towards barring her. Mouncey didn’t just identify as a woman – her testosterone levels were practically nil – but the AFL had no policies on trans players, so there were no clear guidelines against which she could measure herself.

She voluntarily sent the AFL reams of biodata post-transition, and pointed out that, under the International Olympic Committee’s guidelines, she would qualify. And at AFL House, in a meeting with AFL lawyers and executives, she suggested the league temporarily adopt the IOC’s rules in lieu of their own.

She could tell that something had changed with the AFL. While she read news stories about herself, predicting her eligibility, she felt the media’s optimism was unwarranted. She could see the writing on the wall. Then, the day before the draft, in October 2017, the AFL released a statement ruling Mouncey ineligible. “I think the press release was leaked,” Mouncey remembers, “because the media knew before I did.”

The AFL’s statement was strange in that it said nothing about its reasons for the decision. In 400 words, it described its “process” and named its participants – none of them medical professionals – but it never provided its rationalisation. In part, this vagueness was attributable to the fact the AFL at the time didn’t have any gender diversity policy to guide its decision, and with its brief reference to Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act (2010) – a law that leaves an exemption to the act on grounds of “strength, stamina, physique” – we were asked to read between the lines: at 188 centimetres, Hannah Mouncey was simply too big, and posed a safety risk to her cisgender opponents. They did, however, leave the door open for her the following year.

It was curious to me, because height and weight disparities are an integral and universally accepted part of the game. While combat sports mitigate against them by imposing weight divisions, in AFL footy Caleb Daniel (168 centimetres, 72 kilograms) can share the oval with Max Gawn (208 centimetres, 108 kilograms) – and there are similar disparities in the AFLW. Teams rely on a harmonic mix of shapes and sizes, each specially equipped for particular roles.

But Mouncey says this is almost beside the point – there were other cisgender players in the AFLW roughly her size and weight, and her hormone therapy had dramatically reduced her speed and power, even if it didn’t look like it. “There’s a lot of people claiming to be experts in what happens to trans people’s bodies when they go through hormone treatment,” Mouncey says. “And they’re not, and they never were. For example, people go on about bone density. I don’t know anyone who’s ever won anything based off their bone density. If you do weight-training, your bone gets denser. And so therefore, as you age, you’re less likely to get fractures. But I’ve never known anyone to win any competition because of their outstanding bone density.

“Then a lot of the time people will make out that trans people are going to dominate the competition, because in a previous life, they were exposed to testosterone. When you’ve got no testosterone – I can tell you my numbers, which I gave to the AFL in my first 12 months after transition. My bench press went from 150 kilos down to about 60. My squat went from about 200 kilos down to 70. And my clean went from about 140 down to maybe 55. So, across the board, you’re looking at about two-thirds decrease.

“But that’s not just limited to strength. Your cardio, or aerobic capacity, is equally affected. Also, you lose a lot of muscle really quickly. I lost about 20 kilos of muscle in about five or six weeks, which is a lot, but then what happens is that your body does whatever it can to save it. Because if you lose too much muscle, you die. So, the thing is, whilst the loss of muscle slows really quickly, the effects of not having any testosterone on the nervous system keeps happening. So what you end up with is someone who, a lot of the time, might look a lot stronger than they are. They might have all this muscle, but it can’t do anything.”

In 2018, the AFL released its first gender diversity policy, revised last year, which it said strove to find “an appropriate balance to be reached between the interests of inclusion and ensuring a fair competition for all”. It also specified its eligibility criteria for prospective trans players. They would require a player’s testosterone levels to be at or below five nanomoles per litre for two years, as they would require the player to provide, for two years, various physiological data – height, weight, vertical jump, time trials, how much they could bench press, squat et cetera. Mouncey says that, in 2017, she would have met these criteria.

 

In the weeks before and after the draft, Hannah Mouncey was national news. She says she expected one small article, but instead her story generated hundreds of thousands of words. On television, while agreeing with the AFL’s decision, dual Brownlow medallist Chris Judd said: “The level of testosterone that transgender women grow up with for 20-plus years puts them at a distinct advantage to put down muscle bulk, create power that other female athletes don’t have.”

Veteran footy reporter Caroline Wilson agreed. Commentator and Melbourne AFLW captain Daisy Pearce said: “I think there’s some concern about her size and whether that poses mainly a safety risk.”

Mouncey recalls each of these comments painfully, but in Pearce’s defence her comment was largely about others’ concerns, and was made within a larger and supportive context. She believed Mouncey should have been eligible for the draft.

Regardless, Mouncey – already struggling with poor mental health – was the centre of relentless public speculation. The general public’s comments were vile. “One thing I’d say about the media, regarding the coverage of me, is turn the comments off,” she says. “It’s pretty easy.”

“I logged on to Twitter and Hannah was a major story,” remembers Taip Ramadani, Mouncey’s former handball coach. “I made the mistake of reading the comments that were being made to her directly. I reached out to her and one of my questions was: Can you disengage? It was ignorant of me because the abuse was so loud, and it was everywhere. There was some support for Hannah, but it was being drowned in a sea of hate.”

After we talk about the media’s treatment of her, I suggest to Mouncey she’s been too kind in her appraisal. “Well, I was copping so much shit that as soon as someone wasn’t giving me shit, I thought, ‘Oh, they’re okay.’ ”

At the time, too many commentators invoked safety when arguing against Mouncey’s inclusion in the AFLW, without realising there was another safety issue at play: Mouncey’s mental health. There was a cacophony of opinion, and precious little of it was informed by medical knowledge.

In November 2017, a month after the AFL’s decision, 60 Minutes profiled Mouncey. At one point, the reporter says: “There’s a chorus of opinion that believes that you’ve made this change because it’s easier to be an elite athlete.”

This is, at best, poor journalism. At worst, it’s bad faith that smugly asks to be responded to by good faith. This notion shouldn’t require debunking, but apparently it does. A person does not submit to profoundly transformative hormonal therapy, nor the subsequent anxiety, ostracism and abuse, so that they might qualify for a sports league. To suggest they might is not only offensive but patently ignorant – and to ventilate this garbage on television declares a greater affinity for the comments sections than it does with the life and mind of the person ostensibly being profiled.

Surely the first thing to be noted about “trans issues” is the shockingly high suicide rate. It’s higher than returned veterans. Earlier this year, a peer-reviewed study from Melbourne University found that among almost 1000 trans Australians surveyed, 43 per cent had attempted suicide.

But few people actually wanted to know Mouncey. That’s not where the money or clicks were. The money and clicks existed in speculation, in shot-from-the-hip hot takes, and in ratifying the public’s lowest tastes and anxieties.

Mouncey nominated again for the AFLW draft in 2018 but withdrew a fortnight before it happened. Not, she says, because she didn’t meet the newly minted standards, but because she’d had enough scrutiny and abuse – it was all too much. To support this, she publicly posted the biodata she had submitted to the AFL.

Today, handball remains Mouncey’s fondest passion and it’s in this sport she has the rare distinction of having represented her country for both the men’s and women’s teams. She hopes to play for the national team again. But the dream of playing in the AFLW has long passed.

Mouncey still experiences abuse and ostracism, and it would be overreaching to suggest she’s optimistic, but she does remark upon the cultural change since she came out in 2015. “Where trans people have come in the last six years, and just the visibility and acceptance of trans people, is massive compared to what it was.” 

This is part two of a two-part series on AFLW player Hannah Mouncey.

Read part one: Hannah Mouncey on finding herself.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 18, 2021 as "On the court of opinion".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.