Patience and respect in AFL talks key to progress for trans footballers Michelle Sheppard

When working with the AFL, it is important to understand what you’re dealing with. There is 122 years of culture in a country whose identity has been shaped by organised sport, binary male-female environments with a lot of uncertainty and very little education on LGBTIQ+ lived experiences.

When I migrated to Australia 16 years ago I remember reading an article that stated “organised sport has killed organised religion in Australia”. I learned early on that you must find a team to barrack for, and that business deals could be made over a pint and a pie.

This was fine when I was presenting as a middle class, Caucasian, heterosexual, married, masculine-presenting father of two daughters. When I transitioned five years ago, it wasn’t something I wanted to think about. I felt ashamed.

In 2013 I learned quickly that the transgender community wanted to remain hidden and over the course of the past five years I lost many things – my career and relationships with friends and family.

When it comes to transgender issues, I am not a doctor. I speak of my own lived experiences and through the many other transgender people I have met and interviewed over the years on radio and television. The conversation is complicated for everyone.

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Last week, I was asked to be a facilitator for a discussion around “transgender and gender diverse” sports inclusion policy at the AFL. Opportunities to come to the “big table” for discussions are such a rarity, it was an honour to have the chance to represent my community in this way.

We brought together some of the best representatives from around Australia who understand the weight of the situation with a focus on the long game for our community.

The policy presented was an early draft and needs much work still but the feedback we gave was well received by the AFL’s representatives. It was not easy, there was some hurt in the room, but we were allowed to give our true thoughts and concerns.

It was a chance to show respect for both sides and start a dialogue, which has been facilitated over the past year by the openness by AFL clubs to make positive change happen. It was a moment I am proud of.

I am often asked, “How can I be an ally?” My first response is to ask “What platform can you offer to allow discriminated voices to speak?” Tanya Hosch, a woman of colour and general manager at the AFL, did just that. She said she couldn’t understand what we are going through but could empathise with the discrimination and struggle by sharing her story with us and why she wanted to make sure this meeting happened for us.

The importance of this policy cannot be underestimated and it will be referenced going forward, even by other sporting groups.

Even though the public is aware of the draft, its contents remain confidential. But what I can say is there is a positive beginning and yes, the path forward is still long, but with the right allies in the right places, patience by both parties to listen instead of over talking each other, as well as mutual respect of each point of view, we can make more progress together than with aggression and finger pointing.



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