Identity and acceptance in the masculine world of sport

November 8, 2022
Danielle Laidley describes her journey towards discovering her true self. Book cover image: Harper Collins

Don't Look Away: A memoir of identity & acceptance
By Danielle Laidley
Harper Collins, Melbourne
2022, 352pp

“Fearless, tough, uncompromising” are the traits that Danielle Laidley, an elite-level AFL player who played and coached 300 games for the West Coast Eagles and North Melbourne, became most known for. “Fearful, vulnerable, uncertain” is how Laidley felt throughout her early life and career, having been born male but knowing she was female from an early age.

Laidley’s 2022 memoir Don’t Look Away, tells the story of her life — from growing up in Perth’s northern suburbs, through her professional football career, to her transition being publicly outed by Victorian police.

Born in 1967, Laidley’s alcoholic father kicked her out of home at age 12, telling her: “I can’t afford you; you’re going to have to go.” Laidley says in her memoir that addiction is a common issue on the male side of her family, and affected her after her AFL career ended.

Laidley was recruited by Western Australian AFL team West Perth in 1984 at the age of 19. She had become a father, and was running a sporting goods business at the time. She made her AFL debut in the inaugural West Coast Eagles' side in 1987.

Due to her aggressive style of play as a defender, Laidley became known as “the Junkyard Dog”. However, due to either injury or suspension, Laidley would only play 52 games for the Eagles, missing all their finals matches in 1990‒92.

After missing the Eagles’ 1992 premiership, Laidley was traded to the North Melbourne Kangaroos and played 99 games in 1993‒97. In 1996, Laidley finally got to play in a grand final. The Kangaroos beat the Sydney Swans with Laidley taking an important defensive mark against Swans forward Tony Lockett.

Despite initially feeling relief at winning a premiership, Laidley realised that winning a flag did not settle the emptiness she still felt. Despite signing a contract extension that would last until the end of the 1998 season, Laidley decided to retire at the end of 1997, taking on various coaching roles between 1998 and 2015.

Throughout Don’t Look Away, Laidley describes her journey towards discovering her true self. This includes the time she drove to the Subiaco Markets in 1991 dressed in women’s clothes. At one point she spotted a West Perth official but passed unnoticed. Once she got home her first reaction was “never again”, but this changed to “when can I do that again?”

During her teens and twenties, Laidley bought women’s clothes and makeup and hid them in her car boot. She made friends at queer nightclubs, such as Melbourne’s Three Faces, with transgender women, or in online spaces where no one was aware of her football career.

Laidley coached 151 Kangaroos’ games in 2003‒09. Meanwhile, she continued to experience gender dysphoria and had to hide it — not an easy task in a very male sporting world.

From the breakdown of her marriage to her battles with ice addiction, Laidley pulls no punches in Don’t Look Away.

Laidley was arrested and later placed on a three-month good behaviour bond, after breaching a family violence order in 2020. While in custody, police shared photos of her in a dress and a wig without her consent — an act the police have now acknowledged was a breach of her privacy and human rights.

Laidley announced she is suing a police officer for sharing photos of her at the Geelong racecourse in November last year, without her consent.

After this forced outing, her lawyer Rob Stary told the media Laidley had been undergoing a gender transition since 2019, and wanted to be referred to as Danielle May Laidley, with the pronouns she and her. From this point, Laidley committed herself to using her experiences to advocate for the transgender and non-binary community.

Laidley has gained much support from AFL world, especially from the North Melbourne Football Club. She refers to the club and the transgender community as her "two tribes".

Laidley attended the January 2022 AFL Women’s (AFLW) pride round game between the Kangaroos and GWS Giants and a November 2021 North Melbourne press conference celebrating the club being debt-free for the first time since 1987.

It is heartening to see the support from Laidley’s former Eagles and Kangaroos team mates in her journey. The football world has always been very masculine, and the AFLW was only being established in 2017. Even more heart-warming is her recent relationship with childhood sweetheart, Donna Leckie.

The book’s postscript mentions that 85% of transgender and non-binary people receive a lifetime diagnosis of depression, and 43% attempt suicide. Eighty percent of trans youth aged between 14 and 25 have self-harmed, compared to 11% of non-trans adolescents.

In this context of transphobia's harmful effects, Don’t Look Away serves as an example of overcoming struggles to “find” one’s true self. Hopefully, it can inspire transgender, non-binary and other members of the LGTBIQ communities and the wider public to overcome prejudice.

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