Queer Sporting Alliance boosting gender diversity in sport

In March this year, the Queer Sporting Alliance (QSA) took out the Outstanding Contribution to Sport Award at the Victorian Pride Awards.

The QSA is Australia and New Zealand’s largest LGBTIQA+ sporting club, and the award recognises its ongoing efforts to provide queer-friendly sporting environments and events.

They have included Australia’s first and largest queer basketball tournament, which featured more than 180 players from around Australia and took place on Wurundjeri Country in the northern suburbs of Naarm/Melbourne in January 2024.

The QSA’s focus is on participation and creating a space for those who have previously been excluded from sport.

The QSA focuses on creating safe spaces for those who have previously been excluded from sport. (Supplied: Kirsty Marshall)

Some participants had not played basketball in many years before the tournament, and for some it was their first time stepping onto a court.

The tournament, and all QSA programs, welcome queer folk as well as straight allies.

“It was like Mardi Gras but for gays who love sport,” participant Jethro Athlas said.

“It was my dream come true.”

QSA president Stella Lesic said the tournament was significant because it ensured players of any gender identity could participate.

Queer Sporting Alliance President Stella Lesic defends the basketball

Queer Sporting Alliance president Stella Lesic said the tournament did not require players to out themselves.(Supplied: Monique Clarke)

“The tournament didn’t require any player to out themselves [unless they wanted to] or have a referee assume their gender for the purpose of applying mixed/gendered basketball rules,” they said.

“Particularly for players taking steps to gender affirmation or who have experienced transphobia in sport, our tournament and the QLeague are game-changing.

“For the first time in basketball’s history, players could just play.”

Associate professor Ada Cheung is a clinician, scientist and endocrinologist specialising in the treatment of transgender individuals and sees the benefits the QSA brings to the community.

“What QSA does is beneficial, not just for queer people, but for everybody,” she says.

“[At] the grassroots level, there needs to be much more of a focus on participation [for gender diverse people].”

Woman with short hair wearing a red shirt and black jacket, sitting in an office.

Ada Cheung says there should be more focus on the participation of gender diverse people in sport. (ABC News)

Bringing queer people back to basketball

Athlas started basketball at 11 years old and played until they came out as non-binary at 23.

“I felt I couldn’t show up as me with the binary rules of a regular competition and I didn’t have many other queer friends at the time to make a team that felt safe,” they said.

Fellow tournament participant Leigh Seelie had a similar story of dropping out of sport after coming out as trans.

“I played on and off during my adulthood and stopped around four years ago as I started to transition,” she said.

“I did not feel that the captain of my team would accept me as they had made a number of transphobic posts on Facebook.

“I did not find a new team as I was concerned about how people would react to me playing and I did not want to be spotlighted.

“When the [QSA] tournament came up, I was very excited to play … It felt like a great opportunity to play a sport I loved again.”

The referee awards a four point shot in the QSA basketball tournament

Many QSA tournament participants have similar stories of dropping out of mainstream sport. (Supplied: Kirsty Marshall)

While at first Seelie felt “overwhelmed” about playing in the tournament after time away from the game, she said her team made her feel very welcome.

“I felt a huge amount of joy just being able to be me and play a game I loved,” she said.

With more than 1,000 members registered around Australia, the QSA has also seen an influx of straight, cisgender men and women joining the club.

“QLeague is a joy,” QSA regular and ally Greg Craske said.

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The sporting competition where all genders are welcome

Post-pandemic, queer folk are more isolated than ever.

Research shows that queer people have struggled to find community offline, as well as non-drinking spaces to gather.

Enter Melbourne University Soccer Club’s All Gender Games (AGG).

On a Sunday afternoon at Carlton’s iconic Princes Park, everyone is welcome for a game of soccer, followed by a hearty meal.

AGG was created in 2021. It is a fluid format soccer series made for queer, trans and gender diverse people and also welcomes black, Indigenous, and other people of colour (BIPOC) players and their allies.

The photos in this essay are from the second iteration of the games, which took place in March and April 2023.

Team photo from the latest iteration of the All Gender Games.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Cat Hoang)

Rishiroop is a Marketing student at the University of Melbourne.

This year was his first ever AGG, where he joined as an ally after discovering the event on Instagram.

A man wearing a blue shirt stands on a football field, he is looking into the distance, pictured right of frame.

Rishi wanted to join the All Gender Games as an ally.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Cat Hoang)

“I wanted to learn and experience and understand these things [LGBTQIA+ issues] because it is an important part of our society,” he says.

“How I connect to people, like people from my state (Tripura, India) and people from different backgrounds is for me, playing football.”

AGG is managed in an experimental format where teams are assigned at random regardless of gender identity, to move away from gender quotas enforced by mixed competition that often erase gender diverse athletes.

Depending on how many people come to play, organisers adapt rules, field size and numbers on the pitch to optimise game flow for maximum enjoyment.

A person wearing a pink shirt with rainbow circles stands on a football field and smiles, with a football at their feet.

Karlee says “there is a place for you at All Gender Games”.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Cat Hoang)

Karlee is a teacher and disability advocate who watched the 2021 AGG from the sidelines before joining in the fun 2023.

They were on a journey of finding their own space and a community that they felt they could connect with on and off the field.

“We just all did that awkward dance of getting to know one another, and catching up,” Karlee says.

“Eventually, you follow each other on socials and then you’ve got more community which is really nice.”

A safe and judgement-free space is also essential to the tournament.

Coaches and volunteers work together to ensure players’ emotional and physical safety, by respecting different identities and channelling competitive spirits positively.

Six people wearing t-shirts and shorts have their arms raised above their heads, as they warm up for a football match.

People from all different backgrounds get involved with the AGG. ( Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Cat Hoang)

“I tend to get very emotionally involved with the game. But I learned how to be emotionally involved in a different manner, in a much more positive manner,” Rish says.

Due to anti-trans protests occurring during the event’s run in Melbourne, game marshals are present at the matches to give players peace of mind.

Participants are also offered kits in a range of cuts and sizes that come with name tags where folks can specify their pronouns.

Two people wearing pink t-shirts smile and clasp their hands together,

More than 130 cumulative participants took part in the event over its five-week run, receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Cat Hoang)

Participants attributed their enjoyment to comfort on the field and being able to connect with other like-minded people, many wanting the event to run the length of a regular season.

Chris is the president of Victoria’s first LGBTQIA+ inclusive soccer club, the Melbourne Rovers.

A man wearing a white shirt has his arms raised as he gives instructions to players.

Chris volunteered as a coach at the AGG. (Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Cat Hoang)

“The reason I joined the games was to take away some learnings to my own soccer club,” he says.

“To help make the Rovers more inclusive, more comfortable, and a more welcoming place for gender diverse folks.

“I’m no fancy person…I’m not a politician and not a lawyer or doctor. You just put your effort into it. It’s not hard.”

Two people from opposing teams run towards the football during a game.

An international study from Out of the Fields (2015) found that 80 per cent of athletes have witnessed and/or experienced homophobia in sport.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Cat Hoang)

Many players who came along to the AGG reported apprehension in joining mainstream sporting spaces, due to previous experiences with gender and sexuality-based discrimination.

AGG surveyed their participants and found trans and gender diverse players often express unease in single-sexed sports due to fear of being ostracised and being perceived as an intruder or a threat.

This creates a barrier for participation that prevents LGBTQIA+ folks from accessing the mental and physical benefits of sport, including the social benefits that can be achieved through being a part of a welcoming community.

The back of a person wearing a pink shirt, throwing the football onto the field.

AGG taps into participants’ needs to help them get the most out of their experience.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Cat Hoang)

Using this information was key to developing a sport program to serve all participants’ needs.

AGG understands the power sport has to create community and encourages players not just to give soccer a go, but also to connect off the field.

To ensure the social connection continues to build after the game, AGG players can also help themselves to a Vietnamese banquet.

The food is provided free of charge to bring participants together through the practice of sharing food.

A table with many different food dishes, and a person puts some garnish on one of the plates.

Ngoc, owner of Brunswick’s Shop Bao Ngoc, caters for AGG post-game meals.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Cat Hoang)

Ngoc is a second generation Vietnamese chef and activist committed to caring for community through her food.

When not working one of her three jobs, Ngoc cooks up a storm and keeps a community fridge stocked with free foods and produce.

A group of people stand around a table filled with food, and they put food on their plates.

Mealtimes help promote community amongst the participants.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Cat Hoang)

“It definitely brought a lot to sit down and have a chat with people about their lives and their experiences, which you don’t really get to do when you’re running around chasing the ball,” Chris says.

The event pushes the boundaries of what community sports and beyond can look like with the goal to centre the community’s needs through collective understanding to make soccer more inclusive at all clubs.

A wide shot of two teams playing a game of football as the sun is setting.

AGG organisers hope its success shows that change in sport to include trans and gender diverse athletes in sport is possible.(Siren Sport/ABC Sport: Cat Hoang)

The event shows the value of experimentation, producing a model for non-traditional formats that can help trans and gender diverse people move closer to belonging in sport.

It is all with the hope to see more allies, sports institutions and clubs collaborate to bring these inclusive spaces into common practice, with the players at the heart of the game.

ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Cat Hoang is a second-generation Vietnamese-Australian filmmaker and acting Inclusion and Equity Officer at Melbourne University Soccer Club.

They’ve been running All Gender Games since its inception in 2021.

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