A SAFE SPACE
This weekend, the AFLW celebrates its first Pride round, devoting a weekend to the LGBTQIA+ community, after the seed was planted by the Western Bulldogs and Carlton’s Pride game in 2018.
Such a concept is particularly pertinent in women’s football, where same-sex relationships are common. Much ground has been made in acceptance of same-sex relationships, with the 2017 marriage equality act perhaps the most significant milestone this century.
AFLW commentator Chyloe Kurdas is a stalwart of the women’s football scene. A champion player well before a national competition, Kurdas also worked for a decade as AFL Victoria’s female football development manager.
“Nothing within our football community has changed,” says Kurdas. “It’s always been a place of acceptance, a place of support and a place for you to be whoever you are, whether you’re straight, gay or somewhere in between. It’s always been safe.
“For same-sex attracted women, I think some may have gone to that space in the past because it was a way of meeting other women like you. And that could be really hard, back in the old days.”
Meg Hutchins had to wait until her 35th birthday for AFLW to arrive. It was on that famous night in February 2017 that she lined up for the Magpies against the Blues in the locked-out opener of the national women’s competition. But she’d been toiling at local level for years.
“When I first started playing, I wasn’t aware of the stigma that came with playing women’s football, which was unfair. Maybe the reason women’s football was known in that vein is that it was a safe space for women to go to, to be who they feel who they wanted to be,” Hutchins said.
“I kind of see it as a little bit funny that it kind of gets spoken like it’s a new phenomenon, that women’s football is so accepting of same-sex relationships. But it always has been.”
A HISTORY OF STEREOTYPES
In March 2017, Adelaide champion Erin Phillips kissed her wife, Tracy Gahan, after winning the AFLW’s inaugural league best-and-fairest award. It was an iconic image. A few days later, Australian Football Hall of Fame member Dermott Brereton used his SEN platform to ask AFL chief Gillon McLachlan whether he’d been made aware of allegations of “grooming” in the women’s league. McLachlan quickly shut down the rumour.
For Kurdas, these sorts of ugly stereotypes were nothing new.
“When I was working in football, there would be mums and dads that would be scared that if their daughters played football, they could turn into a lesbian,” Kurdas said.
“I don’t think that’s a fear any more for any parents. I think parents want their daughters to play football because they can play AFL. And I think there’s a lot more parents that if their daughter did grow up to be same-sex attracted, wouldn’t bat an eyelid any more.”
Kurdas said that despite the anguish of the period, the plebiscite debate of late 2017 had yielded positives.
“I think even coming into AFLW I think there would have been some uncertainty from people around the competition of, ‘how are we going to manage this?’ How do you build a brand — this is pre-plebiscite — because it is an inherent part of the community?
“I think the marriage equality vote, as horrific as it was for us as a community, it was the first time ever where straight people collectively poured out their love and care and compassion for us and went into bat for us. And that was something that was quite lovely. It put the discrimination we faced — and still do face — into dinner party conversations, and had grandparents talking to grandchildren about it and grandchildren talking to grandparents about it. So I think there’s this lovely aligning of the stars maybe, where AFLW came about around the same time the same-sex marriage vote and that whole national dialogue came about. That they complemented each other.”
Guttridge and Jakobsson said they felt lucky that their respective families had both accepted them for who they were. “My mum’s side of the family is quite Catholic but the deep root of Catholicism is being kind to people,” Guttridge said.
LINING UP ON THE ONE YOU LOVE
In a quirk of fate, Guttridge and Jakobsson – who met when playing in the state league for Cranbourne – never played against each other in an AFLW match for premiership points. But there was that practice match, and a VFLW meeting in which the pair were direct opponents for about 10 minutes.
“It’s also strange because you won’t want to hurt them or whatever. Or upset them in any way because obviously you care about them,” Jakobsson said.
Jakobsson is the more competitive, so it was Guttridge who did it tougher when they were on different sides.
“Not fun. On my end,” Guttridge says, reflecting on their previous match-ups. “It’s uncomfortable. Because if you beat them, it makes it hard because obviously you want the best for your partner.”
There was also the challenge of needing to avoid disclosing state secrets in the lead-up to games.
“Just out of respect for your club, I think. Your teammates wouldn’t really like [you] talking about your gameplan to the opposition,” Guttridge said. “We [kept] it pretty simple. Not, ‘who do you reckon is going to line up on me this week?’.”
Jakobsson’s move to the Saints didn’t come about because of Guttridge, however the fact her partner was already at Moorabbin didn’t hurt. While they had not had a strong desire to play together, being teammates has its perks, like sharing the same schedule which gives them more time together when Jakobsson is not working as a police officer and Guttridge moonlighting in a merchandising role for club sponsor Reflex.
“When we come here, we’re teammates,” Jakobsson said. “We’re here to get a job done, we just train. It doesn’t change too much else.
“But in saying that, it is good, because we both want the same thing now,” said Guttridge.
WHEN TEAMMATES BREAK UP
The proliferation of same-sex relationships in women’s football means that inevitably, teammates break up, and then sometimes get together with another teammate. Of course, there can be some awkwardness.
This can be particularly challenging to navigate for men coming into AFLW coaching roles who may not have coached much women’s football before.
“There are certain things that [coaches] wouldn’t have come across in men’s footy or boy’s footy that they come across in women’s and girls’ footy that I’d have to mentor them through,” Kurdas says, looking back at her previous formal roles in football.
“You needed to make sure that your coach wasn’t homophobic, for instance, because that just wasn’t going to roll.
“Because there are women who are in relationships with each other, there’s an inevitability that at least one of your couples will break up at some point. And you’re going to have to navigate that as a coach, where two of your best players might not like hanging out in the midfield together any more, and how do you navigate that? How you do still support them? Because when in [males coaches’ lives] have they had that experience?”
In addition to playing, Hutchins worked as Collingwood’s women’s football chief in 2017. Having experienced the dynamic both as a player and an administrator, she says that players ultimately need to be trusted to separate the personal from the professional.
“If you treat players like athletes, and they are professional in how they prepare and how they perform, if the players don’t have an issue with anything, then why should the staff, why should the coaching team, why should they make an issue of it as well? I just don’t think it even needs to be mentioned,” Hutchins said.
“It’s probably more just a laugh and a giggle that the players have amongst each other, to be honest. If it was me, and a coach was to mention my relationship with someone in the same team, or an opposing team, I would probably find it a little bit inappropriate.”
Guttridge is philosophical about the matter.
“When they happen, I think you’ve just got to respect each other. At the end of the day, if breakups happen, you’ve still got a job to do. It happens in workplaces,” Guttridge said.
THE NEXT FRONTIER
While so many strides have been taken, there is still some way to go.
Guttridge would like to see a male AFL player come out, something no past or present men’s footballer has yet done. She understands why it hasn’t happened, though.
“There’s a lot of stuff around stigmas for men and masculinity and all that in the AFL. If you like sport, you must be a manly man. There’s just a lot of issues with stereotypes,” Guttridge said.
Transgender athlete Hannah Mouncey has meanwhile threatened legal action against the AFL to allow her to play local football, as the league grapples with the issue of gender identity in sport.
Hutchins was heartened by the Bulldogs’ design for their Pride round guernsey which, according to the club’s website, “features the integration of all the different LGBTIQA+ flag colour representations in the form of the Bulldogs hoops”.
“It’s just taking it a whole 10 steps further to be honest,” Hutchins said.
Kurdas says the league, and society, can’t stop now.
“Let’s keep our eye on the prize, and that is acceptance for everyone,” Kurdas said.
Daniel is an Age sports reporter