Kicking goals for gender inclusive sport

The Women’s World Cup took Australia by storm this month, breaking ratings and attendance records, winning hearts across the nation and changing the game for women in this country, forever.

There were a lot of firsts. Morocco became the first Arab nation to play in the Women’s World Cup, and with it Moroccan defender Nouhaila Benzina made history as the first player to wear a hijab while playing a World Cup. Quinn, the non-binary Canadian midfielder, made history as the first ever openly trans athlete to compete at a World Cup. It was also, of course, Australia’s first ever time playing in a semi-final at a World Cup. Socceroos, take note!

And there were some inspirational lasts. Brazil’s Marta Vieira da Silva played her final World Cup, taking her total to six World Cups and a record-breaking 17 goals scored at World Cups, more than any other player in history.

There have also been some controversies following Spain’s World Cup Final win over England. Spanish Football Association president Luis Rubiales non-consensually kissed star forward Jenni Hermoso on the lips as she walked on stage to celebrate her team’s win. This misogynistic and very public act of sexual violence threatened to brutally upstage a glorious moment for women’s football in Spain.  Yet widespread support for Hermoso has sparked a #MeToo movement for Spanish Football, with many players going on strike, driving national momentum for their call for Rubiales to resign.

This World Cup also made history in terms of LGBTIQ inclusion, with many openly out and proud players from multiple nations: 87 players at last count, more than double the 38 at the last World Cup. For large segments of the queer community, women's sport is a space where queer women and some non-binary folk are, not always but generally speaking, celebrated for being themselves.

However, for trans and gender diverse players of the world game, there has never been a more fraught time to play sport at any level. While the recent guidelines from the Australian Institute of Sport start from a point of trans inclusion, there is still a long way to go. Not all sporting codes provide safe and inclusive spaces, and more education is needed. The gendered violence that so often plays out against trans and gender diverse people has reached fever pitch in the last few years.

There was the ill-fated Save Women’s Sport bill that had support from Scott Morrisson and Katherine Deves. There was the spate of anti-trans rallies in some of our major cities during UK anti-trans activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull's tour of Australia (and the infamous Nazi salute rally on the steps of Melbourne’s Old Parliament in March this year). There were also violent threats and protests against Drag Storytime that have been happening across various local councils all across the country, leading to fearful cancellation of many LGBTIQ events.

The international success of the World Cup represents more than just a celebration of elite women and gender diverse athletes. Beyond the huge spectator crowds, the world cup reflects the popularity of not just watching but playing. After COVID-19, participation in sport provides an antidote to many of the pervasive issues plaguing the lives of people of all genders after years of social isolation and sedentary living. Sport, and especially team sports, provides social connection, instills a joy in movement, and improves mental health outcomes. It’s for these reasons that sport must be inclusive to all, from the elite stage to the local.

First published in edition #124 of The WRAP on 30 August 2023.