The truth about coming out
I didn’t give much thought to my sexual orientation when I was at school. I was so busy with my sport, and my studies, which were the most important thing for me. Whether it was boys or girls, I made a conscious decision that ‘I’m going to have forever to worry about that’.
It was a few years later when I was at college that I realised I was gay. And I was fortunate that it was something that just seemed as plain a fact to me as my name is Laura and I was born in Toowoomba.
It wasn’t something that I personally struggled with or went back and forth on, which I know is a very common experience for a lot of queer kids growing up. And I was very lucky, I suppose, because there was a precedent in my family: my uncle is gay, and my family has always been very welcoming and loving towards him, so I didn’t have too much to fear from that perspective.
But I didn’t know many gay people in my friendship group or at school, and none of my netball teammates that I knew of were gay. It was only when I was at the AIS that I started to hear about Ash Brazill, this netballer, and, as you do when you’re in that young formative stage, you just grab any piece of information you can.
So I asked around a lot and I heard lots of stories from the NSW juniors about what a great player she was, and the universal feeling that I got was that she was really well-liked, very respected, obviously very good at her trade, her sport.
In retrospect, I’m a firm believer that you can’t be what you can’t see, and that transcends lots of different areas, whether it be sport, business, anything.
That’s what I think Ash was for me: she was an example of someone who had been embraced for her sport and was totally open about who she was. That was enough for me to know that, ‘Oh, it’s a possibility. People love Ash, they speak very well of her, that could be exactly my scenario as well’.
While I was at the AIS, one of my teammates had kind-of figured it out, and just asked me directly. She said, ‘Crush (which was my nickname), do you want to talk about something?’. The conversation just flowed from there.
When I came back to Queensland, Gabi Simpson was the first person I told. We were in the pool in week one of Firebirds’ pre-season doing a bit of recovery. Floating. We were exhausted but having one of those big life chats, and I just said, ‘Gabs, I’ve got something to tell you’.
She just smiled at me and nodded. She let me speak but then she was also like, ‘Yeah, Clemmy, I had a feeling that was the case’. She gave me a hug, told me that she loved me and that was kind of all it took.
Chelsea Pitman was the next. We used to have ‘buddy dates’ at the Firebirds, so we’d be paired up with someone from week to week and go off and have a coffee and get to know the person. Chelsea is obviously pretty direct and to the point, so she was very keen to learn more about me and my personal life and the information was water off a duck’s back to her.
Every time I mentioned this thing that I was a bit nervous only brought positive reactions from my teammates, so it really spread very quickly from there. But, unlike in my personal life, where I didn’t have much of an issue telling my friends because it was something that only directly concerned me, I was a bit unsure about the netball community at large. It turns out that I had absolutely nothing to worry about.
I guess I was just nervous because I’d seen no evidence of it in our sport. I wasn’t sure if it was accepted – although I’d seen no evidence that it wouldn’t be, either. It was just fear of the unknown, I suppose.
It was no secret among the Firebirds and Netball Queensland community, but I’d never been asked publicly about my sexuality, so it was nothing I really put out there until last year when I wrote the column in my local paper, the Toowoomba Chronicle. It ended up being circulated around the netball community, which was really cool, and a massive number of people contacted me via social media.
There were people of all ages who’d read it and thanked me because they were identifying as gay or queer themselves and weren’t feeling like they would be embraced, or they hadn’t come out to their teammates because they were nervous, or they were telling me stories about how they’d struggled with their sexuality.
It was pretty amazing, and it just validated yet again that you can’t be what you can’t see. Just last week, a girl messaged me to say, ‘Thank-you, through hearing your story, I was spurred on to come out to my parents and my teammates’. Just things like that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. It has been overwhelmingly positive.
If I can be for at least one other person what Ash Brazill was for me, then it makes a difference. It’s been great watching role models representing the LGBTQI cause in other sports, particularly by other female athletes.
It’s just another way to lay the platform and set the precedent and say that netball, too, is absolutely a safe space, regardless of gender, creed, religion or sexuality.
I’d been thinking about cutting my hair for a solid year before I did it, and I’m going to throw my teammate Romelda Aiken under the bus because she just kept saying, ‘No, Clemmy, no, Clemmy, keep your long hair’ – I think possibly because she couldn’t imagine not having the scope to do all her fantastic hairdos, so she was trying to protect me from a similar fate!
It’s another one of those presumed norms, I think, that all lesbians have short hair, which is obviously not the case. But when I did have longer hair, you almost feel you have to have small little ‘coming outs’ every day when you don’t look necessarily stereotypically gay.
Just last week a girl, messaged me to say, ‘Thank-you, through hearing your story, I was spurred on to come out to my parents and my teammates’.
Cutting my hair wasn’t intended as a statement about my sexuality; it just really felt right. It was something I couldn’t quite shake the thought of, and I knew I really wanted to do. But I guess now I definitely feel it is more of a reflection of me and who I am, which I find actually a bit of relief.
I feel like I move through the world more easily now. Not that my haircut is an assertion of my sexuality, but it does make me feel like I don’t need those little daily comings out because it just adds a little bit more information about me.
CONFIDENCE & OPPORTUNITY
Growing up, I was very tall, but very uncoordinated as well. Rocking up to high school, into grade eight, I was already six foot and the tallest girl in the school by a mile. It was a bigger pond, as the saying goes, but I was still the biggest fish.
I felt very, very conspicuous and clearly I must have caught the eye of the girls’ sports co-ordinator, because in about week three I was heading off to softball trials when she pointed at me and said, ‘Laura! Are you heading to the netball trials?’. I had absolutely no ambition to head to the netball trials, so I said, ‘No, no, no, I’m heading to softball,’ and she laughed in my face and said, ‘Oh, no, you’re not’, and redirected me.
I was a bit taken aback at the time but also pretty grateful because my earliest coaches would tell you I was not very co-ordinated, not very fit and definitely not quick. But I did have the height, which was enough to get me a few opportunities early on. Then I realised how much I loved netball. So I should thank my lucky stars.
My first state team was the Queensland under 17s. I went to the AIS when I was 20 and I was the oldest in a very strong cohort that included Gabs, Kim Ravaillion, Kristina Brice, Jo Weston, Paige Hadley and Courtney Bruce.
But I was the only one of the 14 girls who were at the Australian Institute of Sport on scholarship that year who didn’t make the 21-and-under World Youth Cup squad named after nationals. The selection was probably fair enough, to tell you the truth. But it was tough.
I never was sure, really, that I was good enough to play at what was then ANZ Champs level. Whenever I had to write what my netball goals were, I was always too scared to say, ‘I want to play in the Firebirds, I want to play at the professional level’, because I just wasn’t sure I had what it took to get there.
I guess I did lack confidence in my netball ability, and I’d always been very focused academically coming through school, So putting all my eggs in the netball basket and being disappointed seemed, in retrospect, too scary a concept.
I was extremely surprised to get the call from Rose Jencke inviting me to join the Firebirds for the 2013 season. That thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. It was a hugely exciting opportunity, but also one that I wasn’t convinced I was worthy of. Looking at my track record and the selections I’d missed, I doubted whether I deserved to be there.
I’ve finished my undergrad psychological science degree and I’ve just started my masters of organisational psychology. I’ve learnt a lot of things that relate to my netball journey, really: things like self-fulfilling prophecies and self-handicapping.
I had absolutely no ambition to head to the netball trials, so I said, ‘No, no, no, I’m heading to softball’, and she laughed in my face and said, ‘Oh, no, you’re not’.
I barely said two words that first season, which is probably a bit of a surprise to anyone who knows me in a team environment now! I tried to take in and learn as much as I could but I still really struggled with, ‘Do I fully commit to this netball team? Is this I really want to do? What if it’s only a temporary thing?’. And in that instance, that’s what it turned out to be.
I played one game all season and was on court for four-and-a-half minutes. Total. When Rose called me to say, ‘Clemmie, we’ve really enjoyed having you in the team, you’ve been so coachable, but unfortunately can’t offer you a contract again for next year’, I was pretty devastated.
I didn’t feel I’d given it my best and I wasn’t good enough; I just felt that I had maybe missed my opportunity. And not through any lack of effort, more than anything, I just think I held myself back, through that lack of confidence and inability to uninhibitedly throw myself into netball and be, ‘Yep, I’m going to do this and give 100 per cent, my all’.
Rose gave me excellent feedback, said she wanted to keep me in the system, wanted to get me back in the Firebirds in years to come. She wanted to see me work on my strength and my fitness and all the stuff that I was extremely receptive to, but I just kind of thought, ‘Wow, I’ve been in the Firebirds, that’s what all netballers in Queensland want and now I’m not anymore. Where do I go from here?’
I decided to go back and play state league, to just get out there, play good netball just have fun, and whatever happened happened. At the end of that year, Jacinta Messer, who was contracted, withdrew before pre-season started and Rose said if I would like to come back, they were very keen to have me.
It’s funny. That second time, something had completely changed for me: I’d realised that I did love netball and it was so exciting to be back in that environment, and I had such a great defensive crew: Laura Geitz, Clare McMeniman and Bec Bulley. Three such great teachers, and I loved it. That was the year the Firebirds really started to feel like home for me.
It was my second chance and I threw everything at it. I decided to fully commit. I had a form to fill out that year asking what my netball goals were and I wrote, ‘I want to be a starter for the Firebirds’. I remember surprising myself and thinking, ‘Gee, I’m with this and I know that I want it.’
Over that year and the next two, I played only seven games. It’s always frustrating to sit on the bench, but if you’re going to be in that position, you want to be right there behind Geitzy.
She’s so generous with her time for me, and I pestered all three defenders constantly for their thoughts and knowledge and they were always keen to do extras with me. It was awesome.
I always knew it was a waiting game. I didn’t know how long I’d have to wait, but I never thought of looking elsewhere. Then hearing Geitzy announce that she was pregnant and the follow-up after the 2016 grand final that Clare was retiring, I remember being hit with the realisation that it left just me.
It was something that I wasn’t sure would happen in my playing career, really. I thought it was very possible that I’d be on the bench for my whole career, with Geitzy obviously still very young and able to play on for years. I remember she looked at me as she was saying she wouldn’t be playing and I just got such a rush of adrenalin. So many feelings, all at once.
Afterwards, she just came up to me and gave me a hug and said, ‘It’s your turn now, Clemmy’. It was a really lovely moment.
I just think I held myself back, through that lack of confidence.
To play a full season last year, I just absolutely bloody loved it. I’d imagined what it would be like, but to experience for myself the process of putting in all the work in the lead-up to the game and then actually being able to execute that out on court alongside my best mates and getting the result, that feeling was just… yeah, it was more than a No-Doz high I felt like I couldn’t sleep from, that’s for sure.
But I also felt like there was so much more I wanted to do. It got to the end of that season and there was a massive list of stuff that I still wanted to fix and improve and consolidate on, and I felt really excited about the potential that was there.
I was stoked to have Geitzy back this season. She’s the epitome of a team player and person.
She is the Firebirds, basically. But it is a collaborative approach and I try to see my role as being in the best physical and netball shape as I can and to help my teammates Kim Jenner and Tara Hinchliffe as much as I can, because they’re going to be absolute world-beaters.
It’s a different experience being on the bench now that I know how fantastic it is to be out there, and that really fuels the fire and the desire to be on court. And now I know I can be solid and do a good job if I’m needed. It’s such a fantastic defence end, in any combination. I’m just proud to be part of it.