Written by Sam Rose
Community is a sanctuary where you can be yourself. It is belonging, love, trust, understanding. Community is a doona on a chilly night, helping you to feel safe and warm from the lurking darkness.
Not having access to community is isolating. You don’t know that there are other people in the world like you, wanting to share, express or explore the same things. I didn’t find communities that I really connected with until I began university; before that, I struggled hard.
The darkness comes when you don’t have access to “your people”, with that endless struggle to find a space where you can be accepted while practising authenticity. You get exhausted and you give up chasing that feeling of relatability. You settle in for the long winter, losing yourself along the way.
When I started uni, I joined a women’s football club. There was a heavily discounted signup fee, cheaper than the gym membership which I had sworn I would get. I’d just been playing Assassin’s Creed and eating cereal for two months straight, lying to my parents that I’d been seeing friends, so I signed up. I have always been sporty; I enjoy movement. Although I lost that fire in high school, when gender was suddenly on everyone’s radars, I knew I could pick up a new sport easily. It was the social aspect that was daunting to me. I didn’t expect that I would develop much socially and emotionally; I just wanted to get off the couch.
Over the following four years, my self-esteem and sense of self-worth grew exponentially: I learnt that I could express myself nonverbally, through playing and gross motor movement. We learn about each other through our play. How we kick or handball or mark a ball gives insight into the person. Once, while we were warming up, one of the coaches said he liked my style, and it felt really good. At that moment, I liked my style too, because I was in a good mood and I felt springy and strong. The echo of that compliment never left; the experience is still memorable years later.
While playing football, I realised that my energy poured all through my body, into dusty nooks and rusty muscles. It felt like going down a waterslide: the more you lean into it, the more it flows. I learnt that I could express myself on the football field similarly to how I could express myself by painting or by writing.
I realised that for me, it’s a stim; it is rhythmic, repetitive, and a mode of self-expression. When I play football, I get to release my locked-up energy back into the world, whooshing my body around in it, conversing like tree branches or the wind, or the ocean. My consciousness shifts away from my head and my limbs do the talking. When I run, I am sailing on the balls of my feet, my shadow being pulled by my spirit flying through the air.
When I came out as transgender, I didn’t know if I could play football again. I no longer felt comfortable participating in my women’s football club. I stopped fantasising about joining the AFLW. I wanted to start testosterone. I was ready to start exploring my gender identity in this way, but it meant that I would need to let go of the dream. Around this time, there was a spotlight on trans women’s participation in women’s sports, and there was a lot of transphobia in the media. I didn’t know what that meant for me. I felt embarrassed about coming out, so I withdrew into myself again. There was absolutely no discussion around trans men, non-binary, or trans-masculine people. I had no idea how I fitted: it all just felt cruel and wrong. I got cold again. I left my job, I moved out of town, and avoided having to make any decisions, but felt the absence of that community strongly. I had found myself more but lost that community in the process. When I remembered the club, my stomach would sink, and I longed to find some alternative.
A couple of years ago, I moved back to Melbourne with more confidence and understanding of my gender identity. Someone recommended a mixed–gender football team I could join. I was initially reluctant to go, but by the end of 2020 COVID lockdowns in Victoria, I was hungry to get out again. The extreme lack of socialising over the year meant that I had an empty social tank and the motivation to engage with near strangers. We did a round of names and pronouns, and I felt a warmth grow in my chest, so many they/thems, just like me! So many kind and accepting people all in one space. We always cheer and clap at the end of the circle, celebrating our diversity. This community has more trans and gender divergent people than I have ever seen in the one place; it is blanketed in warmth for our community.
I used to rely on media to access my non–binary peers, separated through a screen, page, or speaker. But in my team there is two-way connection. I say hello and they say, “Hey, Sam!” back. I am seen and heard too.
In this team, my identity is normal. I don’t need to justify it; that constantly questioning part of my brain is able to step back and allow new parts of myself to come forward.
I find the social aspect of club footy easy enough to deal with, because I become immersed in the activity. I have experienced this in both my clubs. Sometimes, in between drills, everyone is standing around talking in small groups, and I try and figure out what I’m supposed to do. I feel a little exposed, like a leg hanging over the side of a bed. But I can literally just run away, kicking or bouncing a ball towards the goalposts – problem solved. Anxious energy converted. This experience has brought with it immense pleasure. I get to be around my people; I get to move my body in ways that would be frowned upon off a footy field. I get to stim! I can hop, jump, wriggle my fingers and hands around and, if I’m in an especially good mood, practise my handstands.
I absolutely love that I have the space to practise moving my body in new ways, and I get to see other people do the same too. This community has substantially increased my quality of life. I wish that other Autistic people had the opportunities to participate in sports or other movement activities, in which you don’t have to be social to play in a team, in which you don’t have to be talented, just eager to try.
Finding this community helped me to reconnect with the idea of play. It has taught me to prioritise creative and recreational pursuits for my mental health, to remind me of all the good things in life, in community. Now when winter comes, I wrap myself up in my doona and run towards the goals.