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‘This story won’t pull any punches’: Danielle Laidley’s two tribes and one extraordinary life

Former AFL premiership player and the most high-profile transgender woman in Australia, Danielle Laidley has opened up for the first time in a feature-length documentary.

“When we sat down with JAM [JAM TV], we thought if we’re going to do this, we need to be brutally honest … to show the good, the bad and the indifferent … tell the whole story,” she said in a candid, heartfelt interview with The New Daily before the premiere of Revealed – Danielle Laidley: Two Tribes (Stan, September 19).

The documentary, which chronicles Laidley’s life from childhood in Perth to champion sports star, a renowned senior AFL coach to her role as an advocate for the transgender community, is also a story of hope.

A story of ‘two tribes’ – bringing together two worlds that have previously remained at odds – men’s AFL and the transgender community.

“There was a wide range of emotions, dark places we went back to, funny parts, celebrations … they were all good in their own way,” she said, with partner Donna Leckie by her side.

“Having watched it a few times, sitting and looking back at it objectively, where you were and where you are now, and I am open, honest, I hope all the viewers can take something out of it.

“Understanding gender dysphoria [the distress a person experiences about the difference between their gender identity and their
physical body] a bit more … whether it’s understanding mental health, addiction, the role sporting organisations play in Australian culture.

“Hopefully we’ve nailed all those and people will watch and enjoy.”

​Utilising personal archival material including photos, journals and videos and crucial re-enactments – more than 300 hours of footage was shot – Laidley takes viewers on an emotional journey about everything that she has experienced on and off the field, and how she has lived with gender dysphoria her entire life, managing a private battle with identity.

That battle culminated in May 2020, at the end of a meth-fuelled bender that resulted in her arrest, during which Victoria Police officers took and distributed photos of her, publicly outing her as transgender.

Two Tribes details the court case that followed as well as the fallout – both public and private.

“This story won’t pull any punches,” she said.

Laidley says she is proud of who she is, and who she is becoming. Photo: Stan

‘In our words’

Having exposed Laidley’s private world across the tabloid press was a shock to her, her family and the wider AFL community.

She faced public scrutiny and front-page headlines around the nation and was denied the chance to privately share her gender transition with family and friends.​

“The narrative that was talked and written about was so far from the truth, one reason was to take control of the narrative to tell the story in our words.

“I would never want any person or family to go through what we did, and how it was publicly exposed.

“We will never get that back.

“It caused a lot of grief within our family and that is still taking time to work through … we were going through a process with my gender psyche, I was just starting to work on some strategies, sitting down with family and friends, and then the carpet gets pulled from underneath you.

“That was really difficult patch to go through. To look back now, it was an horrendous time” she said.

In the documentary she says she forgives the police but will never forget.

“Yes. It is true. But in life, if you don’t move on, and you continue to carry the poison of others, and keep looking back, you end up crashing because you end up looking in the rear-view mirror.

“It took a lot of time, and a lot of work to live in the present and look forward to life in the future,” she tells TND.

Danielle Laidley in Sydney during the making of Two Tribes. Photo: Stan

The documentary uses re-enactments to share parts of Laidley’s story.

Significantly, she remembers a time in 1973 standing in the family kitchen watching a group of women around the kitchen table painting their nails, using make-up.

She remembers grabbing a bottle of nail polish and taking it to the bathroom to try.

A transgender actor was also used during her 2020 arrest.

“The re-enactments were amazing … when I looked at the actor who played my childhood, I thought that looks like me … with the longer hair, how it was portrayed. It gives a good visual on the storyline,” she said.

Laidley says she is in the 1.8 per cent of transgender people who don’t tell anyone and try and work through life on their own.

“I’ve seen psyches and counsellors basically my whole life … had mentors … but I would never talk about the one thing. Once I left the AFL, I had mental health issues and then eventually a year or two after that I was in such a bad state of mind, one day when I was with my counsellor, it just came out.

“I hadn’t planned for it, but it must have been my mind, body and soul saying enough it enough, you can’t do this any more.”

Laidley reveals she saw an endocrinologist, a gender psych, had tests and interviews: “My endocrinologist said you have, and you have had, your entire life, gender dysphoria”.

“At that point, it was a big relief … I remember just walking out of the clinic, skipping down the road, thinking I am so glad I know through all the years what these feelings were, and finally what this was”.

As AFL boss Gillon McLachlan says in the documentary: “It’s a pretty big secret to have hidden from the world for a long period of time for someone who has had such a high-profile playing and coaching career”.

North Melbourne 1996 premiership teammates Anthony Stevens and Wayne Schwass re-enact the final siren win on the MCG with Laidley, a significant photo in bringing two tribes together. Photo: Stan

There’s lots of poignant, sensitive and significant moments in Two Tribes, but it’s the moment Laidley and her friends, and North Melbourne teammates Anthony Stevens and Wayne Schwass, re-enact their victory on the MCG that brings her story in sharp focus.

Its significance cannot be underestimated in bringing her two worlds together.

She had climbed the ranks of the AFL while suppressing an inner truth that she identified as female. She was drafted into the AFL in 1987 and went on to play 151 games at the elite level, winning a premiership with North Melbourne in 1996.

She was known as the “junkyard dog” and was a tough and ruthless competitor.

“I always thought football would kill me … the shame, the embarrassment, the fear, and what people would think of me and society at large,” she said.

“Having such a huge network of people within the AFL industry, I have been overwhelmed and blessed and grateful with the support I have.”

Laidley reflects on the game back in 1996 against Sydney, and the moment the final siren sounded (there’s a photo of the three of them that was also captured on camera).

“My favourite photo of all time, with those two in it. We got talking about it,  Anthony and Wayne were part of the documentary so we thought we’d go to the MCG and relive that moment but also talk about how our relationships were back then.

“It was such a different environment to what football is today … they have been a couple of my greatest supporters.”

Schwass (from the doco) describes Laidley as feisty, fiery, scrappy: “I loved playing football with her … she’s a friend and a teammate”.

Laidley represented both her tribes for the first time in November 2021. Photo: Stan

Meanwhile, since leaving rehab, Laidley’s focus has been on rebuilding relationships with her family and friends. She has a strong relationship with her son, Kane, but she lost contact with her two adult daughters.

When Laidley was arrested and her image splashed across the press and social media, Laidley reconnected with childhood friend Leckie online and then in person.

They’ve been inseparable since and split their time between Perth and Melbourne.

As Screen Australia’s head of documentary Alex West says, this is a “deeply moving” story that gives Laidley a platform to tell her story in her own words.

“In doing so, [it] shines a spotlight on the discrimination faced by the transgender community more broadly.

“This is an incredibly courageous story and one that we will all benefit from watching.”

For Laidley, she feels at peace, at home but “utopia” would be this with Leckie: “Sitting at Christmas lunch with all our children, and grandchildren, and being one happy family … that is what we dream of every day.”

Revealed – Danielle Laidley: Two Tribes will premiere on Stan on Tuesday, September 19

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