Last December, a few weeks out from the 2022 AFLW season, Carlton superstar Darcy Vescio publicly announced they were non-binary.
Vescio was used to setting themself apart on the field, but now they were suddenly standing in the spotlight for deeply personal reasons.
Five months on, sitting in the resounding silence of the off-season, they’ve had some time to reflect.
“It’s been a really different few months to be honest,” Vescio told The W with Sharni and Sam podcast.
“I’d never really thought about my own gender identity that much before the last couple of years.
“Perhaps I’ve had the privilege of not considering my gender all that much, or feeling like it’s something I have to interrogate daily.
“But it got to a point where I knew it within myself, and I talked to my partner, then I was bursting to tell other people.
“And that was probably the roughest patch because I was quite nervous and didn’t really know how people would respond.
“So to be able to do that and have the response I did was really special.”
‘I don’t think I’ve ever cried this much in my life’
Vescio said they’re still being surprised by how the decision to share their gender identity has affected their life – just talking about it still draws powerful emotions up to the surface.
Seeing fellow AFLW player Tori Groves-Little come out as non-binary just before Vescio did was hugely significant.
“I messaged them straight away, because I was so happy seeing they’d shared that; it made a really big difference to how I felt … I’m even getting a bit emotional talking about it,” Vescio said.
Since their announcement, Vescio said they’ve become more comfortable expressing emotion.
“If I look at the last five months, I don’t think I’ve ever cried this much in my life,” Vescio said.
“I’m usually someone that, if I cry, I’m out for the day.
Being open about their gender identity has, in turn, allowed Vescio to feel freer in other parts of their life.
“It’s released a lot of … I don’t know if it would be pressure?” Vescio said.
“But it kind of feels like in other areas of my life, I feel a lot more open and just able to talk about other things.
“Sometimes your gender identity or sexuality, it can sort of create little blockages in other areas of your life.
“So it’s been a really big release for me … I’m getting used to crying a lot more, and being OK with that.
“I think people need to see that as well; so often … people just see the neat and packaged version.
“We’re all better when people get to see every side, and it’s pretty messy sometimes.”
‘We were pushing for us to realise our collective power’
With a period of significant personal change in their wake, a phase of professional upheaval lies ahead for Vescio too.
Negotiations are looming for a new collective bargaining agreement, which will cover both AFL mens and AFLW players.
Vescio took part in thrashing out the terms of the last CBA – in fact, they were part of a minority of players who held out to push for a better deal.
“A big part of it was just saying we don’t have to sign something just because we’ve been told to sign,” Vescio said.
“I think we were pushing for us to realise our collective power.”
Vescio’s stance was in opposition to several fellow AFLW athletes, but that process has only strengthened the cohort.
“We were sort of pitted against each other publicly, in a lot of ways,” Vescio said.
“Like I know Daisy (Pearce) and I were head-to-head on certain media things, and that wasn’t how we wanted it to be.
“And it put a lot of strain on those personal relationships that we’ve built over a long period of time.
“But I do think we’re better for it now; we know we can’t be broken as a group even if we do disagree.”
‘You feel like you’re volunteering for the AFL’
Year-round contracts are the top priority ahead of the new CBA.
“12-month contracts is a huge one,” Vescio said.
“The six-month contracts just aren’t working, and they’re putting so much strain on the players.
“You do get a couple of weeks off after the season, but then the work starts again, and you feel like you’re volunteering for the AFL for five months.
“And the league benefits from you putting in the work and doing that, and not complaining.
“We’re all getting to a point where we’re saying that’s not good enough and we shouldn’t have to do that.”
Vescio thinks the point where AFLW players can choose whether they want to work another job while playing should be reached within the next CBA.
Vescio also said male AFL players will have to give something up in the name of wage equality.
“I’m a big believer that you do have to give something up,” they said.
“If you’ve had all the resources, all the money, all the opportunity, for all of the years: is that really yours?
“I think there’s quite a strong argument that there should be some redistribution.
“If the pie just keeps gets bigger over time, you’re not moving towards equality, it’s just the same split.
“At the moment, we don’t even have a sliver of the pie, it’s a bit of the outside crumb.”