Part creative memoir, part reportage, part theoretical essay and part history lesson, the story weaves anecdotes of the poet’s own childhood playing football with conversations between three friends – Maddee, Zaky and Louis – as they meditate on their own experiences as trans and gender-diverse people who participate in community sport.
The genre of the piece is hard to pin down. It’s broken up into uneven, non-chronological segments with sub-headings like “SOVEREIGN GENDERS”, “DIFFICULT JOY” and “POWER”. It easily slides between lyrical, descriptive first-person and objective, academic third-person. It dedicates entire sections to the interviewees’ transcribed voices.
It plucks phrases from writers and athletes like Siufung Law, Jaiyah Saelua and Essa May Ranapiri and it draws upon First Nations cultural knowledge, history and language while critiquing Western patriarchal conceptions of gender and sexuality.
Of course, the difficulty — not knowing exactly where this piece fits within the broader web of Australian writing — is the point.
Just as its title suggests, No Limits defies and complicates (or “queers”) literary genres and forms in order to emphasise the radical nature of its subject matter: how trans and gender-diverse people challenge the traditional stereotypes and assumptions around gender and bodies that structure our everyday lives.
For van Neerven, there are few better prisms through which to triangulate this conversation than through the complex, yet rigid, space of sport.
“I remember wanting to write something that was experimental and blurred the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, and was something that didn’t shy away from discussing sexuality or gender identity,” van Neerven told the ABC.
“When I was growing up, sexuality was really repressed. The environment that I was in was a really suppressed kind of environment, so me writing about sexuality, sex and gender identity is pushing back against all of the suppression that I had when I was growing up.
“One of them was that if you play soccer, you’re a lesbian. A lot of the girls I played with, they really pushed hard against that. If they were gay, they hid it. If they weren’t, they were still affected by it because they created a hyper-hetero-feminine presentation in how they acted and dressed to fit in.
“People would ask me when I was 13 or 14: ‘are you gay? Are you this? Are you that?’ People would ask me, ‘are you a boy or a girl?’ All this stuff. I didn’t really have any answers.
“Space politics is something I’m really interested in and that I try to represent in my work about sport. You’re growing up and you’re just trying to fit in and find your belonging: it’s a really ripe subject matter to write about.”
Making the personal political
No Limits forms part of a larger collection of work that van Neerven is compiling into a book titled Personal Score, recently acquired by University of Queensland Press.
When released, it will be one of the only collections of non-academic Australian sports writing told from the perspective of a queer, non-binary, First Nations writer, which also gives voice to some of the most marginalised communities within sport.
It follows a small, if growing, trend of life writing in women’s sport that examines the tensions of culture, gender and sexuality, including USA footballer Megan Rapinoe’s One Life and Australian cricketer Alex Blackwell’s Fair Game.
“With the incredible upsurge in the popularity of women’s sport comes the potential to reshape the narratives around sport and culture,” the press release reads.
“AsPersonal Score examines, many athletes challenge mainstream views of gender and sexuality and use sport and their role within it to effect change not only in their own sporting realm but more broadly in the wider culture and society.
“Moreover, van Neerven interrogates the implications of playing sport on stolen land and how this complicates questions of identity around sport, who plays it, and where.
“Thus, Personal Score is also a meditation on Indigenous connections to place and land, examining the earliest sports played here and paying tribute to influential First Nations sportspeople.”
It’s a particularly timely work in light of recent discourses around the inclusion of trans women in Australian sport.
In No Limits, van Neerven hands the microphone to the LGBTQIA+ people that recent debate has talked largely around, but rarely to, about their experiences — a majority of whom participate and will be affected at the community level.
Like the author, each of the interviewees reflects on their childhoods and the role of sport in their social, physical and psychological lives. Maddee played basketball and netball. Zaky was a state representative in badminton. Louis played Aussie rules and became a national champion futsal goalkeeper.
But as each of them — including van Neerven — grew older and came to consciousness of their gender identities, some of them undertaking the extensive process of hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgery, their relationship with sport and its communities changed.
As strict gender binaries were more heavily enforced, and as cultures of homophobia and transphobia began to manifest in more blatant (and dangerous) ways, they all had times where they quit sport altogether.
“Fewer than 20 per cent of trans people play sport in Australia and even fewer participate in team sport,” van Neerven writes.
“Often, LGBTIQSB+ children grow up feeling like they don’t have a place in sport where they can authentically be themselves without fear of judgement, harassment, abuse, or violence.
“Colonial gender binaries hold up the Western patriarchy. TGD identities – including sistergirls and brotherboys, pan-First Nations terms that describe some TGD people in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities — don’t fit into the rigid colonial understandings of gender.
“I have never felt like a girl or a woman. I feel masculine in some ways and feminine in others, as if there are two spirits living within me, harmoniously.
“If sport is ‘sex-segregated’, heteronormative and explicitly trans-exclusionary, what kind of world is created, violently policed, and upheld?
“These spaces are forceful dystopias, complete departures from the liberated lives our ancestors had.”
Real stories, real lives
One of the effects of No Limits, and by extension Personal Score, is that it helps rewrite wider narratives around the realities of trans and gender-diverse people participating in sport.
By engaging wholeheartedly with the tangle of the personal and the political, and by giving voice and agency to the most marginalised in the community, van Neerven’s writing combats the arguments and assumptions put forward by louder voices elsewhere that contribute to discrimination towards people who sit outside essentialist framings of gender.
“There’s so many transphobic pieces in The Australian every month, and they’re just about the most marginalised group wanting to participate in sport, but instead they get all this propaganda and there’s not much reporting at all on the people who are actually playing the sport,” van Neerven said.
“The reporting is about whether they should play sport. That’s a huge problem.
“So when you have journalists and politicians acting in a certain way — that don’t bother exploring the nuances or different experiences of something — it’s so defeating.
“That’s the interesting stuff we’ve missed out on: people talking about their lives in interesting ways and not further perpetuating stereotypes.
“Australia really uses sport as a propaganda machine to say, ‘we’re a white nation, we’re a patriarchal nation, we’re the land of the underdog, the battlers, this and that.’ It’s really hard to push up against it, but we have to try.”
Imagining new sporting utopias
As van Neerven’s interviewees explain, gender-non-conforming people and sport do not have to be mutually exclusive. Louis dreams of returning to play futsal in a mixed team after top surgery. Maddee has become a competitive powerlifter. Zaky, for now, simply walks while reflecting on his position on and relationship with Wurundjeri land.
It is sport itself, then, that must acknowledge and adapt to the changing face of Australia’s communities: to open up, to adjust or to collapse entirely its rigid binary categories in order to become a genuinely diverse, inclusive place.
Importantly, No Limits closes with all four voices reflecting on their versions of sport utopias, where “utopia” functions as a way of critiquing the current state of things.
Despite what feels like insurmountable challenges, there remains a kindling of hope that sport is not so set in its ways that it is incapable of imagining alternatives to the way things have always been.
“[Utopia] would just be where trans people are free to play as the gender that they want to,” Louis says.
“I don’t know whether that means we abolish the gender segregation of sports […] It would just be that women are encouraged to play sport at an early age in the same way men are.”
“They are trying to design a perfect system that works for everyone … that doesn’t work because the whole idea of sports being fair in the first place isn’t real.
“Most of the time, trans people just want to get out there and exist in a sport and enjoy training. If you can’t pause and exist in a moment, there’s no point.”
Perhaps the most radical and profound sports utopia is the one imagined by Zaky — one in which gender no longer exists. A place of no limits.
“My utopia isn’t a trans utopia,” he says.
As van Neerven concludes: “My utopia looks for a day when TGD people’s inclusion in sport is not news and not up for debate, when no one has to fight to have a space and when we move on from reports of inclusion to reports of playing.