What followed was almost five decades of confusion, inner turmoil and self-sabotage that
ultimately led to a life of addiction and two suicide attempts.
“The disease of addiction is in my family from way back; a lot of self-harm, alcohol,” she says.
“[It] started for me when I became a workaholic. And then, the gambling, the drinking and then
finally, the drugs happened when I left the AFL. And it’s something I’m really ashamed and embarrassed for. So, you get this shame and embarrassment from my gender dysphoria, then you
get it from being branded a cross-dresser, being branded an ice head.
“That is still for me, the most shameful part. And I struggle to deal with that because I only know where that sat in the story.”
It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely scenario than an AFL player and coach coming out as a
transgender woman. A talented sportsperson from an early age, Laidley – who gave 60 Minutes and The Age permission to use her former name – basically grew up in the AFL.
From the age of 17 to 48, she was paid to have a footy in hand; first in Western Australia where she played for West Coast Eagles, then in Victoria where she pulled on the blue and white stripes for the Kangaroos.
She was fierce on the field. Dubbed ‘the junkyard dog’ – a term she hated – for her all-or-nothing attitude to the game, she left everything out on the footy field. In a physically macho industry where every move is magnified and scrutinised, it’s impossible to fathom the mental fortitude it would have taken to suppress such a secret.
“It’s a white noise,” she says now. “It stays 24/7. It’s loud and it gets to the point where you can’t live a normal life. And you can’t outrun it. It was very difficult, very difficult.”
Laidley’s moments of solace during that time, would come when she could lock herself away for several hours and dress in the clothes, wigs and make-up that made her feel most at home.
“It was a place of peace, all of a sudden it was calm,” she says. “I tell it in its most simplest form. When you go away from home and you miss the smell of your pillow or your sheets, or just your house smell and the comforts of home. And when you’ve been away from that too long, you get homesick. And that was … how I felt, through that period of time.”
When she occasionally summoned the courage, Laidley would step outside as Dani. She would get
behind the wheel and drive to a far-away supermarket. She would visit LGBTQ-friendly clubs and sit
with other transgender women to glean whatever she could about the world she desperately wanted to be a part of.
But then the siren would sound and she would be pulled back into her public reality.
Laidley’s secret got out in the most public way in May 2020, when photos of her dressed as a woman were surreptitiously taken at St Kilda police station and shared among officers on a WhatsApp group. Hours later, the images had gone viral and made front page news.
“People … saw me coaching as a gruff, angry senior coach. And then I deliberately went off the radar
and was starting to emotionally transition. Then all of a sudden, I pop up … with those disgusting photos,” she says.
“The photos were an invasion of privacy … I hate the words ‘come out’, why do I have to do that? I was living a quiet life. Yeah, I got lost, went off the rails for the first time in my life. And it was very embarrassing for me. The coming out, was taken away.”
She was charged with stalking a former partner and drug possession, but no conviction was recorded
when she agreed to be of good behaviour and complete a drug rehabilitation program.
Laidley’s efforts to break free from that cycle of addiction, self-loathing and stigma haven’t come easy. But they’ve been eased immeasurably by the support she’s had around her. From her former teammates, the broader AFL community and especially the executive. And from her current partner, Donna Leckie, who shared a classroom with Laidley in grade 1 and has known her ever since.
From those who Laidley tried hardest to hide herself from has come the unconditional love for which she is eternally grateful.
Laidley says she’s the same person she’s always been, she’s simply changed her name.
She’s proud of what she achieved as Dean. She looks back at what she calls “the first phase” of her life with fondness and she’s deeply thankful.
She doesn’t want her accomplishments then, as Dean, to be wiped from history. It might be hard to believe, but she says has no regrets and wouldn’t change a thing.
Laidley’s story isn’t typical. Not of a footballer, nor a transgender woman. It is uniquely her story, and it’s taken immense courage to be at peace with it and share it with the world.
“I know there’s going to be a few punches in the nose because the first person in any change in society usually ends up bloody and marred,” she says. “And if that has to be me for the next generation, I’m the one. And I’m happy with that.”
Sarah Abo is a reporter with 60 Minutes Australia. Natalie Clancy produced her story.
Danielle Laidley, Truth To Tell, an exclusive interview, airs on 60 Minutes on the Nine Network, on Sunday night.
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