A chance encounter with a trans barber is part of the inspiration behind the success of a gender-inclusive, binary-breaking Australian basketball club.
The Bushrangers Basketball club is working to allow people of all genders to play the sport the way that fits them best.
“I was getting my hair cut, and the barber was transitioning,” remembers club founder and president Stella Lesic.
“He said that he loved playing basketball, but he hadn’t played for the last three years because he just didn’t know where to go.
“He didn’t know where he fit. He was a 25-year-old man who couldn’t play just because of his gender.
“That’s heartbreaking, to view your gender as an obstacle.”
‘We’re offering something that’s a little bit different’
When she moved to Melbourne, Lesic wanted an alternative to the bar scene for spending time with others from the queer community.
Her love of basketball led her to found the Bushrangers in 2015, and it has since gone from strength to strength.
From humble beginnings as a Melbourne social sports club, the Bushrangers have grown, incorporated, and set up sister clubs in Brisbane and Auckland, with another to come in Canberra.
“It’s gotten big quickly,” says Lesic.
“As an LGBTIQA sporting club, we’re offering something that’s a little bit different from the clubs that are in existence now.
“Most of the sporting clubs that exist in Melbourne are run by gay cisgender men, and cater for that group of people – and they do it well, they are so good at it, but not necessarily as inclusive as they’d like to be.”
Lesic said the Bushrangers initially met with such gay clubs for support in organisation.
One of the Bushrangers’ major focuses is gender inclusivity, with people of all genders welcome to play, and perhaps more importantly, to choose which team they play with.
The club has partnered with Transgender Victoria to support gender diverse people to play basketball.
“Rather than just saying we’re creating a safe space, we wanted to do it properly, and to make sure we had some structure and strategy in place to make sure those people felt safe when they turned up,” says Lesic.
The Bushrangers run a weekly training session on Sundays in Carlton, with trans folks and people from all parts of the rainbow community welcome.
‘Mixed basketball is super binary’
The club wanted to enter a mixed team into a basketball competition, but were mindful of the needs of trans and non-binary players.
They updated the rules to ensure that anyone of any gender could play without feeling that a special exception had to be made for their case.
“At the moment, mixed basketball is super binary,” Lesic explains.
“It’s men and women, virtually all cisgender.
“So we sat down and went through all the rules, and modified them so that they are not focused on the binary anymore.
“So if you were a gender diverse person, you can come and play, and feel like you’ve been included and everyone’s on a level playing field.”
Each player can choose whether they wish to play on a men’s, women’s, or mixed team – crucial for non-binary and trans people, including those who may be mid transition.
Practice even starts with a drill to help players learn each other’s names and pronouns, normalising diversity.
“[Sharing pronouns] should be as natural as saying your name,” says Lesic.
Openly gay former Australian Opal Shelley Gorman is an ambassador for the Bushrangers, championing their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
A long-time hero of Lesic’s, Gorman agreed immediately to support the club.
“It was super pleasing that someone of that level, a Hall of Famer, would want to be associated with a grassroots, very small basketball club,” says Lesic.
Though they enter competitions, the club’s focus is not on winning but simply on spending time together and enjoying the sport.
“The win is turning up to the court and just participating,” Lesic says.
The Bushrangers are also active in the community, recently raising over $3,000 for bushfire relief.
Captain Kristie Van Fleet has been involved with the Brisbane club since its inception in 2018.
“It’s a great group of amazing people,” she says.
“We get together once a week to play basketball, and it’s great to teach each other some new skills and have some fun.
“It’s about getting people involved in sport who traditionally perhaps were excluded, building confidence and making friends.”
‘Connection is the key’
Their commitment to inclusivity has seen the Bushrangers nominated for a Queen’s Ball Award, and they hope to march as a club in next year’s Brisbane Pride parade.
Van Fleet says that, like at the Melbourne club, players of all levels are welcome, with some having never played any sport before.
“If we win, it’s a bonus, but it’s not about that,” she says.
“The other teams have embraced us as learners and provide a bit of coaching and encouragement to our new players.”
The club also holds social events, participating in other sports such as rock climbing together, and getting together for meals.
So far, the Brisbane club is made up of just women, but all LGBTIQA people of all ages are welcome to join.
People who may not wish to play are also welcome, with some members joining just for social events or to cheer.
“Connection is the key,” says Van Fleet.
“If it helps you feel connected, that’s the great thing about LGBTIQA sport.”