When it comes to LGBTQIA inclusion and advocacy in sport, the NRL has made great strides and for rugby league journalist Holly Hazlewood, her experience of coming out and the support she received has reaffirmed the importance of being yourself.
Hazlewood began working with the NRL four years ago as a reporter covering the Canberra Raiders.
During her first two years at the club, Hazlewood was male presenting and developed a strong working relationship with the players, media staff and Ricky Stuart.
But at the same time, Hazlewood was going through a process where she was asking questions about herself.
“For the most part of 20 years, I buried a lot of what I felt and there were a lot of big emotions like shame, guilt and denial about the way that I felt,” Hazlewood said.
“It’s only in the last two to three years that I have had the space and language to be able to describe how I feel. At that point I knew that I couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
While Hazlewood was beginning to embrace her authentic self in her personal life, she was not in a position where she felt comfortable doing so in her career.
For the final months of the 2019 season, Hazlewood was still male presenting when working as an NRL.com reporter. This was incredibly hard for her.
“I was female presenting on the weekend and I would have to be at press conferences on say, a Tuesday morning at Raiders HQ,” said Hazlewood.
“I would constantly be worried about whether I got all my nail polish off in case one of the players saw and asked questions.
“I had to wear clothes that were feeling worse to put on. I didn’t like the reflection in the mirror and I was really struggling.”
That led to a conversation between Hazlewood, Head of NRL.com Ben Coady and editor-in-chief Paul Suttor at the start of the 2020 season. Hazlewood wanted to work in the NRL as a transgender woman and wanted to give the sport the opportunity to help her make this happen.
As far as her bosses were concerned, nothing had fundamentally changed as far as fulfilling her role and as long as she was still able to cover the Raiders, the job was hers as long as she wanted it.
“I wanted to give it a go and see what happened,” said Hazlewood.
“If it wasn’t a workable situation or I didn’t feel comfortable, I could at least say that I tried.
“I didn’t want to give up without trying because it’s probably the most fun part-time job I have ever had.”
This conversation with NRL.com management kicked off a process which has led to the NRL evolving its internal diversity policies to make the sport feel more inclusive and additionally make internal changes to help Hazlewood feel happy, confident and supported at work.
Prior to the start of the 2020 season, Hazlewood fronted the Raiders coaching staff and playing group. Supported by gay icon and former Kangaroos forward Ian Roberts, Suttor and the NRL’s senior people & culture business partner Cara Stagg, Hazlewood bravely stood in front of the squad at Raiders HQ to tell them her story.
“I didn’t feel like I was doing it alone and I can’t thank Cara, Ian and Paul enough for their support,” said Hazlewood.
“I stood there in a skirt, blouse and make-up and told the group that this is how I would be coming to work from now on.
“No doubt it probably stunned some people and some people may not have known what it meant to be transgender, but I can’t thank the Raiders enough for how they have responded to me.
“I have done plenty of games since that point and they treat me just like any other female journalist. They do their best to answer my questions and we just keep it moving.”
Canberra coach Ricky Stuart eased her fears by also speaking at the meeting at Raiders HQ, assuring Hazlewood that he knew his players and they would be nothing but professional in their dealings with her.
For Hazlewood herself, the process itself has been life-changing.
“With a bit of hard work, nothing is off-limits for me despite my decision to live an authentic life. I can’t put a dollar value on how much I value the little freedoms I feel on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
But Hazlewood’s impact goes far beyond this.
“According to Cara, I might be the first openly transgender employee the NRL has ever had,” she said.
“This is incredibly humbling and to think that a small part of my legacy will live on beyond when I stop working for the NRL is incredibly humbling.
“It fills me with pride because it shows people that it is not impossible to be transgender or gender diverse and work in rugby league.”
Last Wednesday, the work the NRL has done in this space was celebrated when it was recognised as a “bronze tier” sport on the Pride in Sport Index. This index is a benchmarking instrument that measures and assesses best practice in LGBTQIA inclusion practice in sport. The NRL was one of 12 organisations to achieve a tier ranking in 2021.
It is not impossible to be transgender or gender diverse and work in rugby league.Holly Hazlewood
Stagg was also nominated for the ‘LGBTQIA Ally of the Year Award’ for her internal advocacy for the LGBTQ community.
This advocacy included drafting, developing and implementing a Gender Affirmation Policy for the NRL, spearheading a change to facilities available for employees who are gender diverse and changes in the NRL’s dress policy so all employees can dress in a way that reflects their affirmed gender.
While the NRL and Hazlewood acknowledge there is still opportunity to do more in this space, the development of the Gender Affirmation Policy is an important step.
“It might be a work in progress, but the fact that it is there, that it exists in black and white and people can read it is a big deal,” Hazlewood said.
“I’m hopeful that whilst my coming out may have been the launching pad to develop this policy that I won’t be the first and only.
“I’m hopeful that I am the first of many openly transgender people who work with the NRL in the future.”