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Transgender rugby player got a shot at the pros before she lived her full truth

Caroline Layt struggled with her gender identity and sexual orientation in the Eighties and Nineties before finding peace with her true self.

Sports have been an integral part of Caroline Layt’s life since she can remember.

In September 1988 South Sydney decided to hold open day trials. My friend Tony Daly and I had heard about the trials and we decided to turn up and have a run.

There must have been six consecutive matches played and enough players to fill 12 teams. I played in the first match in my customary position on the wing. It was one of those days where everything I did turned to gold. I scored a try and combined with a few other players to set up several more tries.

I made some long runs on the field and busted some tackles. I also defended well. One of the players I combined well with was Paul Carr, who ended up being contracted to play for Souths. The names of the other guys escape me now, but a few of them also went close to gaining contracts at Souths. We scored approximately six tries against our opposition and totally dominated the match.

The Souths coaching staff had seen enough, and I could tell they were happy with my contribution. They told me as much and that I wasn’t needed to play again that day. Tony played in a later trial match and played well also, although he tended to follow the play like a rugby union forward, rather than up and back 10 metres in a defensive pattern like a rugby league forward does.

We both received letters the following week informing us that we had been invited back as part of a training squad.

I remember Les Davidson had come down to Redfern that day to watch the hopefuls play. Of course George Piggins was there as first grade coach and the under 21s coach, Steve Sims was there as well, as he was our liaison with the club. Once we got down to the business of training with the club, Steve would mark us off the list for each training session we attended.

Above all of those memories, I do remember being alone in the dressing room after our trial match, and it hit me like a bolt of lightning. Looking back I had been involved in sexual relations with men by this time in my life and the fact I could play football validated that I ‘must be a bloke’ to myself and therefore I must be normal, so I pushed my transgender feelings further aside.

I was outwardly homophobic/transphobic to fit in with everyone, and everything that I held dear to me was more or less conservative and right wing at the time. I didn’t know anyone who was gay or trans, as I wouldn’t have given them the time of day.

I felt ashamed that I had secretive inner feelings and thoughts of wanting to be a woman and for wanting to be with a man in a relationship. I was getting married because that is what society wanted. I just didn’t know it at the time!

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Sophie with all of my heart. She was a great girl, but I knew deep down that I was also female within and was sexually attracted to men. I felt this deep sense of shame and self loathing.

What made it even worse, is that I could talk to absolutely no one about it. I had conditioned myself to be closed off about it. It was with me quite often, and I was terrified of anyone else finding out about my intrinsic mindset.

I quite often felt I would have been better off dead than face my ‘demons’. I think that feeling always came back to haunt me, as my mother told me a few years earlier when she found her clothes in my room at Glenleigh. She knew I had been dressing up behind closed doors. She told me in no uncertain terms to be a boy.

So I thought, “Stuff it I’ll be the best boy that I can be!!”

I would always ask myself, “Why me, why the bloody hell me? Why do I have this sickness inside of me? It was an inner turmoil and it never, ever went away.

Trust me, I tried so hard. When I would fantasize I would try so hard to think of girls, but it was always to no avail, as I always ended up visualizing myself as a girl with a guy, and it didn’t even have to be sexual. Quite often the visualization was simply of my female self walking along the beach hand in hand with a boy and that was something I could never beat.

I would explore what I considered was my 'dark side’ at the time by secretly hooking up with a guy and then loathing myself for months on end until the next time I had the urge. It was in constant denial, and then some relief, with sex. I would shower for half an hour scrubbing myself clean, as I would be absolutely disgusted with myself for giving in.

I also felt like a fraud, a cheat, a very unloyal person, especially to Sophie, but I also knew deep down I couldn’t help it.

All of these feelings welled up in me in the dressing room after that trial match. As usual I quashed them with, I can’t be a woman, look what I just did on the football field!

My one constant in life that kept me going as usual, was my sport. I could compartmentalize things and this is something I became very good at in my secretive little world. The better I did at sport or the stronger I was in the gym lifting weights, the more I kept my female self at bay. Short haircuts, masculine body, hairy chest, outwardly I was the very embodiment of masculinity, but I was the antithesis inside.

The letter from South Sydney validated this facade.

I turned up to my first training session after receiving that letter and the big guns were all there. Mario Fenech, Craig Coleman, Les Davidson, David Hosking, Ian Roberts, Paul Roberts, Adam O'Neill, Steve Mavin, Bronka Djura, Michael Andrews and so on. We went on a road run and I must admit it was a little intimidating training alongside these players who were all household names. The guys trying to earn contracts didn’t really mix with the contracted players very often. They had their own hierarchy and we all did fitness together as one squad, but us hopefuls did our skills work away from the first grade squad.

I would make my way to Centennial Park twice a week to train with Souths. In the beginning we did a lot of road runs, which was still the staple of many rugby league teams, but as we progressed with our training, we did some hill sprinting and later sprints on Centennial Park Number 1 ground. The training was pretty full on, but enjoyable. I hadn’t played any form of football, other than the open day trials, since I had last played for Gordon Rugby Union 2nd Grade XV as a winger some 18 months earlier.

When the internal trials started, I was a little off my game.

The last set of three trials we played were held at an oval near Long Bay Gaol at Matraville. This was my best match since I had played in those earlier open-day trial matches, and I thought to myself I had put in a good account. I still lacked the dynamic form I had shown earlier at the open-day trials. My raw speed and power I had displayed back then had disappeared to a degree. It had happened to me before after a heavy training cycle at Joeys and my times slowed considerably. Not to worry, I had put in a good account during that last trial match and whether I went further or not was now out of my control.

I didn’t end up earning a contract in the end, but in truth I wasn’t too bothered at the time that I didn’t get contracted. I was proud of the fact I had gone further than many others had and I had made it this far.

A few weeks later and the South Sydney trials had become a distant memory and the weeks leading up to Sophie’s and my wedding, I was spending time living between my father’s apartment in Elizabeth Bay and Sophie’s family home at Earlwood. Through the week I would live at dad’s and then weekends I would usually spend at Sophie’s place ending with a Sunday afternoon shift at Earlwood Sports Centre.

Quite often on my downtime at my father’s place 'the urge’ would hit me. I don’t know why I felt this way, maybe it was because I was going against my true nature by staying the gender I was born, but wasn’t truly comfortable being and I knew it wasn’t my real brain sex.

Since the age of four when I asked my father, “Why can’t I be a girl, dad?” I knew it was wrong to think this way in society’s eyes. At age 14 when my mother caught me dressing up, the same message was reinforced, so I always knew it was wrong and dangerous to be this way. At age 19 when caught again, I was told in no uncertain terms to be a man, as that’s what I was and I couldn’t be a FEMALE! My mother told me in a negative tone all I could wish to be was a female impersonator or a sex worker and that was the last thing I wanted to be.

I just wanted to be a normal woman and blend into society. So mum’s the word and I never spoke a word of it to anyone. I had decided I was going to keep my self imposed repression going for many more years to come.

My father caught me dressed up one early morning at our property at Richmond. I had fallen asleep in my bed dressed in a dress and with make up on. He told me to take it off right away, otherwise my brothers would wake up soon and see me all dressed up as a girl. He told me not to be an embarrassment to the family.

So I went underground and kept my most inner thoughts with me right through my teenage years and twenties. This made me outwardly homophobic and transphobic. I used every opportunity to mock 'poofs and queers’. I became a bully towards some of the physically weaker and more effeminate kids, because what I saw in them I secretly hated and loathed about myself.

The football culture was also misogynistic and homophobic, so the circles I moved in, there was no tolerance, allowance, acceptance or understanding of people who were gay or trans. If I wanted to remain belonging to this group, I had no choice but to be an outward bigot.

Looking back now, if I had grown up in a more tolerant and understanding family environment, then possibly I would have not been so scared to follow my true path at an early age. But I didn’t, as there were no safe schools around at this time or the Internet to find out information about all things trans.

I remember there was one time at Squashlands, Rushcutters Bay where I was doing a weights session and one of the guys asked me if I was using a bench. I told him I wouldn’t be long and he could have it when I was finished. He had bright bleached blonde hair and was a muscular chap. He seemed a nice enough guy. Of course I wasn’t aware he was gay.

A week later Tony Daly and I had completed a weights session at the gym and then we followed it up by having a spa, which was opposite the fitness centre reception area. The same guy walked in with another man. We saw them walk in, as the reception area could be seen from the spa.

Tony said to me, “I saw those two walking down Oxford Street arm in arm, they’re poofs!”

I said to him, “We can’t have poofs in the gym!”

They headed for the weights room. It was a reasonably quiet time of the day with few people around. I said to Tony, “I’ll fix them” and then proceeded to yell out, “Faggots, fucking faggots! You’re taking over the world you faggots.”

The fellow I targeted came into the spa area and said, “what did you guys say? What is your problem?”

Being an arrogant and ignorant closeted person at the time, I said, “Mate, we didn’t say anything about you, so why don’t you run off back to where you came from!”

The poor guy looked deflated and he couldn’t really pursue it, as he had only heard the remarks and there were less rights for gay people back in the 1980s then there are today. He knew deep down it was me, but he couldn’t pursue it out of lack of evidence.

At that point in time, I hadn’t outwardly explored my being transgender and I was in a very strong state of denial. I thought to myself that I had fought my 'demons’ and beaten them, so he should too! In my mind at that time, there was no allowance for people who I saw as weak minded and gave into their 'demons’.

Nowadays I know it takes a very strong person to confront their demons, be true to themselves and live a fulfilled and happy life. The gay man I had vilified was a very strong individual, and I was a young hypocrite, full of bluster, who was simply out to impress his heteronormative mate.

My actions that day sit uneasily with me, as the person I am today and I always now strive to be a better person and treat all people with respect, realizing we’re all human beings and we all have feelings. I’m sure at that time, the poor guy walked away feeling crushed, belittled and bullied. I know this first hand, because it happened numerous times to me after I transitioned. I wish I could see that fellow again knowing what I know now, as I would profusely apologize to him a thousand times.

A few month’s later I met a fellow called John. He participated in my aerobics classes at Squashlands. Over the course of a few months I would quite often chat to John outside of class.

I don’t mean to stereotype, but he was also an effeminate and gay man. Above all else, he was a really nice person, he was articulate and intelligent and he was very easy to talk to. I really liked John. He was the initial person who cured me of my homophobia, on the way to me becoming a more accepting and understanding person.

I viewed someone who is gay for the first time as a normal human being without labels. We chatted about relationships. I asked him about his girlfriend, knowing very well he was a gay man. To his credit, he never skipped a beat and we would keep it generic.

Of course there were very few trans role models out there for me at that time, and even though I was aware deep down I was trans, I was still a long way off from transitioning, as I was still in open denial and for the most part in denial to myself, but I had come a long way in my development as a well rounded and open minded human being.

I had started to make my initial mindset changes for the better, and my mind was starting to become more open. It led me onto the slow path of self discovery which evolved over several decades to the person I am today, where I will fight for all social injustices and especially those which are of a GLBTIQ cause.

The secretive hypocrite I was back then left the building a long time ago, and I’m glad I have become the strong individual I am today, who will not tolerate boorish behavior from others that I once displayed during my own youth.

You can find Caroline Layt on Facebook, or on Twitter @CarolineLayt.