Ruby Manson says she wishes she’d come out sooner.
The Colac Imperials footballer was 13 years old when she realised she was different from most of the other girls at school, but spent three years hiding her sexuality due to fear of ridicule.
Manson, 20, said she felt very alone not knowing anyone going through the same thing she was.
Same-sex-attracted Australians are up to six times more likely to attempt suicide compared with their straight peers.
“It was very isolating,” Manson said.
“I knew that I wasn’t straight, but it took me a little bit to figure out what I was,” she said.
“I found it pretty tough for a while. I was worried about being made fun of and judged for being different.
“But after years of internal struggle to no avail, I conceded that changing just wasn’t an option.”
Manson was 16 when she finally came out to her parents Ross and Tracey in July, 2015.
It was something that had caused years of torment, but she said embracing who she was made her feel freer than ever.
“It felt like I could breathe properly again,” Manson said.
“Unless you’ve ever hidden something so central to who you are, you kind of don’t realise how liberating just being yourself is.
“And I kind of have the greatest family ever, so yeah, my mum and dad and my sister Maggie have been unreal.
“This sounds so cliché, but really, life is too short to not be yourself.”
Manson said it wasn’t all smooth sailing coming out in a small town.
In the early years she still felt isolated, not knowing many others in the LGBTQI+ community.
Beginning an International Studies course at Melbourne’s RMIT University in the past two years has helped.
But Manson said she had never felt more accepted until she became involved with the Colac Imperials’ women’s football team.
“(Coming out in a small town) has been hard, just because it’s not that common of a thing here compared to other places like Melbourne,” she said.
“Sexuality is kind of a big deal around here still, but at my uni in Melbourne there’s all sorts of different people in different relationships and no one really bats an eyelid, and it’s not like that in a lot of rural areas yet, which can make things a bit tougher.
“I think the hardest part for me has been trying to block out all the opinions and information and attitudes and stereotypes that are out there and just let myself be.
“People are obsessed with labels and sticking others in boxes, and sometimes I get caught up in that still.
“But when you do, you stitch yourself up because you’re not living authentically and without conviction, so I try and keep myself grounded by reminding myself that ultimately I answer to no one else but me.”
A VicHealth survey of more than 3700 football fans found nearly three out of five participants had experienced or witnessed homophobia or transphobia at an AFL game.
Manson said she was one of the lucky ones who have never been directly verbally or physically abused because of her sexuality.
But she said even hearing comments directed at other people could be just as damaging.
“I have heard many homophobic comments made over the years which people may not have been aiming at me, but that have been quite damaging and hurtful nonetheless,” she said.
“I’m also aware of homophobia towards friends and others at different times which again, have implicitly made me question my safety.”
Manson said homophobic slurs used to sledge and belittle opposition players in sport, or even just generally in life, were also still prevalent.
“Using those terms to tease or insult; expressions like ‘that’s so gay’ or ‘don’t be a fag’ or ‘dyke’,” she said.
“I think it’s too easy for people to put other people down to make themselves feel better and unfortunately, aspects of people’s character like sexuality, race, or disability which have been used to bring people down across history, are easy ways to do that.
“It’s really frustrating, I expect to be valued on how I treat other people and the things I put out into the world, so if all they can bring me down with is my sexuality, then that doesn’t sit well with me.
“I think for me, what’s really important is that people understand that what they say, matters.”
Manson said she hoped more people would intervene if they heard homophobic comments.
“If for no other reason than saving their mate the embarrassment, because there’s honestly nothing more basic than insulting someone for their sexuality or race, it just makes them look unintelligent and shallow.”
Manson said it was hard to describe the impact that the Imps and being part of women’s football had made on her since embracing her sexuality.
The skilful onballer was a foundation member when the club introduced women’s football in 2017 and is one of the Imps’ most promising young players, featuring in the club’s under-19 premiership and netting back-to-back best-and-fairest awards at junior and senior level.
But she said it was the club’s inclusiveness that had made the biggest impact on her life.
“The good folk of the Colac Imperials have only ever known me as the version of myself that I am today,” Manson said.
“They don’t know it, but they have a lot to do with who that young woman is,” she said.
“I have never felt so utterly welcomed, comfortable, respected and valued somewhere in my entire life.
“I still laugh sometimes when I think about the girls who have been in my footy teams; on paper, you’ve got these women of every age, profession, size, shape, sexuality and standing in Colac’s social hierarchy, and yet, we are really the closest and most supportive group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to be part of.
“Before joining that club I’ve never felt so comfortable to just be myself, and I count myself lucky every day that I found that community when I did because some people take a lot longer to find their tribe.”
The Imps will create a slice of history when they take part in AFL Barwon’s Pride Cup on Sunday.
Introduced last year by Leopold and Newtown and Chilwell, the Imps will be part of the Cup’s first women’s football match when they take on St Mary’s at Elderslie Reserve.
The Imps have designed a special jumper for the day, emblazoned with the motto ‘all for love, love for all’.
“This game is history-making for women’s football in the Barwon region, for football and more generally sport in Colac, and just for Colac really, so it’s exciting to be part of a movement trying to make positive change,” Manson said.
“And I’m excited to do it with a group of people who are really important to me, it’s going to be a pretty emotional, happy day I think,” she said.
Manson said she hoped the Colac community would follow the Imps’ lead in encouraging and embracing difference, whether that difference is racial, religious or sexual.
“I hope the wider Colac community sees Imps’ participation and holistic support of this initiative, and uses it as a vehicle for behavioural and cultural change, to work on creating an environment that is supportive and inclusive, and encourages people to take pride in who they are and the way they act in the community,” she said.
“If our club can make themselves vulnerable and open themselves up to visibly support what has historically been a taboo subject to rural communities and football clubs, then hopefully everyone can take advantage of someone else taking the first step so we can work together to do some good for those to come.
“Hopefully our participation in the Pride Cup makes it clear that at our club if you wear your Imps colours with pride, compete your hardest every time and respect your club people and opposition, that nothing else matters, you’re always welcome.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Manson conceded she was nervous about sharing her story on a public forum.
But she hoped talking about her experiences would help readers struggling with their sexuality to realise they’re not alone.
“I want them to be who they are, to know that embracing their sexuality doesn’t mean sacrificing every other aspect of their life,” Manson said.
“And I hope it encourages everyone else, especially parents, coaches, teachers and people in positions of power and leadership of our young people to be more open-minded and make sure these kids know that the most important thing is their happiness and how they treat other people.”
See today’s Colac Herald for more.