Dani Laidley describes her current state of mind: “I’m in a terrific place.”
Danielle Laidley is at rest now. There is a naturalness to her speech, gait, and even her thought processes.
They’ve helped her feel at ease inside herself. She claims this is the first time in her life that she feels truly at ease. Most significantly, she is now starting to appreciate herself.
She happily proclaims, “I’m in a terrific spot.” My life has reached a state of remarkable serenity. And for the first time in quite some time, it’s quite stable.
In an honest and exclusive interview with 60 Minutes, the AFL great reveals that his rise to prominence was anything from smooth.
After playing on North Melbourne’s 1996 champion team, Laidley served as the club’s senior coach for seven years and was eventually inducted into the club’s hall of fame.
An impressive resume like that should motivate any football player. But Laidley was stuck in a state of limbo the whole time. It’s like living a Dean/Dani hybrid.
The public only ever saw Dean Laidley. However, in reality, she was Dani Laidley. And always has been, since since she was a little girl and stole her mother’s nail paint and smeared zinc all over her face at the beach to make it look like she was wearing a mask of makeup. These were the few periods of time as a kid when everything lined up perfectly.
Laidley reflects, “I’m not sure if I had gone and told my mum in the early ’70s, oh, there’s this thing, there’s something, I don’t know what it is, she would’ve probably put me in the loony bin, potentially.”
What followed was almost half a lifetime of angst, introspection, and self-destructive behavior, culminating in a life of addiction and two aborted attempts at suicide.
She reveals, “The sickness of addiction is in my family from way back; a lot of self-harm, booze.”
For me, it all began when I turned into a workaholic. And after I left the AFL, that’s when the gambling, alcohol, and eventually narcotics began to enter my life. For it, I feel tremendous guilt and embarrassment. You feel humiliated and ashamed because of my gender dysphoria, and then you feel humiliated again because you are labeled a cross-dresser or an ice head. Personally, I find that to be the most embarrassing aspect. Even though I know exactly where it occurred in the narrative, it’s hard for me to accept that.
An Australian Football League player and coach coming out as transgender is about as unusual as it gets. Laidley, who granted 60 Minutes and The Age permission to use her birth name, has been a skilled athlete since a young age.
She played professional Australian football from the age of 17 to 48, initially in Western Australia for the West Coast Eagles and later in Victoria for the Kangaroos.
She played with great ferocity. She despised the nickname “the junkyard dog” because it reflected the all-or-nothing approach she took to the game of football. What kind of mental strength it would have needed to keep such a secret under wraps in a physically macho industry where every move is exaggerated and scrutinized is beyond my comprehension.
White noise, she says now. All the time. It’s quite annoying, and it makes regular daily activities impossible. And there’s no way to escape it. This was a very, very challenging situation.
During those trying times, Laidley found refuge in the privacy of her own house, where she could shut the door and spend many hours in her favorite outfits, wigs, and makeup.
“It was a peaceful environment, and everything was quiet,” she explains. I give it to you straight, with no jargon or complicated explanations. When you’re far from home and long for the familiar scent of your bed, bathroom, or kitchen. And it’s only natural to miss home after being away from it for a while. And that’s how I felt… at the moment.
When Laidley finally worked up the nerve, she’d go outdoors posing as Dani. She’d get in her car and go to an out-of-the-way grocery store. She would visit LGBTQ-friendly clubs and sit with other transgender ladies to gather anything she could about the culture she urgently wanted to be a part of.
The siren would sound, though, and she would be thrust back into the world at large.
Laidley’s secret got out in the most public way in May 2020, when images of her disguised as a woman were covertly shot at St Kilda police station and shared among officers on a WhatsApp group. It just took a few hours for the pictures to go viral and become national news.
“When people thought of me as a coach, they thought of a tough, irritable veteran. And then I purposefully fell off the radar and was starting to emotionally transition. Then, “out of nowhere,” she recalls, “those vile pictures of me appear.”
I felt like my privacy had been invaded by the photos… Why do I have to dread the words “come out”? My life was peaceful. Yeah, I fell off the deep end, off the rails for the first time in my life. That was a huge embarrassment for me. The letting-out was stifled.
Her charges of stalking an ex-partner and drug possession were dropped in exchange for her good behavior and completion of a recovery program.
Laidley’s efforts to end his drug abuse, shame, and social isolation have not been without difficulty. However, the love and support of her friends and family have helped tremendously. Among her old AFL teammates, in the AFL community at large, and in the executive office in particular. Laidley’s current spouse, Donna Leckie, met her in first grade and has known her ever since.
Laidley is forever grateful to the people she sought to keep at arm’s length because it was from them that she received the unconditional affection she had been seeking.
Laidley claims she is still the same person under a different identity.
She has a lot of pride for her accomplishments as Dean. She has a lot of gratitude and wonderful memories of her early years.
When she was Dean, she did some amazing things and she doesn’t want those to be forgotten. Although it may be difficult to believe, she claims to have absolutely no regrets and would not change a thing.
It’s not your average tale, that of Laidley. Neither of a female football player nor a female transgender person. It is distinctively her narrative, and it’s taken enormous 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 shift in society always ends up bleeding and marred,” she adds. “And if that has to be me for the future generation, I’m the one. And I’m happy with that.”