Southern Lights: Meet Australia's First LGBTQIA+ Hockey Club

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Ponné Thrift
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Based in Melbourne, Southern Lights was the first LGBTQIA+ ice hockey club in Australia
An organization such as Southern Lights helps to provide visibility for the queer community in the sport of ice hockey. This in turn helps to broaden the game to people internationally.
The team behind Southern Lights has also formed the Australian LGBTQ+ Ice Hockey Group to focus on advocacy at a national level within Australia.

Ice Hockey In The Oceania Region

The Goodall Cup, Australia’s most prestigious ice hockey trophy, was first awarded in 1911 to New South Wales after it's victory in the third Interstate Series. Today, it is the championship trophy awarded to the Australian Ice Hockey League’s post-season victors, marking it as one of the most storied ice hockey trophies in the world, second only to the Stanley Cup.

Following the history of the Goodall Cup illustrates the growth of ice hockey in the Oceania region. Since the 2000s, this growth helped form leagues like the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) and the Australian Women’s Ice Hockey League (AWIHL). The combination of these professional leagues and the community ice rinks help grow the game even further to the community through exposure, rink-hosted adult leagues, and community outreach programs.

Recently, I sat down with some of the board members from Southern Lights Ice Hockey Club, an LGBTQIA+ hockey club based in Melbourne, to speak about hockey in Australia, the Southern Lights organization, and some of the challenges as well as highlights of running an LGBTQIA+ hockey club.

Here is what I learned from Heather Ettles, Brendan Parsons, and Karen Powell during my time with them.

Southern Lights patch.
A skater under Southern Lights on ice featuring the shoulder patch of the club.

Who Is Behind Southern Lights

As Parsons explained to me, Southern Lights came as a direct result of an AIHL pride night. This night was hosted by the Melbourne Mustangs, a Melbourne-based hockey club formed in 2010 with the sole intention to join the AIHL. The Mustangs joined the AIHL in 2011 and have been a member since.

“We went to a pride game and just started to see the number of queer people from our community in hockey,” Parsons told Hockey of Tomorrow. “We thought to ourselves that we could have a whole team of queer people. There was a beer league opening up, and we realized we could create a whole team like this. We scraped together enough for one team, and then it grew very much from there. People who had played hockey before came out, as well as people who had never played hockey who felt welcomed by our organization. Now we have seven teams that are active and probably about three to four teams who are resting this season.”

“Not only do we have our seven teams, but we have alumni who have spread into the community and taken important parts of Southern Lights with them,” Powell expanded. “We have people that are out for a season, but also these alumni that come back together as part of the community.”

To understand the scope of Southern Lights in the Australian ice hockey community, Ettles broke down how the structure of Southern Lights works while Powell guided me through what the atmosphere of hockey in Australia looks like as a whole.

“We play in a competition that is run by a particular rink in Melbourne,” Ettles said. “The competition is open for anyone and we register our teams at the start of every season. In each of the different divisions, there are up to 12 teams. Those divisions range from a developmental level all the way up to A leagues, which a lot of the state players will play in. Our seven teams are spread throughout those divisions.”

“I played hockey in the US before I moved over to the Oceania region,” Powell told Hockey of Tomorrow. “For most of the Oceania region, we don’t have university-level clubs so most people start in a very different sporting system when compared to the US. In Australia and New Zealand, both are more club directed. You might start younger and work your way through the club, or you might start as an adult.

“Specific to Australia, the club structure has two different types of community-level sports. One is community-level sports that go through national sporting organizations, and the other is community-level sports that sit outside of national sporting organizations. Our current club sits outside of the national sporting organization. Part of this is due to the challenges of having really inclusive participation in some of the national sporting organizations.”

Parsons explained to me that Southern Lights was only one factor in the proverbial iceberg that began that night at the Mustangs’ pride event. They also formed a national organization in the Australian LGBTQ+ ice hockey group that focused heavily on national-level advocacy and assisted in the formation of Harbour Lights, a Sydney-based LGBTQ+ club that has become their sister organization, while at the same time keeping Southern Lights focused on its grassroots mission.

“Part of what the Australian LGBTQ+ ice hockey group is doing is working on better visibility and relationships with our national sporting organization. We do not necessarily run our teams through that national sporting organization,” Powell said.

“I think in the region there is a two-part relationship in the sport. One, how do we keep our players happy, supported, and entirely in the right space for them, and then secondly how do we build that inclusivity and visibility outside of our club experience? I think both Southern Lights, Harbour Lights, and then our national organization are working very hard at a variety of different levels to make sure sport is as inclusive as possible to the LGBTQ+ community.”

“The premise is simple: you can play with us,” Ettles said. “Anybody can come and play hockey. We get a lot of people later in life that come through and they have a place where they know the culture is going to be accepting. We can laugh at ourselves, fall down, and have a great time with our teammates.”

A huge contributing factor towards the rapid growth of Southern Lights seemed to be centered around the lack of ‘locker room culture’ by the club as well as the gender equity experienced with Southern Lights. In a time when gender has been a divisive subject worldwide, it was refreshing to hear the team behind Southern Lights speak so deliberately on the respect shown throughout all the teams under their umbrella.

“People come to play with us because it’s not that ‘locker room culture’. Everyone's free to be themselves,” Ettles said. “We have pretty good gender equity as well; our teams are all mixed. There is no men’s or women’s recreational league which is great for people who are affirming their gender or considering or part way through a transition. They don’t have to join a gender-specific team; they can just be whoever they are at that moment.”

“Even to the point with our locker rooms,” Parsons added. “A team gets a locker room; it’s not a men’s or women’s locker room. You are just one team, which dissolves a lot of the stigma that can come with locker rooms. The only time we even ask about gender is to ask what people’s pronouns are so we can appropriately refer to people, but there is nothing in our competitions or our teams that we need to know what gender anyone is.”

“Heather, Brendan, and I are all on the board and there is a very deliberate culture discussion at every single level in Southern Lights,” Powell said. “It goes from the players, the coaches, the officials, and the board members. There is a guarantee on our team that we step up and respect everyone who plays. The coaches are directly organized to not use gendered language in the locker rooms. Everyone gets to use their pronouns and it is the responsibility of all the team members to do that.”

“What I think has been really interesting about that is it has created intersectionality where we have become the club of choice for people who don’t ascribe to a traditional cis-gendered male world.”

Southern Lights
Southern Lights Ice Hockey Club players

The Unique Challenges And Payoffs Running An LGBTQ+ Club

Parsons and Powell helped explain those unique challenges an LGBTQIA+ specific club can face.

“We play to be competitive and we play to win. We are constantly battling how we can forward our best players to be their best ice hockey-playing selves,” Powell said. “It is equally as important that we can develop amazing ice hockey players within the space we play in. I think there is some tension between that, and I think it is important that clubs recognize that tension and figure out how to address it in a certain type of way. I think that is in part the reason we have grown across our development levels.”

“We actually have to prove people wrong,” Parsons added. “That being LGBTQ+ doesn’t mean that you are not sporty or capable of winning.”

As our conversation winded down I was curious what Southern Lights told people who did not understand why a space like this club needed to exist. What wisdom could someone from the outside looking in glean out of this organization on why spaces like this were important in the hockey world.

“We would love to not need Southern Lights: that is the goal. At the moment we need to exist.” Ettles informed me.

Ettles further explained people she has met throughout the queer community informed her that they would have never ventured down this road without Southern Lights as a launching point. Without visible and supportive ice hockey, progress would stagger at all levels.

“Look at how many NHL teams this past year didn’t wear pride jerseys,” Ettles said. “That is tough for us to see, and if they aren’t even going to do that at that level then we definitely need to be here.”

Powell spoke about the unseen progress Southern Lights already made to the future generations in their community. It revolves around the future of not only hockey but our world as a whole. It is a message through visibility that aims to show people there is no need to put themselves or others into specific boxes based on sexual orientation or gender expression.

“Those kids are dressed up in rainbows and have completely normalized the idea that you would have a rainbow-filled ice hockey team that gets out there and smashes into each other,” Powell said.

“Those kids are the ones that are going to change the world.”

Southern Lights has helped share this message with so many young people in their community just by getting out on the ice and doing it themselves.

“Those of us who have the ability to be our authentic selves in the world, when we model that for young people we are going to lower the suicide rates. What’s more important than keeping our kids in our communities alive,” Powell added.

“It’s a big reason that I am happy to talk about what we do because it makes such a big difference to all the younger people that come behind us.”

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