Ellia Green realized as a young child — long before becoming an Olympic champion — that a person’s identity and a gender assigned at birth can be very different things.
Now, about 20 years later, one of the stars of Australia’s gold medal-winning women’s rugby sevens team at the 2016 Olympics has transitioned to male.
Green, who has kept the same name, told The Associated Press it was the best decision of his life. Realizing that sharing his experience could be lifesaving for others is what compelled Green to go public in a video to be shown Tuesday to participants at an international summit on ending transphobia and homophobia in sport. The summit is being hosted in Ottawa as part of the Bingham Cup rugby tournament.
The only other transgender or gender diverse Olympic gold medalists are Caitlyn Jenner and Quinn, who goes by one name and was part of Canada’s winning women’s soccer team in Tokyo last year.
Seeing so few trans athletes at the elite level and so much negative commentary on social media, particularly since World Rugby’s decision to bar transgender women from playing women’s rugby, hastened Green’s push to highlight the harm those things can cause some children.
Most importantly, it’s an attempt to draw attention to a serious health issue — some studies say more than 40% of trans youth had considered attempting suicide.
The 29-year-old Green has admitted to being in a “dark place” after retiring from rugby at the end of 2021.
“This is what happened to me,” Green told The AP. “Pretty much my rugby career ended and I had been in and out of mental health facilities for serious issues. My depression hit a new level of sadness.”
He’s in a much better place now with his partner, Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts, and their infant daughter, Waitui.
“Vanessa was pregnant and having to come to hospital to visit,” Green said. “I was having bad episodes. That’s the last time I want her to have to see me like that. But the only way to help heal is to talk about it … I’d like to help someone not feel so isolated by telling my story.”
The story has been a difficult one at times. Green, who was assigned female at birth, was adopted by Yolanta and Evan Green and moved to Australia from Fiji at age 3. Recalling later childhood memories of domestic violence, seeing Yolanta being abused in another relationship, Green said “caused a lot of long-lasting trauma.”
“I guess from witnessing that, I knew from an early age that was not (the kind of) relationship I wanted to have, but it shaped me to know how a woman should be treated,” Green said. “I do believe that even through traumatic circumstances there was a lot to learn from it.”
It was also a childhood that for Green was marked by an overwhelming realization.
“As a kid I remember I thought I was a boy in public, I had a short (haircut) and whenever we met new people they thought I was a boy,” Green says. “I always used to wear my brother’s clothes, played with tools, and ran around with no shirt on. Until I grew breasts, and I thought ‘oh no’.”
“My mom would dress me in girlie outfits … I always wanted to make her happy, so if she wanted me to wear a dress, I wore a dress.”
Yolanta also helped channel Green into sports, and excellence as a sprinter in track and field eventually led to a professional career in rugby. The all-action seven-a-side form of rugby made its Olympic debut at Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and the women’s competition was held first, with Australia beating New Zealand in the final to win the inaugural gold medal. Green, a flying winger, was among the stars of the show.
All the while, though, the deeper feelings were becoming clearer for Green and really peaked after announcing the decision to retire from rugby last November, a few months after missing selection for the Australian women’s team for the delayed Tokyo Olympics.
“I spent a lot of time after I finished up my career with Australian rugby just in the house, in a dark room, I didn’t have the confidence to see anyone,” Green says in the video pre-recorded for the summit.
“I was ashamed of myself, I felt I had let a lot of people down, especially myself and my mom. I felt like a complete failure, it was heartbreaking,” Green added, explaining the feelings that lingered after being left off the Olympic team. “The one thing that did keep me positive is that I had already planned my surgery and treatment towards my transition. It was something I was counting down the days with my partner.”
Now Green wants to advocate for others, emphasizing the harm that can be caused when sporting bans are introduced and how those policies can amplify negativity toward trans and gender diverse people.
“Banning transgender people from sport is disgraceful and hurtful,” Green says. “It only means the rates of suicide and mental health issues will get even worse.”
Green’s comments coincide with the release of a study by the University of British Columbia in Canada and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia which shows a disconnect between rugby’s leaders and the women who play rugby. The survey shows that while about 30% of women think trans women have an unfair advantage they overwhelmingly do not support banning trans athletes from rugby.
Playing rugby at any level, or even coaching, is not on Green’s radar for now. He’s currently working at the Sydney International Container Terminal — “on the wharves,” he says, — but is also studying for a university degree in international security and has ambitions to be advising companies on general and cyber security.
For now, Green says he’s a “full-time daddy, and it’s hard, maybe harder” than anything he’s done. He also credits partner Vanessa, who has a law degree and is now doing her doctorate — “she’s inspired me every single day.”
Green hopes his story will inspire other trans people to be confident in their decisions about who they want to be.
“I just knew it was going to be the most liberating feeling when I had that surgery and to be in the body I knew I had to be,” Green says in the video. “That was a bright spark in my mind during these dark times facing demons, but I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel.”
He adds in the AP telephone interview: “I knew something that would make me really happy is that, No. 1, I am going to live the rest of my life with my partner and my daughter. And that I am going to live the rest of my life as her dad.”
—Dennis Passa, The Associated Press