Insight Sport: Natalie Cook talks about the evolution of being a gay athlete and why bullies only made her stronger

When Natalie Cook talks about how life has changed for gay couples she reflects on her wedding days which took place not simply in different countries but different worlds.

There were two of them, 10 years apart … to the same spouse.

Olympic beach volleyball champion Cook and Sarah Maxwell, who represented Canada in the same sport, have been partners for 21 years. Their devotion to each other hasn’t changed … but the world around them has.

Their first wedding was in New Zealand in 2008 when Australia was still nine years away from legalising gay marriage.

Their second, in the scenic Queensland town of Maleny, came a decade later and was a silent salute to all those who fought so hard for the marriage equality.

“Our first wedding in Queenstown wasn’t legal,’’ Cook said. “We could have done a civil union over there but it’s only relevant if you live there so we chose to do a ceremony with our friends and family.

“We made our own word document and signed our own word certificate, designed our own vows.

“When I told my dad we were getting married again and the first one wasn’t legal he was mortified because he didn’t know.

“When we came around to 2018 we went through it again after the gay marriage act was passed. More so to honour the hard work at the front line of those who got it passed.’’

Cook is seen as one of sport’s most affable, outgoing and relatable stars.

As a lively guest speaker, she entertains crowds with her cheeky passion and will make witty reference to her own sexuality but never felt any need to shout it from the roof tops.

Her journey of self-discovery was a subtle one with the occasional jarring experience.

“In 1990 – a long time ago – I was 15 and realised I was skewed to female appreciation. Up until then I was focused on my sport and my school.
“Then there were whispers outside my own head with things like ‘you don’t have a boyfriend.’ I hung around boys a lot.

“Some of it was bullying but I heard it more as a whisper. My genetic make-up and my family background was such that I did not pay too much attention to it.

“But I can understand how people who might not be as strong physically and emotionally might struggle. It would really affect their mental health. It used it to drive me. I was a bit like the US Navy policy “don’t speak, don’t tell.’’

“It’s really changed. Social media have probably driven that. It has been a steady change over the last three to five years then in the last year it has changed a lot.’’

Cook had some short, sharp exchanges with her Sydney 2000 gold medal winning team-mate Kerri Pottharst which sound raw and chastening but were actually a sign of a truly deep friendship.

“We were in an intimate team of two and would stay in the same room. Kerri would say “you walk like it, you talk like it, you act like it’ and I would say “what’s it?’’

“She was trying to help me extract (the fact I was gay). I would tell her to wrack off. But she was trying to guide me and do me a favour.

“I probably had my first girlfriend in 1997. I told Kerri (I was gay) before Sydney.

“Ash Barty worked out (that) to be the best athlete you need to be the happiest person – and I had sort of worked that out. I didn’t have to hide anything. I could be myself.

“I never shouted it from the roof tops. If someone asked me I was open and say ‘this is my partner’. I probably didn’t feel safe enough subconsciously.’’

Cook is thrilled that young gay sportspeople now have far more role models than previous generations had to be proud of themselves and their sexuality.

“I love the way it is celebrated and not simply accepted. When I grew up it was mainly Martina Navratilova breaking through the barriers. She copped a lot but she never took a backward step.

“It is hard to be what you can’t see but Ellen DeGeneres was a huge global game changer and now we have Casey Dellacqua, Sam Stosur in tennis, Erin Phillips in the women’s AFL and many more.

“The big thing is it is now celebrated. It was hidden and tolerated and accepted but now it is celebrated and that evolution has been great to watch.’’

Originally published as Natalie Cook talks about the evolution of being a gay athlete and why bullies only made her stronger

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