How trans footballers are finding community in grassroots sport
Vicious backlash against trans people in sport hasn’t stopped players finding supportive, nurturing teams
“I get to run around every Wednesday for a few hours and forget about my worries. And I get to do something with my body that makes me feel strong and at home in it.
“Because I’m not worrying about what it looks like or what people are thinking of my body, I get to experience what it can do – its strength, its flexibility, its reflexes – and as a trans person that is a rare and exquisite luxury.”
Jay is speaking to openDemocracy as a player for Goals Aloud in the newly formed Alternative Football League. According to its co-founder Beth Barnes, the AF League “is providing a safe space in Greater Manchester for women, non-binary and transgender individuals to take to the pitch – some for the very first time”.
The subject of trans people’s inclusion in sport has been viciously weaponised in recent months. Both English and Irish Rugby Football Unions have just banned trans women from contact rugby, FINA banned most trans women from swimming in elite competitions last month, and trans women riders were banned by British Cycling and the International Cycling Union in April.
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
The voices of trans sportspeople have rarely been centred in these discussions – yet the players we spoke to for this story all told us that getting to play has improved their wellbeing hugely.
Jay said: “I have been seeking a sense of belonging and for the first time I think I’ve genuinely found it.”
The AF League “believes that access to sport has an incredible effect on mental health, especially for LGBTQ+ individuals who have perhaps felt excluded from sport and the community that comes with it for most of their lives.”
She told openDemocracy: “It’s so therapeutic… playing football is just so good for my self esteem… I’m fitter mentally and physically than I’ve ever been in my life.”
Lily, who plays for Cardiff Dragons FC, also said they have “tons of fun”.
Before joining, Lily was “looking for a club that is more supportive as an agender person,” and they were pleasantly surprised in the first months at how welcoming everyone was. Socials organised by the Dragons have meant “opportunities to present in my gender in an environment where I know there's people who are gonna support me,” they added.
Lily told openDemocracy: “Before joining [a year ago] I didn't have many friends and I've made a lot more contacts now… it's nice to be among people who are like me.” They even attended their first Pride “just from encouragement from people in a group chat”.
They also appreciate how proactive the team is: “We do names and pronouns at the beginning of training and matches,” they explained. People are corrected or correct themselves if they get them wrong.
‘A sense of belonging I’ve never felt before’
Set up in 2008, Cardiff Dragons is Wales’s first and only LGBTQ+ football team.
But that means more than simply having LGBTQ+ players, Lily added. “It's about supporting the community, educating players, and reaching out to people who want to play sports and aren't aware that there are opportunities available.”
Goals Aloud player Jay echoed Lily’s words: “I feel a sense of belonging… in a way that I’ve never felt within sport before, including before my transition. Someone has considered in advance that I might exist and decided that’s OK, that they are seeking to include me. It’s a wonderful feeling.
“I came into it thinking that I might need to explain why I have facial hair, or why there’s a boy on the girls’ team. But it wasn’t like that at all.”
Fae plays for Clapton Community FC, a fan-owned football club in east London with multiple teams for women’s football and men’s football.
Clapton’s fanbase has been growing rapidly in recent years and has a growing reputation as an anti-fascist team.
“It’s really amazing to play for a club that has very strong leftist and antifascist views,” Fae said. “Having that many fans at women’s football at that level is amazing.”
She believed playing football was “out of my horizon” until she discovered the club had a women and non-binary team and then started playing, she told openDemocracy.
A teammate who encouraged her to go to training “saved, or at least rejuvenated, my love for football,” she said.
For Paula, it was “absolutely brilliant” for so many players from Goal Diggers to join her and the other trans and non-binary players at the first trans pride after lockdown.
Paula has been playing for TRUK United since September, and was approached after the first game to join the new Peckham Town Women team.
She was nervous about joining as a trans woman, she said, but was “welcomed with open arms, no problem at all”. Paula has since been named Coaches’ Player of the Year at Peckham Town, which “reminded me how acceptable and welcoming the women’s game is”.
In Paula’s view, playing for TRUK United is the equivalent of being called up to play for a national team – in this case, to represent the “transgender nation”. It gives transgender women, other trans people and allies “a chance to play and stand up and hold the banner for trans women in sport”.
TRUK United was founded by Lucy Clark, the first ever trans woman to referee a football game.
Paula was part of the squad who played a historic game against Dulwich Hamlet Women’s FC in April on Transgender Day of Visibility. For the first time in British football and possibly worldwide, all 11 players at one point during the game were trans women.
The match will be featured on Save Our Beautiful Game, a documentary series by former England and Liverpool striker Peter Crouch.
Lily, Fae, Paula, Jay and the co-founders of the AF League were all critical of the exclusion and discrimation that trans footballers – especially women – face at higher levels. The players argued that the restrictions on trans people taking part in leagues using FA regulations are unscientific and rooted in patriarchy, and that the hormone checks that trans women have to undergo to be allowed to play professionally are invasive.
The FA is looking to reform the process.
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