Trans in football: Team-mates share stories of trust and tenacity

As Football v Transphobia's Week of Action concludes on Trans Day of Visibility, Sky Sports meets players, fans and officials who are helping each other through the challenges they face

Sammy Walker, Bristol City Panthers
Image: Bristol City Panthers FC are one of the LGBT+-inclusive clubs making football more welcoming for trans players like Sammy Walker

During the last seven days of football's shutdown, an awareness campaign has been encouraging people across the game to show their skills.

It's all been playing out in self-isolation, filmed in backyards, gardens and kitchens, with videos posted on social with the hashtag #BinTransphobia.

"Football plays a huge role in British society - and trans people are absolutely part of that," says Natalie Washington, who is leading on the Football v Transphobia initiative. The FvT Week of Action concludes on Tuesday, March 31, which is International Trans Day of Visibility.

"From playing to selling tickets, coaching to refereeing, we're here to celebrate the trans people enriching our sport every day, and to help people understand how to make us feel safe and welcome."

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Natalie Washington shared her football story with Sky Sports alongside Rushmoor FC friend and team-mate Lisa Pinto in 2018

Natalie plays for Rushmoor FC in the Hampshire County Women's League. By sharing the story of her own journey in the game, including with Sky Sports, she has encouraged others who are trans and non-binary to do the same and show where they have felt truly welcomed.

However, as trans people across society become more visible, so the focus on what it means to be trans intensifies. The experiences within the community are varied and diverse, and amid this, sporting policies that seek to aid inclusion and participation continue to evolve.

"Football v Transphobia is particularly vital this year as we see widespread misinformation about the role of trans people in society at large, but particularly in sport," explains Natalie.

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Football v Transphobia logo
Image: The Football v Transphobia campaign has been holding its annual Week of Action, supported by trans people and allies alike

Sky Sports invited five trans people in football to talk about the game they love, alongside the friends and allies who are proud to stand with them...

The midfield dynamo making an impact at Invicta

Naomi Reid is a midfielder for Charlton Invicta FC, who play in the London Unity League and GFSN competitions. Gary Ginnaw is the club's player-manager.

Naomi thought coming out as trans would mean giving up football. "It's so binary. I didn't think there was a space for me, particularly so early on in my transition." Part of a family of Leeds fans living on the south coast, she'd grown up playing the game too. When she heard about Charlton Invicta, the LGBT-friendly team affiliated to the Charlton Athletic Community Trust, she reached out more in hope than expectation. "Gary and I had a few conversations - he was really supportive. Eventually I came down to training, and straight away he ensured I was made to feel part of the team."

Naomi Reid, Gary Ginnaw, Charlton Invicta
Image: Naomi Reid was encouraged to join the Charlton family by Invicta player-boss Gary Ginnaw

She hadn't been with the club very long when a GFSN league fixture in Edinburgh came along. Some late withdrawals meant Invicta could only rustle up 10 players to make the long trip north, but they ended up winning 3-1 in the pouring rain, with both Gary and Naomi playing key roles. "She said she wasn't sure how much of the match she could get through, but I told her she would have to play the full 90 minutes and she was just fantastic from start to finish," he recalls. "It was one of the best team performances I've been part of. Then we all went out and got drunk!"

He pays tribute to her "infectious" enthusiasm. "Naomi's first goal for us stands out. She'd been banging them in in training for months, then suddenly midway through a game she belts one in the top corner. The whole team just celebrated in one big bundle - it was amazing to see."

Charlton Invicta FC
Image: Invicta were the first LGBT+-inclusive team in Britain to be formally affiliated to a professional men's club

Naomi is now on the club committee, helping to promote LGBT+-friendly football more widely alongside Gary, Dr Michael Seeraj - the Trust's head of equality, diversity and inclusion - and others at Invicta. "No one should ever feel like they can't be involved in the game because of who they are," she insists. Her admiration for Gary is clear. "The work he does is tremendous - from managing the team, to organising pitches, to planning and running the training sessions with his partner Sam. I try to help however I can - I'm really competitive. Possibly a little bossy!"

Naomi's experience has encouraged other trans players to join Invicta. Gary ensures they're comfortable, such as by checking on changing facilities and accommodation when the team travels to long-distance away games. "She's made a positive impact on so many of us - not just our own members and players but also the professional football club and community trust."

Naomi Reid, Charlton Invicta
Image: Naomi appeared in a TV documentary last year to discuss her return to the pitch after transitioning

The FvT Week of Action is an opportunity to challenge the stigma around being trans, says Naomi. "I get that the concept of being trans challenges people's norms, but it isn't a flippant choice. You don't wake up one morning and decide to change gender. I'd love it if FvT meant people don't buy into all that any more."

Gary always considered himself to be a firm trans ally but since Naomi joined Invicta, he appreciates what that phrase means even more. "Having such a great friendship with Naomi has made me learn new things," he says.

And for Naomi? "I saw an Instagram post which said 'ally is a verb' and thought yes! Being an ally is not passive - it doesn't just mean being nice to a trans person. It's about challenging discrimination - if you hear it, confront it, question it, explain that it's not cool. Help show people that everyone is human and just on their own journey."

The Hammers fans who found fellowship

Jamie Jaxon and Mark Baldan are both West Ham fans. They became friends through the club's official LGBT+ and allies supporters' group, Pride of Irons.

"I'm very lucky to be able to go to football and be totally myself," says Jamie, who travels down from the West Midlands to enjoy matchdays with the Pride of Irons. He cherishes the relaxed, friendly atmosphere the group has created. "Some members bring other family or friends, and they join us for a drink. Those people may have never knowingly met a trans person but then they find they're sat next to one."

Jamie Jaxon, Mark Baldan, Pride of Irons - West Ham fans - Football v Transphobia feature
Image: Jamie Jaxon and Mark Baldan became friends through a shared passion for West Ham

Mark was at the first Pride of Irons meeting a few years ago and also plays with inclusive club Leftfooters FC, where he used to be manager. Being part of the fan group has been really important to him. "Mostly it's getting over the results! But also dissecting the performances, and celebrating together when we win. It's not only West Ham we talk about, though - sometimes it's things that impact the LGBT+ community. There are lot of interesting people, like Jamie. Him being trans has opened my eyes to that world. I'd never had a trans friend before."

The Pride of Irons WhatsApp group helps to keep them connected. "It's proving to be a really good support method, especially at the moment as we're in lockdown," says Jamie. "The friendship is as it should be. We identify as LGBT+ but we're individuals within that - we learn from each other."

Tom Allen, 'I'm Game' Rainbow Laces West Ham 4:14
Comedian Tom Allen met fans from Pride of Irons when he visited West Ham on matchday for Sky Sports' 'I'm Game' series. Watch the full episode On Demand

Away from the London Stadium, he and Mark were both volunteers last year at the annual Red Run - a 5k and 10k fun run which raises awareness around World AIDS Day, as well as funds for vital HIV services across the UK. "Hanging out with Mark all day, it was like two of my worlds colliding - HIV prevention and football," says Jamie. "But when we met up later that evening at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, I don't think we talked about football at all."

Mark feels it's even more important at this time to be available for a chat, whatever the topic - "communication is paramount, and just being there for people". And what does he hope others might take away from having read about the FvT Week of Action? "That anyone can play and watch football in a safe environment."

The referee who made the big decision to go back

Lucy Clark and Iain Bryant officiate in non-League football. Lucy takes charge of games in the Combined Counties League, at Step 5 of the NLS, and the Women's National League. Iain is a referee in the Surrey Elite Intermediate League and other divisions, and also runs the line as an assistant ref. Lucy came out publicly as trans in a newspaper interview nearly two years ago.

When Iain phoned his refereeing mentor for their regular Saturday night post-match debrief one summer's evening in 2018, he began to describe the game he'd taken charge of - but was quickly cut short. "I was just rabbiting on and was then asked, 'haven't you seen my WhatsApp message?' I said I hadn't seen nothing!" When he checked the chat, he got a heads up about a story that would be front-page news the next day.

Lucy Clark, referee
Image: Returning to football after coming out as trans was daunting for Lucy, but she was soon refereeing once again

"I told Iain to call me back and of course he did," recalls Lucy Clark, whose picture would appear alongside the headline 'I'm football's first ever transgender referee' in the Sunday Mirror. They'd been friends for over a decade, not just through refereeing but also from being on opposite sides of the north London divide. Lucy describes Iain as "what you might call a 'manly man' - a builder, a bit gruff. He's a massive Tottenham fan, and with me being an Arsenal fan, we've always had that banter." When their phone call resumed that night, there was instant support as well as a few laughs about the unusual situation - and with Spurs having beaten Fulham that day and Arsenal defeated at Chelsea, they were soon back in the old routine too.

Lucy thought she'd have to give up football after starting to transition but was encouraged to continue. She's now refereed around 100 games in the last two seasons, several of them with Iain as her assistant, including the Greater London women's cup final. "He's always been really good, really supportive. We went out for one game together pretty soon after my story came out in the newspaper. There were other officials there and people who I'd known for 15 to 20 years. They'd see Iain being great, getting my name and my gender correct. I know he's always had my back."

Lucy Clark, Iain Bryant, referees
Image: Lucy and friend Iain Bryant (second from right) teamed up as officials for last year's John Greenacre Memorial Trophy women's cup final between Bromley and Crystal Palace

Iain is quick to play down his own role but emphasises what a courageous decision it was for Lucy to go back into the game. "I take my hat off to her. It's got to be one of the bravest things ever." As a team of officials, gender isn't a factor and they officiate in both the men's and women's game. "Being a referee, you're up against 22 people straight away! But to come out as trans in that situation..." He hopes that by Lucy sharing her story and being visible, she helps to bring "a little more acceptance" in football. "Gender, sexuality, all that - it shouldn't come into it, as far as I'm concerned."

Lucy also runs Trans Radio UK, an online station serving the trans community. There's been a few sports stories shared on the airwaves in recent years. "Trans people are just there to play or participate - they're humans like everyone else, and just as passionate about sport. But lots have given it up over the years because they're trans. They shouldn't have to."

With people at home due to the lockdown, listener numbers are up. "Lots of communities are feeling the effect, but especially those trans people who are not living their life 24/7 - the ones that are living for the weekend. Now they've had that taken away from them.

"It's just so tough for people's mental health. Whoever it is, whether they're trans or not, just check on them. It takes nothing to drop someone a message or give them a call. It just might help someone get through these times. Hopefully we can be a friendly voice, and we've got a chat room too. We're here if anyone needs to talk."

The Panthers striker proud of her team-mate

Sammy Walker and Fozzy are team-mates at Bristol City Panthers FC, a GFSN club affiliated to Bristol City FC.

"Hardworking, a great sense of humour - we clicked pretty early on," says striker Sammy when asked to describe goalkeeper Fozzy. Sammy had just moved to Bristol and being passionate about inclusive football, she was always going to become a Panthers player. Finding a friend so quickly helped her to settle in. "We have a good laugh on and off the pitch and our mutual love of the beautiful game certainly helped us bond."

Sammy Walker, Bristol City Panthers
Image: Being part of Panthers life has helped Sammy settle into a new city in Bristol

Sammy's also felt comfortable to share her story in recent months - she's given interviews to the media in the UK and the US, describing how she was once part of Watford's academy but walked away at the age of 17 having realised she was trans. She's a confident public speaker too. "I give educational talks through the Diversity Trust to corporations and organisations, to better equip them to address LGBT+ people that work for them, with them, and that use their services," she explains.

Fozzy admits Sammy made an impression early on at Panthers training. "I messaged her to introduce myself and to try to make her feel more welcome. After learning about her story and journey, it really inspired me to be more open with who I am. She showed me kindness and compassion and we've been friends ever since."

Sammy Walker, Fozzy, Bristol City Panthers FC
Image: Sammy has supported her friend Fozzy through a difficult period in their life

Panthers FC prides itself on its family feel, and in the shape of Sammy, Fozzy has found a kindred spirit. Sammy has been on hand to answer their questions and offer guidance. "They shared some things with me that I empathised with, so I tried my best to help them through my own experiences of similar situations," she says. Fozzy has now felt ready to come out as trans themselves. "I'm proud to see the way they have grown more comfortable. It's truly beautiful to see."

On the pitch, it's been a successful season - the Panthers reached the semi-finals of the GFSN Cup and were second in the league before the shutdown - while the connection with Bristol City through the Championship club's Robins Foundation continues to grow. The social side of Panthers life is important too, with regular fundraisers at LGBT+ venue Queenshilling bringing in thousands of pounds for local charities.

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Sammy and Fozzy are both drawn to the educational value of the FvT Week of Action. Through discussing her football journey on podcasts and in articles, Sammy has taken charge of her personal narrative and she hopes others are encouraged to do the same." I just want people to see that trans people are no different to you," she says. "We're all just humans experiencing life through our own lens, being authentic to ourselves. We all deserve the same opportunities and respect."

As the pandemic continues to prevent the Panthers and other LGBT-inclusive football teams across the UK and Ireland from meeting up for training and matches, communication between players is even busier than usual. "We're constantly messaging each other and making sure we're all coping and providing the support network that many people need," says Fozzy. "We always help each other out: whether it be a lift to training or a shoulder to cry on."

Sammy Walker, Bristol City Panthers
Image: As a teenager, Sammy was a Watford academy player but struggled in that culture

When the going gets even tougher - as, it seems, the coming weeks inevitably will - Sammy insists it goes further than that. "Being a good ally isn't just accepting someone for who they are. It's standing with them, whether that's in day-to-day life or on important issues to amplify their voices - just as FvT is amplifying the voices of trans people through campaigns like this."

The Soho FC winger making gender less tricky

JP Casey and Austen Rigby are team-mates playing for Soho FC in the London Unity League. Casey also plays for Goal Diggers FC.

A Friday night kickabout at Soho FC's regular nine-a-side games at Coram's Fields brought Casey and Austen together as team-mates. "Casey was the first player I met when I arrived," says Austen. "They quickly made me feel welcome, and gave me positive feedback after the game which reassured me about wanting to come back." Casey had only joined the club shortly before that, and the newbies were soon getting involved in first-team games too. "Austen and I were mostly subs in our first season, then starting more regularly in our second," they explain. "We had that shared experience of joining at the same time and became firm friends."

JP Casey, Soho FC
Image: For JP Casey, Soho FC has provided a football environment where they feel truly accepted

Both are avid gamers and support Premier League clubs - Liverpool for Austen, Tottenham for Casey - while on the pitch, their positions are defender and winger respectively. Soho FC were London Unity League champions last year, in a season which further strengthened their bond and understanding. "Being a good team-mate usually means covering for my mistakes, so Austen is already an expert!" jokes Casey.

Off the pitch, they're passing on some of what their experiences have taught them. "Being a non-binary person in football is somewhat uncommon," explains Casey, "so I've spoken at a few events about that. It's made me more aware of the social issues and I'm always happy to talk about gender diversity in the game, if people are interested."

Gender can be complicated, personal and deeply confusing, so having an open mind and being understanding of what a trans or gender non-conforming friend is going through is ideal.
JP Casey, Soho FC

Austen has been in the audience for a few of those panels featuring Casey, who says the unconditional acceptance of their team-mate and others has helped build their self-confidence. "I was worried about joining a football team as a non-binary person, and also worried about joining an LGBT+ team, in case it turned out to be one of those 'we're only really about the G' teams. But Austen was super welcoming and friendly from the first day we met, and has been there for me beyond that in a couple of tough situations."

Austen says the Soho FC motto of 'love football, be yourself' is one that holds true for everyone in the club. "People of all backgrounds should be able to come together to enjoy the escapism that football can provide. Everybody can excel in environments where they feel comfortable enough to be themselves, and their teams will benefit when those players are able to put all their energy into expressing themselves on the pitch.

Soho FC training - Austen Rigby, JP Casey
Image: Austen and Casey (back row, centre) have built their friendship through football and a shared passion for gaming

"When I first met Casey, they mentioned the pronouns they prefer to use. That educated me and I encourage other team mates to respect this too." Casey stresses that it when it comes to words and language, it's important to be accepting in return - "just as you shouldn't shout at a team-mate for not passing the ball to you, you shouldn't shout at a friend for getting a word wrong" - and a private one-on-one chat at the end, if necessary, is more comfortable for all involved.

Casey has also been playing in the capital with Goal Diggers FC, a club that welcomes women and non-binary people. They hope the FvT Week of Action helps to smash some stereotypes about sport and the trans community, including any suggestions that competition gender rules are being exploited for personal gain. "There seems to be a 'concern' among some that there are all these trans athletes taking themselves out of one category because they think there will be a lesser challenge if they compete under another gender.

"Anyone who is trans or knows a trans person knows this is nonsense, but it's an easy - if harmful - stereotype to fall into. Often, presumptions are all we have to conceptualise a person if we don't have an individual connection of our own. So promoting the work and activities of trans people in football, even if it's through something as simple as kicking a ball into a bin, can help to demonstrate that we're just people looking for a place to play.

"If people can come to realise that, a lot of the unknown factor - which brings with it a degree of hostility - will melt away. Then we can work on replacing it with projects and processes through which those people can help their trans team-mates."

To learn more about Football v Transphobia, visit the dedicated webpage on the Football v Homophobia website, and search #FvT2020 and #BinTransphobia on social media.

Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. If you're interested in sharing your own story of being LGBT+ or an ally in sport, contact us here.

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