October 21, 2021

‘Being visible in football as a trans man helps create a pathway’

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“I haven’t spoken before to another trans guy in our league, or who has played football,” says Samuel Bailey. “It’s cool to be having this conversation.”

Samuel, a defender who joined Charlton Invicta FC in early 2020, is chatting with Harri Messenger, who has been with Cardiff Dragons since 2017.

They are among millions of amateur players across the UK whose participation in the sport they love has been severely disrupted in the last 12 months due to the pandemic. They are also two representatives of a rarely seen minority group within football and are now hoping to inspire other trans men to play as the grassroots game begins to return.

“Having football spaces in which there’s someone else who’s already out as trans can create pathways for more people to get involved,” explains Harri. He is keen to seize the opportunity of International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31 – an awareness day that also marks the conclusion of the annual Football v Transphobia Week of Action – and share some of his experiences.

Harri Messenger (r), Cardiff Dragons
Image: Harri Messenger (pictured on the right) with some of his Cardiff Dragons team-mates

The campaign, run by the team at Football v Homophobia, seeks to highlight and celebrate the contributions of trans people in the sport, provide education that will reduce transphobic language and behaviour, and encourage allies to be active and vocal in their support.

In Wales, grassroots football for over-18s is still awaiting a resumption date; it’s expected to be authorised by the Welsh Government for late April. In England, outdoor sports are underway again this week and to coincide, the Football Association has published its new grassroots strategy, titled ‘Survive, Revive, Thrive’ – with inclusion a key component.

The strategy offers a vision of a more accessible national game that is truly for all. “The immediate challenge, in light of COVID-19, is to get grassroots football back on its feet,” reads the FA statement. Listed among the long-term goals is ‘Positive Environment: A a game that’s representative of our diverse footballing communities, played in a safe and inclusive environment’.

It’s one of seven ‘transformational objectives’ outlined in the strategy and for anyone with a passion for football who happens to be trans or non-binary, this part of the mission statement is pivotal to keeping them active, healthy, and engaged.

This demographic’s participation in the game has not previously been tracked, in large part due to the limitations of existing Office for National Statistics population data. However, the Census held in England and Wales earlier this month, which included a question on gender identity for the first time, should now enable the necessary analysis. The initial Census findings are due to be published in March 2022, with full results following a year later.

“There are actually a lot of trans people I know who are interested in sport,” says Harri, “and some of them are keen to play football and join a team.

“However, trans people often have issues with accessing or being able to take part in sport, for a variety of reasons.”

The prospect of potentially being subjected to discriminatory language and behaviour is just one factor. There are also understandable concerns about the provision of changing facilities, the expectation of being misgendered, and anxiety over whether existing players might react negatively to having a trans team-mate.

Having been accepted into a welcoming club himself, Harri recognises the contribution he can now make towards providing a pathway. “Being visible means others can see someone is out there playing and shows them that they can play too.”

‘A different perspective’

Harri was in his first year at university in Cardiff when he spotted an advert for the Dragons, shared onto a Facebook page for trans people that he had been browsing. Having been out to his circle of friends for a while, he was searching for other ways that would help to affirm him in his gender. He hadn’t contemplated that an amateur football club could help to do that.

“I realised I’d been missing football – I’d played a lot in school – so seeing the club ad in a trans community space on social media encouraged me to attend a session and see what it was like.

“Everyone was really friendly and welcoming. It instantly felt like a football family.”

Becoming a Dragon helped his confidence to grow at the same time as his transition was progressing; in turn, the club has taken learnings from Harri’s experience, introducing steps to ensure others feel welcome from the start.

“At the start of sessions when we have new players, we have a circle where we say our names and give our pronouns. That may sound a bit cheesy to some people, but it really helps everyone to get to know each other.

“The structure of our club means there’s quite a lot of girls. Creating opportunities to play five-a-side and have mixed teams has been good.” There is also a conscious effort to avoid gendered language like ‘guys’ in the club group chat – a forum that’s been busier than ever during lockdown – because it’s universally acknowledged how this small action can have a big impact on inclusion.

Samuel is a Charlton supporter who discovered Invicta through club channels – the LGBTQ+-inclusive football team has been operated by its Community Trust since 2017.

“I always played when I was younger but that took a lull around college and when I started university,” he explains. He came out as trans in late 2019, during his second year, and initially he wasn’t expecting football to form part of his story. “Being trans gives you other things to worry about and often people don’t carry on their hobbies. But because I’m a fan, it meant I found out about Invicta.”

Like Harri, he reached out to the team, was encouraged to attend training, and has felt welcome since the very first session. Though the disruption caused by the pandemic has meant being less physically active, Samuel has increasingly been visible as part of Invicta’s award-winning inclusion initiatives and via his own personal social media channels, where he has documented stages of his transition.

Two of Samuel’s Invicta team-mates are trans women who have spoken in the media and on panel discussions about their journeys. In recent weeks, Samuel has also been invited to speak at online events and on podcasts.

“Trans experience is completely exclusive to each individual person,” he says. “It’s been so informative for me to listen to the trans women in our team and learn about the challenges they’ve faced. I can give a different perspective, something people don’t hear a lot about.”

‘We’re trying to show anyone can play’

The FA’s current Trans Policy has been in existence since 2014 and was last updated in 2015. Under its competitive rules, mixed-gender teams are allowed up to Under-18 level. For those aged 18 and over, players who are transitioning are invited to apply to the FA to gain authorisation to play in their affirmed gender. ‘Each application will be considered on a case-by-case basis’, reads the policy summary, with approval likely to be granted if the applicant can establish they have undergone appropriate hormone therapy for a ‘sufficient length of time’. The FA Wales operates a similar case-by-case policy.

In 2016, the FA in England enlisted the help of Gendered Intelligence to produce ‘A Guide to Including Trans People in Football’, a detailed document containing practical advice and information. The FA confirmed last August that it was again working with the charity “to supplement the trans people in football guidance and review the policy as part of good governance”.

Meanwhile, Cardiff Dragons and Charlton Invicta are part of a wider UK and Ireland network of around 25 clubs that play in the GFSN National League and Cup. These ‘LGBTQ+-friendly’ competitions do not have formal FA affiliations which allows them to offer pathways to play for trans people outside of any requirements for approved personal applications. Invicta are also members of the London Unity League – an LGBTQ+ friendly competition for capital clubs – which since 2018 has had a bespoke affiliation with the Amateur FA, providing some partnership benefits but allowing it to remain as trans inclusive as possible.

Charlton Invicta FC
Image: Charlton Invicta won in the Grassroots category at last month’s annual Puma-sponsored Football v Homophobia Awards for the second consecutive year

The acronym GFSN stands for ‘Gay Football Supporters Network’ – a legacy of the group’s origins in the late 1980s, in a time before any LGBTQ+-inclusive clubs even existed in Britain. As with the Gay Games, the name has held fast while the community itself within sport has continued to diversify. More than anything, the league is defined by its ethos.

“It’s important that these clubs exist because they epitomise what we’re trying to show – that anyone can play the game and it’s just a team,” says Samuel.

What’s not widely known is that a large proportion of players in LGBTQ+-inclusive football teams – estimated to be around 25 per cent – aren’t actually LGBTQ+ themselves. These allies often elect to play here as they have friends and family members in the team who are LGBTQ+, or they join simply because of the inclusive atmosphere, perhaps having had a negative experience of football at a previous club or back in their schooldays.

Their support in establishing positive spaces where people feel safe regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity is crucial, particularly to trans players.

“That’s the biggest thing for me,” says Samuel. “We have a lot of allies on our team and they’re constantly trying to educate themselves. I’ve never really experienced that from the cis, straight guys in my life. They want to know how they can help you as well.”

It’s encouraging for the FA to have this network of LGBTQ+-inclusive leagues and teams already established as it launches its new grassroots strategy, but how they might help to enforce the ‘Positive Environment’ pillar is as yet undefined. In Wales, the FAW is preparing to launch a new equality, diversity and inclusion strategy in the coming weeks, and has been extensively consulting with members of the LGBTQ+ community through the LGBTQ+ Football Network Cymru, a new group that has representation from people in a wide range of roles in the sport from across the country.

Working with the professional game to cultivate a more extensive national network is one possible course of action. As well as Charlton, the community Trusts of Bristol City and Millwall have taken existing amateur clubs under their wing in recent years, nurturing them as part of their own football family. For clubs that have a significant number of LGBTQ+ people within their catchment areas, there’s the bonus of growing the fanbase as well as getting more people playing the game. Outside of the big cities, this approach could assist clubs in their bid to stay at the heart of their communities, attracting more young people amid the ever-increasing distractions of modern life.

For Samuel, there’s a lot to be said for the additional visibility that would be generated by stronger connections between pro clubs and LGBTQ+-inclusive teams. It’s what got him involved with Invicta and he’s happy to now be an advocate. “I really hope LGBTQ+-inclusive football becomes common knowledge down the line because I feel there’s definitely people that don’t know this part of the game exists. You shouldn’t have to stumble onto the right Google search or social post just to find it.

“Everyone still thinks it exists as a binary sport but that’s not true anymore. For trans people out there who just want to play, it’s vital to have clubs where they know can go and be accepted.”

Learn more about Football v Transphobia on the campaign website.

At 6pm BST on Wednesday, March 31, Kick It Out is holding a webinar event titled ‘#TalkItOut: Trans and Non-Binary Inclusive Language’. Follow the link to find out more and register.

Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign. Your story of being LGBT+ or an ally could help to make sport everyone’s game. To discuss further, please contact us here.