Have you ever played on a football team?
Perhaps you play for a grassroots team. Maybe it’s more casual, a regular five-a-side game with your mates. You might just have fond school memories of kicking a ball about, or maybe you’re even a pro player reading this. Or you’re hopeless at sport but you have kids who look forward to football practice.
Imagine if you were told that was no longer allowed––that your mates could all play, but you couldn’t. How would that feel?
We’re in a weird moment for football. To many of us, it’s never felt more inclusive. Women’s football has exploded into international consciousness with tournaments claiming deserved headlines and airtime, while national and domestic teams fill stadiums and grow international audiences. This year’s World Cup will be a massive deal for the women’s game; with increased investment enabling national teams to raise their game in recent years, the landscape has never been more competitive. Men’s football is now a safer and friendlier landscape for many of us who didn’t always feel welcome if we weren’t straight, white, and male. There’s more to do, with groups including Her Game Too and Football v Homophobia striving to nurture a truly welcoming culture across the game. Women’s teams are fighting and winning battles for equality and fair treatment, women are playing and competing at every level, and grassroots football is thriving.
It all looks rosy and hopeful—you can’t stop progress, right?
Well, trans and non-binary players are part of this story, and they face new barriers even while many walls are tumbling down. In recent years “the trans debate” (a deeply problematic term in itself) has filled newspaper columns, and the hostility in online spaces like Twitter has become truly vicious. Trans people are not new, nor is their struggle, but the modern wave of hostility directed at them is a relatively recent backward step, with particular focus on seeking to remove trans girls’ and women’s right to participate in sport.
Ample research confirms the vast benefits of taking part in sports. From the obvious health wins to building confidence, improving teamwork and leadership skills, and reducing stress, people reap the rewards throughout their lives, from school to the workplace. Through sports, marginalised people can find community, belonging, and a shared passion and purpose, and claim the inclusion that racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia have often denied them.
Sports also provides the link between our role models and aspirations, and what we can do ourselves by taking part.If you can see it, you can be it. Arguably, the more you’re marginalised, the greater the need for this support structure and landscape of possibility. Trans people have been increasingly able to see role models in sport in recent decades—tennis player Renée Richards secured the right to compete nearly 50 years ago, and trans athletes have been welcome at the Olympics since 2015. Yet there are loud voices saying trans people should be denied access, and governing bodies in some sports have already shut trans people out of the games they love. In the US, politicians have gone further, pushing extremist bills that jeopardise and criminalise trans people’s very existence.
The chatter amplifies scaremongering and some egregious falsehoods, leading to wonky conclusions that it’s not safe or fair for cis women and girls to compete against trans girls or women and, more daftly, that men are conniving to sign up for a spot on an unpaid women’s team at Step 8 to game the system—while progress has been made, women’s football is still far from a lucrative profession (or even a full-time professional possibility) for most players. Where are the scores of trans medal-winners dominating women’s sports? Those determined to cheat their way to success tend to take the highly prohibited method of doping, rather than the legal step of living their lives as women…
You may not share these erroneous and harmful views. But perhaps people in your life do, and perhaps they’re labouring under some of the naked lies and propaganda pushed by the anti-transgender movement.
Let’s do some definitions, because even these have gotten twisted. For instance, you may have seen the slogan ‘cis is a slur’. ‘Trans’ (Latin: “on the other side”) means that you don’t identify with the sex you were assigned at birth. It’s at odds with the gender that feels instinctively like ‘you’, or how you want to live your life. ‘Cis’ (Latin: “on this side”) means that the sex you were assigned at birth aligns with who you are as a person, so you likely don’t feel any need to make a change. It’s not a casual matter of how you feel like dressing today—we all have that choice. It’s a much deeper question of who you instinctively know you are, as a whole person. (If you know you’re a cis woman, imagine being told you had to live every day, in every way, as a man. That would not be a trivial experience.) Misgendering trans people shows huge ignorance of their lived reality. Their existence isn’t a debate.
For trans adults, taking care of their wellbeing may mean seeking gender-affirming care, including medical treatment, to enable them to align their physical traits with who they instinctively are and to live a happy life. Kids and teens who are trans have fewer options, but their parents may support them in choosing how they dress, name, and present themselves day-to-day, and they can ask for puberty blockers: a temporary and reversible measure that lets them pause the onset of puberty until they’re old enough to make an adult decision about whether they want to pursue medical treatment. That said, waiting lists for all these options are often very long, which is particularly stressful for trans kids who fear that time may take their choice away from them, with puberty arriving before they can start to delay it.
Like many marginalised people, trans people often face heightened discrimination or abuse, particularly now when bigoted attitudes are on the rise in the UK and around the world. It’s not an easy road; living your life authentically and visibly when some people are violently opposed to your existence takes courage, determination, and the support of those around you. That’s true for trans people, and has been so for queer people across the spectrum—and indeed for women in general who’ve had to fight for equality and access to sports. Empathy and history go hand in hand.
The complexity of trans people’s experiences lend ridicule to the idea that people who don’t really believe they’re women would go through all this just to get onto a football team, or that a wave of trans players will replace cis women. This idea also ignores other key facts. First, trans people represent very small numbers in society: in the 2021 UK census 0.56% of respondents identified as trans women, and 0.52% as trans men, and a smaller number still actually play sports. Based on general population stats for UK-wide sports participation, we could make an optimistic guess at maybe 60% of the trans population, so that’s 440,000 people out of 69 million UK citizens. These numbers won’t transform the demographic of people in sports.
Second, no footballer waltzes onto a top-flight team out of nowhere, regardless of what bones they were born in. It takes years of development from the youth level under the best coaches, beating tons of other talented players to a few coveted spots, maybe working one’s way up through less prestigious teams—oh, and innate talent. Now imagine doing that while undergoing or recovering from major surgical procedures and hormonal regimes. There’s no shortcuts. The hard reality is it’s unlikely there will ever be large numbers of trans athletes sharing space in the game with cis men and women. But they deserve the same right to take part and compete as anybody else.
Many complaints are from people unaffected by trans inclusion. Some of the loudest anti-trans voices don’t play women’s sports and have barely talked about it before now. Cis men who have never supported women in sports (or better standards, resources, pay, or safeguards for female athletes) a day in their lives are suddenly enraged about an imagined, existential threat to women’s sports. The cis women who misuse the banner of feminism to slur and misgender trans women and pit them against the lesbian community are conspicuously absent at women’s football games, a notably queer-friendly environment.
Within football, trans players have reported that their cis teammates are welcoming and inclusive, and female footballers up and down the pyramid have defended trans players’ right to play. Last November, Lionesses star Leah Williamson spoke up in support of Helen Hardy’s Manchester Laces, the city’s first inclusive women’s/non-binary football club.
“It’s about normalising what should be normalised. Once upon a time it was foreign for a girl to play football and I know that trans people experience [discrimination] in their day-to-day life, let alone when they want to step into something that they really love.”
In 2020, 200 top female athletes signed a brief supporting trans inclusion in women’s sports. Stars like Billie Jean King, Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Rapinoe, and Candace Parker have lent their voices to the cause. Parker, a decorated basketball player, played against trans player Layshia Clarendon in the WNBA for years. Sauerbrunn and Rapinoe play against Canadian trans footballer Quinn at the international level, and Rapinoe and Quinn are teammates at Seattle team OL Reign. They know first-hand that inclusivity benefits everyone, and that trans players are no threat to their cis teammates or opponents.
There are complexities around athletic fairness—though many fears have been debunked, including the myth about trans women having male athletic advantages. First, there’s huge overlap between male and female bodily characteristics. You can’t argue for a genetically flat playing field when the nature of top flight sports celebrates people with genetic advantages, from supernaturally talented swimmer Michael Phelps to USWNT footballer Lynn Williams, who in 2020 recorded a faster sprint than Mbappe. Second, cisgender athletes often have higher testosterone than trans female athletes, because testosterone is produced in the testes, ovaries, and the adrenal glands, and trans women don’t produce it from ovaries or removed testes.
Sports were segregated by gender in a time when sex was popularly regarded as one or the other (side point: some segregation was not for women’s protection, but because men felt uncomfortable being outperformed by women), when clearly the world we live in is far from binary. At the youth level, before puberty sets in, the differences between male and female size and athletic ability are negligible, and have more to do with how kids are socialised, with expectations about boys playing football, and girls having to fight for the right to even play on a boys’ team if a girls’ team isn’t available.
These complexities must be worked out between athletes, governing bodies, and medical experts with the knowledge to do so, not by people treating trans people with ignorant or bigoted hostility. Sport showcases the best we can be as people and a society, so the aim should be to make room for everyone to compete. The outcome will be more participation in sport at every level, and a fairer world where everyone has a chance to do what they love and build bridges with each other. As football fans and ordinary citizens, we’ll all benefit from championing this principle. And we who love women’s football are seeing the sport flourish in a more inclusive space than ever before—now’s not the time to pull up the ladder behind us.
On March 31st, International Transgender Day of Visibility, my local London club Dulwich Hamlet FC will join forces with Trans Radio UK for the second year to support trans inclusion in football. Profits will go to the trans-run radio station and their adjacent TRUK Listens support service for the transgender community. Last year’s inaugural event was the first time ever that an all-trans female side played a team of cis women anywhere in the world. Dulwich’s women’s team have been enthusiastically on board two years running, firmly supporting trans women in sport and breaking down prejudices, and they already compete against trans players in their league. The game last year was a resounding success (more so for DHFCW, mind, who beat the Trans Radio UK team 7-0), and a beautiful, moving and fun evening that showed the potential an inclusive environment offers. This year’s event will host two games. A TRUK trans women’s team returns for a rematch against a Hamlet women’s first XI and reserves side, while in another first, an all-male trans team will take on the club’s DHFC Supporters team.
In a climate where so much of the discussion about trans people is negative, inaccurate, and fear-based, from people who aren’t even trans, events like this offer an important platform for trans people to step forward and proudly share their joy, community, and love of sports. It’s nothing to be scared of. Trans and non-binary players, like so many football fans around the world, just want to play the game they love, and it’s vital that cis fans support them.