Pride 2020 takes place throughout the month of June and serves as a celebration of LGBT+ life. It is also a platform to continue the fight for equality and tackle prejudice.
As part of our ongoing celebration of Pride and our #ThisIsSurreyFootball campaign, we spoke to transgender grassroots football player and campaign lead for Football v Transphobia, Natalie Washington about her journey in football, the advice she would give to Surrey clubs on how to become more inclusive plus how players, coaches and clubs can become LGBTQ+ allies.
Natalie also gives her advice to transgender people looking to get into the sport based on her own experiences.
When did your journey in football begin?
‘I was quite a late starter actually. I was one of these kids that wasn’t particularly talented at football, I kind of had a kick about in the playground at school. I never joined a football team as a child. I did a couple of summer football camps and on one of those I got the fair play award which is stereotypically the thing that you get if you’re not very good. I’m not saying fair play is a bad thing but that’s the stereotype.
I played my first competitive match at University, so I was 18/19 so this is all pre-transition. When I finished university my friends and I set up a Sunday league team in Camberley. We set up a club and that was the beginnings of it, but I got to really enjoy football from watching football. I’m thirty-six so Euro 96 as quite a formative point for me when I was twelve, to say ‘right I’m really into this sport!’
I didn’t get the bug for playing until my early to mid-20-s really.’
What are your roles in football?
‘I play and I’m starting to think whether I need to start learning to coach or something because I’m probably not going to be able to run around much longer!
I am campaign lead for Football v Transphobia. Football v Transphobia is associated with Football v Homophobia which is a well-known campaign and I do stuff for Football v Homophobia as well. Lou [Englefield] is the campaign lead for Football v Homophobia and I work with her on that. We started Football v Transphobia last year and it’s along the exact same lines as Football v Homophobia, trying to raise awareness of the fact that trans people are here in sport and we exist, we play, we coach, we manage and go to watch games as fans. Trying to get people to understand that the actions they take in football, the way they behave can really affect the way that people feel comfortable.
Those are my more formal roles in football but I’ve got a network I run for trans people in sport to help they feel safe to get into sport and be a visible trans person in football so they can see that this is something they can do.’
What do you enjoy most about football?
‘For me It’s having that bit of escapism and it got more important for me through transition and so on which is quite a difficult period of time. A lot of LGBT people, me included, at that time can feel quite socially excluded or isolated. Having a group of people that you may not necessarily be good friends, as it’s a random group of people you’re thrown in with as you all want to play football so not everyone is going to be your best mate but on the pitch together you’re all competing towards one common aim and you’re all trying to get something done, there’s loads of physical effort there which I always really enjoy. Giving everything physically.
I also really enjoy the creativity of it like when someone does something with a football you can’t do and you kind of admire although I guess if you’re defending then you shouldn’t necessarily admire it too much!
It’s just that kind of team feeling of being part of something and some of my favourite moments in football have been second-half comebacks or cup matches where you really feel you are part of something and getting something done.’
Have you ever experienced discrimination either on or off the pitch?
‘Yeah I have and unfortunately I went into it expecting that. What I am really pleased to say is that at my club level I haven’t and my club have been really good and even when I approached the club to join they were really inclusive and enthusiastic me down there and getting me involved. They’ve done a really good job of growing the women’s game.
On the pitch I’ve had a bit. I had one game where I ended getting taken off after about half an hour in tears because I got kicked to shreds basically. All the little tricks, where I was playing on the left-wing at the time and the fullback was just following me around kicking my ankles every ten seconds just trying to wind me up and trying to get a reaction out of me and get in my head. The bit that ended my game was when I just got elbowed in the face at a corner! Someone just looked over their shoulder and just elbowed me in the face. The referee didn’t see it, which happens so that was a bad game, but I did score in that game and we did win so that was really important.
I’ve had a couple of things said. Again, really pleasingly not much from players. That game I just described was one of the very few times I’ve had stuff from other players. Usually, it’s not loads and not as much as you’d expect. I guess as a trans women in the UK at the minute I expect this abuse to be everywhere because it’s in all the newspapers and particularly in sport it’s really controversial. I guess I’m pleased with how little there’s been.
I’ve had a couple of things said. I’ve had a couple of people refer to me as ‘he’ and to be honest I can understand people will do that by accident sometimes so I don’t tend to get too worried about that. Often it comes from off the pitch where I’ve had a couple of comments where people say, “It’s not really fair.
I think the big thing for me is the less direct stuff so for example, if I go up for a header with somebody there’s a perception that I’m bigger but I’m not actually particularly big. I am 6ft but I’m not well built or anything. Sometimes I feel like I don’t get free kicks I would otherwise get because I think people think I should be able to stand up to stuff. I always think about when Peter Crouch played for England in World Cups and never got free kicks because he was big and it’s that same thing. I’m obviously not that sort of player and I’m not 6ft 7in or whatever he is but it’s that same sort of principle.’
What advice would you give to Surrey clubs to increase inclusion and visibility towards members of the LGBTQ+ community?
‘It’s a really good question. I get asked it a lot because so many people think we’re a really inclusive club and nobody here is homophobic or transphobic and if somebody said something someone would challenge it but how can we show that to people on the outside. It’s a big challenge I think a lot of people face.
Some of the things I would say are make sure whatever materials you’ve got are reflective of the fact that you are LGBTQ+ inclusive. That might mean explicit wording saying we’re an LGBTQ+ inclusive club and we include players no matter what gender they identify as. It’s difficult to show LGBTQ+ identity with pictures of people you are showing, but if there’s a way of doing that then think about that.
I think a lot of things can help trans people specifically. For example, if you have information about changing facilities you have at the club. Obviously, I know this is a difficult thing for a lot of clubs, but if you can show that there are private changing areas. One of the things I’ve seen work really well is if people can just see pictures of the changing room on a website. Obviously not with people in there but a picture of what the room looks like so people with anxiety know what they will be presented with when they walk through that door because it can be kind of scary can’t it? You open the door and you don’t know whether it’s going to be full of people staring at you. It’s making sure that you’re doing something visible.
Are you doing something for Pride on social media? Does your website show you’ve got allegiances with groups? Does the way you structure activities at your club include the fact that there are LGBTQ+ people at your club? For example, one I’ve seen in men’s football teams they will have a wives and girlfriends night which I doubt means only women but the wording of that can make it feel exclusive so those are the kind of things to think about. Women’s clubs don’t tend to do that because same-sex relationships are much more normalised in women’s football, but that’s the kind of thing that people can avoid making sure they are not excluding people.
The other thing is to go to Pride, because if you’re trying to recruit players and coaches from that community then get a stall at Pride and go speak to people and show yourself as making the effort to go out and reach out to these communities can really make a difference to help people in the community visualise and think I can see myself playing this sport with these people.’
How can Surrey clubs, players and coaches become an LGBTQ+ ally?
‘It’s really important because allies make so much of a difference and I think it’s also important to take away the pressure from the LGBTQ+ people to be the change in the club or the person who changes the club.
Educating themselves on LGBTQ+ issues and it’s so much easier if you’ve got supporters in your stand using homophobic language it’s so much easier if a straight ally is challenging those people rather than the gay person because then the gay person has to be the one potentially putting themselves at risk for more abuse.
It’s so much easier if the person you are asking for the change on behalf of isn’t asking for the change as it just de-stresses the situation a little bit.
It goes back to the whole thing of making sure that they are doing something visible to show that they are allies. The tone I’m setting is that LGBTQ+ people are welcome here and homophobic and bi-phobic language isn’t acceptable. I’m saying that as an ally, so therefore if there’s a person around me who maybe is thinking about coming out then it makes it just that little bit safer for them to do so because they know that person got there back.
The education of language is really important across the
board because I always think about the referees. How can we help the referees
to understand what that language is because it changes a lot and it could be
complicated. The word queer that to some people is a slur, but to others it’s
how they describe themselves so it can get really complicated. The more we can
help referees to understand that, the more we can police that language on the
field and it doesn’t have to be someone reporting it to someone and then having
to explain what it’s about.
For example, if someone calls me ‘tranny’ then that’s a slur and people don’t realise that’s a slur. I don’t use it to describe myself, but some people would. That’s kind of rare but if a referee understands that, then the referee can probably deal with the situation and maybe that player who said it didn’t understand it’s a slur. It can kind of de-stress the whole situation without it having to turn into the situation I described.’
What advice would you give to transgender people looking to get involved in football based on your own experiences?
‘I get people ask me this sometimes and to be honest it’s hard for me to answer this because I was quite lucky that the football club I went to were very inclusive, weren't fazed by it and wanted me to be involved.
I think what really helped me was going into it with quite an open mind and being happy to have conversations with people about it. Now not everyone will be comfortable with that but unfortunately being a trans person going into a football club there’s a good chance you’re going to be the first. It’s not guaranteed as there’s more transgender people in football than people tend to think but if you do feel able to go in with an open mind and you’re willing to talk to people about it then that can make quite a lot of difference to people’s willingness to get to know you and understand you.
I think just finding an ally can be really important and there will always be someone who you can speak to. For example, for me I emailed the coach before I came to say I’m trans is it going to be cool? I don’t want to upset anyone. I kind of went into it in a way I wouldn’t necessarily go in if it were now as I feel a little bit more confident. At the time I didn’t want to upset anyone down at the club if it was going to cause a problem.
By doing that I built a rapport with the coach to the point where I could talk to him about my problems and he could sort it out.
So, if you can find that ally or even better go with someone you know. For example, in women’s football and I guess it’s the case in men’s or what could be the case in men’s as I know there’s a lot of work going on. The player base is growing, and people are trying to get others back into football that stopped years ago. If you can find someone to go with who’s already an ally or friend, then you’ve got that moral support and someone who you can talk to really.
My overall advice would be to jump in and do it! I found it to be on a personal side much easier and much more inclusive than I thought it would be. I was expecting more problems. The legislative side was a bit trickier but the social aspect I found really rewarding and it’s been a real positive for me.
For more information on how to get involved in Football v Transphobia, click here.