LGBT+ in sport can be a hot topic at the best of times, but recent coverage in national newspapers has reinvigorated the conversation surrounding LGBT+ in football specifically.
While anonymised silhouettes are attention grabbing, they do tend to encourage unhelpful speculation while also glossing over the fact that LGBT+ people are involved in the game in many ways, at many levels.
Yes, it is true that there is no out footballer in the professional game in the UK, but other stories have been well publicised. Ryan Atkin is a referee who has spoken about being a gay man in football on several occasions, to the point he is an Athlete Ally ambassador. Lucy Clark became English football’s first ever trans referee at the start of the 2018/19 season and has since been active about telling her story. Theirs are two stories of many.
Another person who has picked up some headlines is Sammy Walker, who plays for Bristol City Panthers in the Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN) league. Previously turning out or Soho FC in London before moving to the West Country, Walker has been able to bring football back into her life after years of feeling like it was not an option.
As a youngster, it looked like a career in the professional game would be an option for Walker. After originally being scouted by Wycombe Wanderers, she was in Watford’s academy system until she was 18, but the struggle to reconcile her identity with the sport she had loved her whole life saw fear build up, and Walker’s passion for football wane.
A friend of a friend’s own coming out as trans provided Walker with her “lightbulb moment”, but that did not mean everything was straightforward from then on. Mental health struggles were a big part of her teenage years, and even the aftermath of coming out as both trans and bisexual threw up it’s own challenges.
“There were definitely other factors but I think finding my identity played a huge part in my mental health battle,” Walker said.
“Society taught me it wasn’t ‘normal’ to feel the way I did, so from a young age and so I just buried it. I didn’t want to be the weirdo and I was teased whenever I displayed femininity. By the time I fully understood who I was it felt like I was too embedded into this grand lie I’d told about who I was.
“I don’t think it was discovering my identity that caused my poor mental health – it was denying it.
“I came out as both at the same time but coming out as trans sort of overwhelmed the bisexuality. I guess planning to cut ties with masculinity was bigger news than being attracted to masculinity.
“Coming out is a really polarizing experience and really shows you who cares. It was tough and heartbreaking to have to leave people behind but sometimes you have to recognise when to let go. You can’t control people’s opinions, only prove them wrong.”
Eight long years passed before Walker returned to the football pitch. In that time, she had transitioned and was enjoying her new life. Something was still missing though, and it did not take much soul searching to realise that it was football.
She did attempt to play women’s football, but some criticism followed from teammates who thought Walker should not be there. That was by no means a blanket reaction – Walker is still friendly with some of the people she met – and she expects it would have been much worse had she tried to join a men’s team.
After moving to London though, it meant that she started exploring the possibility of playing for an inclusive team. The capital has it’s own LGBT+ football league as well as hosting teams who play in the GFSN, so the opportunity came to play football in a completely welcoming environment was an attractive, if slightly unnerving, possibility – but one that has paid off massively.
“The reality is that trans people, especially trans women, sort of expect blanket rejection,” Walker explained.
“So even though the response wasn’t wholly positive in the ladies’ game, at the time I just felt grateful for being included and recognised to any level.
“Having moved to London in early 2019 and not really knowing anyone, I decided to ask about LGBT+ football in a ‘transgender sports’ group on social media. I was sick with nerves when I first turned up at Soho FC, and massively overestimated my general fitness so 20 minutes in I was throwing up on the side of the pitch!
“Any fears or apprehensions I had about inclusive football were dismissed by the end of the first session. Everyone was so lovely and accepting – it really was just about the football. I scored on my first appearance, which was in a cup final, and I never looked back. Inclusive football is exactly what it says on the tin.
“Obviously, with the current situation there hasn’t been a lot of football being played recently. I have been keeping fit and ready for next season, but I have struggled without playing at all.
“I think exercise is so important not only for physical wellbeing, but for your mental health also. Plus, there is the additional community, camaraderie and support network you get from being part of the team too.”
Getting back to playing football has boosted Walker’s confidence exponentially. She has become an advocate for LGBT+ inclusion in sport, and is a lived experience for the Diversity Trust – a charity that aims to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in the south and west of England and Wales through the elimination of discrimination, harassment and victimisation and support affected groups and individuals.
Walker has also started her own blog, She Has a D!ck, Bruh, detailing her experiences of dating as a trans woman. The site came about after a friend suggested she should document the perception and over-sexualisation of trans women in the dating world in brutally honest terms, with the ideal taking hold of Walker. In her first 10 posts there had already been over 12,500 hits on the site.
Despite spreading a message of inclusion in sport and the realities of being trans in 2020 though, she does not see herself as a role model. If someone wants to look up to her, that is a happy coincidence. Really, Walker is just standing up for what she believes to be right.
“I play or promote LGBT+ inclusive sport because I love it and because I don’t believe such arbitrary things such as sexuality, gender, colour or religion should be a barrier to participation,” she insisted.
“Everyone’s story is different, but the themes of fear, rejection, acceptance and pride remain constant. That just fortifies my resilience in promoting sport for all.
“Equally, I wasn’t aware of anyone like me when I was younger and so never thought it was possible. If I can be that person to someone else just by being visible then that is a wholesome bonus.
“I grew up seeing trans people portrayed awfully in popular culture, and it shaped me and other people’s attitudes to reject trans people. I saw Little Britain’s mockery of men doing ‘ladies things’, or Jim Carrey playing Ace Ventura scrubbing himself clean after finding out his character had slept with a trans woman, or the character Brian from Seth Macfarlane’s Family Guy puking for nearly a full minute on finding out he had been with a trans woman.
“They really stick out for me. It not only shapes how trans people feel about themselves but cues the way society treats us.
“You will never change some minds unless you are openly discussing it – we bring it into focus for those that may not think about it. I am hoping things like the blog will show we are human, that love is what matters and people’s preconceptions about ‘who trans people are’ are often incorrect.”