As a young child, Blair Hamilton hated football – making it quite ironic that for most of her life since then she has played it.
Her father would take her to games and she would hate the noise of the crowd, but as she got older she began playing and fell in love with the sport.
Football is by no means the only sport Hamilton enjoys. If anything, she is actually a bigger fan of rugby, closely following the Glasgow Warriors and having a season pass for Scotland’s Six Nations matches at Murrayfield before the pandemic forced fans to stay away from stadia. She has also indulged in dodgeball, pool, snooker and lawn bowls, but football has been the constant since her primary school days.
Getting hit by a car at seven years old proved to be a formative moment, as Hamilton started playing as a goalkeeper afterwards to save her running, and she has stayed there practically ever since.
Throughout playing for school teams and her local club, Galston Youth Football Club, there was another major thing in Hamilton’s life as she realised she was transgender.
Unsurprisingly, that realisation did not come through football – instead clicking into place thanks to Girls Aloud’s video for debut single Sound of the Underground. However, it was not an easy thing to come to terms with, and made no easier by her surroundings growing up in Ayrshire.
“Being in the west coast of Ayrshire and Galston, I went to Loudoun Academy and it was a bit of a jungle,” she recalled.
“I was going through a lot of stuff in my head, I was trying to explore myself and my sexuality a little bit, and obviously some people heard rumours of that and the rumour mill went through the roof.
“There was this kid who was my best chum, we were inseparable in the first and second year. He actually came out as gay, and I confided in him what I was feeling, what was going on, and obviously he went and blabbed.
“It was like a gang mentality, I remember standing in the playground where I usually stood, and at one point there was a crowd of 60 or 70 kids just running at me to ask me all these questions. They were shouting ‘you’re gay’, you’re this and that, ‘you wear your mum’s clothes’, all of that stuff. It was an odd moment, obviously it was awkward.
“When all that started, a lot of the people I hung out with kind of disowned me, I didn’t feel welcome there any more. I would walk round, and you would see them walk away from me. They would stand there and not talk to me, turn their back on me.
“It’s funny, because there was a bit of the school they called ‘loserville’, where all the kids that didn’t fit in hung about. You don’t fit in the rest of the place, so where are you going to go? I went round to that side and I actually have a couple of really good friends from that now.
“Out of the ashes rose the phoenix, it was that kind of idea, but it was a jungle mentality, so it was hard.
“Growing up I was on websites, talking to people like myself. That was one of the major things for me, I realised I wasn’t alone.
“This is in the time of dial-up internet, so you had an hour of internet at night and you had to make use of it – I found this website with some decent people on it, and they made me realise that I wasn’t alone. That was kind of what broadened my horizons to the possibility of transitioning.”
Still, making the jump to transition was not something that would come quickly for Hamilton.
After leaving school, she moved to America and worked as a coach and personal trainer, and even got fell in love and got married. At the time, Hamilton had resolved that if her marriage ended, she would transition – an attitude that she acknowledges now was not particularly healthy to have.
That relationship did indeed end in divorce, meaning that Hamilton had to up sticks and move back to Scotland without much notice. Even then though, she did not try to transition straight away, and despite her best intentions that was not the only resolution that passed her by.
“The easiest thing to do would be not to transition,” Hamilton explained.
“It would be easier for my life, but not me, it would be easier for everyone else. My parents obviously know about me, but they weren’t happy at first. I think they’re more concerned about what others are going to think than what they actually think.
“They’ve never said it, but I suspect they had the idea that I was going to be some extravagant drag queen and completely change the way I act, but what they didn’t realise is that I’m exactly the same person. I haven’t really changed at all to be honest.
“It wasn’t until 2017 that I really just decided that I had to put myself first, because I’ve always been that kind of person that would put other people before myself.
“I came back to Scotland in late-2015, I started a new job in January and then I knew I was going to the University of Aberdeen in September. After I got accepted, I said to myself that I was going to put my big girl pants on and go to Aberdeen and actually be who I want to be. For me, going into the first day, it was a chance to reinvent myself.
“I chickened out. I went there and I was going to do it, but then I panicked.
“Ironically, I went into halls for my first year, and I got stuck with the most homophobic guy you’ve ever met in your life, he was almost far-right. He was a bit in the dark ages, so that situation didn’t help. I didn’t even stay in halls for three or four months, but luckily my girlfriend at the time got a job in Aberdeen, so she moved up and I basically just stayed there all the time.
“For the first six months it just snowballed and snowballed until eventually we had been out for New Year and I said I can’t hide this anymore, this is an absolute nightmare.”
Even at that point though, football played an integral role in Hamilton’s life.
She had joined the University of Aberdeen’s men’s football team, and while it was never hidden that she had started to transition, it was never freely discussed either. That was until it came to attending the university’s Sports Ball. As a member of the team’s committee, Hamilton had a free ticket, but she had decided not to use it unless she could be herself.
Thankfully, she received nothing but support from her teammates who encouraged her to live an authentic life, and at the Sports Ball the women’s football team approached her.
The team’s captain and president were persistent – not just in encouraging Hamilton, who only went along to training at the fourth opportunity – but also in finding out what the BUCS policy was for trans athletes and what it would take for Hamilton to be included.
Acceptance came universally in the women’s game, despite what has since happened in other sports like rugby where limitations have been placed on trans women’s ability to participate.
Hamilton is in a better place than most to comment on trans inclusion in sport having taken part in men’s sport and women’s sport as a trans woman, but also through her work – she is now doing a PHD at the University of Brighton researching the very topic.
“Being male-born, the general argument which I’m trying to disprove in my research is that trans women have an advantage and that you’re taking a place away from a girl,” she stated.
“I remember my first game in female football – I’ve always been a goalkeeper, never played outfield in my life and never scored a goal – but the first game I’m approved to play in, the coach told me I was playing centre back.
“Funnily enough, we got beat 7–0 with me playing at centre back. With 20 minutes to go, I was on my knees, out of breath, looking up at my captain who was at right back and saying I couldn’t do this any more.
“I have said on every single team I’ve been on that if any single person objects to me being on the team, I won’t play, just let me know. It doesn’t have to be a majority, if one person objects, I won’t play, I’ll go and find somewhere else, but when I went on that team everyone was universally accepting.
“I didn’t realise this when I went, but half the team were in the LGBT+ community, so it was probably pretty easy for them.
“Now I’ve played for two university teams and three women’s teams, which is a lot in three years, but every single one I’ve been on – especially my current team, Montpellier Villa, who are the most inclusive team I’ve ever been on – have been really good.
“I don’t like the idea that I’m stealing someone’s place, so if someone had said something about it, I would stop, but that hasn’t happened.”
During her time in Aberdeen, Hamilton did an interview with the BBC about being a trans athlete.
That opened up doors to doing more interviews on national television and podcasts, but it was never her intention to be known as “the transgender footballer”. It was a wrench to do that piece in the first place, but the last thing she wanted to come out of it was any form of celebrity.
Instead, she recognised the importance of visibility – even when it may again have been easier not to go along with it – and along the way she has developed a stronger sense of self-identity that she hopes others find useful to see.
“I remember when I did the first BBC interview, the only concern I had was for my parents,” Hamilton said.
“They were the ones who were telling me to keep it to myself, not to broadcast it – another example of me putting other people before myself.
“I had to really think about doing the first interview. Did I want to be the public face of this? Going back to the family thing, the only consideration I ever really had was my family and my parents. I weighed it up, and I thought, that’s just two people. I’ve got to look after myself a little bit.
“I thought it was time to promote this a little bit and show the normality of it. Being visible is the main thing. Off the back of that BBC article, I got asked to do a multitude of podcasts, and I’m an open book. I’m here to educate people as well, I’m quite happy to sit and talk openly about subjects and elucidate what other people’s questions are.
“I haven’t really pushed the boat on campaigning or anything like that, because at the end of the day – and I think this is the case if you ask any trans woman or man or person not on the binary gender spectrum – all they want to do is blend in.
“I don’t want to be this person who when I walk in the street, people are saying ‘oh my god there’s Blair off the TV’, or ‘there’s transgender Blair’, I want to walk down the street and be anonymous. I want to be able to go for a pint in my local pub, and people can ask what I do – then I can tell them what I want them to know.
“I just think highlighting the normality of it is so important. The way I looked at it was that if I could change one person’s life by doing interviews then it would be worth it. I never look at the comments of anything I do because I know it will be an absolute car crash, but all it takes is one person for you to relate to, and think you might be feeling the same way.
“After one of my interviews, one of the players I was playing with at the time came out to me as non-binary. They actually messaged me to say that what I was doing was amazing, I was making trans more visible. The more trans is visible, the more it is socially acceptable.
“The thing is, even for the likes of myself, in my own personal journey, it goes back to representing trans women. If you look at the difference in my appearance from the BBC Sport article to now, it’s dramatically different, because when I first transitioned I went for the proper, stereotypical female.
“I thought I had to go to gendered stereotypes because I was trans, that was what a woman is – all about beauty, false nails, make-up, fake eyelashes, all that sort of thing. When I did that, it all felt so fake. Even though I was happier with myself, I didn’t really know what I was doing.
“If you look at my appearance on Good Morning Britain recently then it’s totally different. I put myself in the shoes of someone watching, seeing me on screen as a trans woman in sport, a scientist that does research in that area, and is a normal person.
“I’m just a regular human being, I don’t look odd – actually I might, that’s a matter of opinion – but it’s just a regular thing. That’s when it isn’t actually a taboo anymore, it isn’t something you should be ashamed of, it’s something that you can feel comfortable with in your own skin, and that’s where I am now.”
Though Hamilton hopes to educate and inspire through her interviews, she also hopes to make a difference with her research.
She has been consulted by international governing bodies in rugby union to help them decide whether to follow the RFU’s lead in rejecting the new World Rugby guidelines, or go along with them.
One of the big issues around trans inclusion in sport is a lack of examples and data to work from, meaning decision makers have to work with subjective or anecdotal evidence more often than not.
“It’s based on what I call the “common sense approach” to things, but the World Rugby one is very much a policy where you’re guilty until proven innocent, and it should be innocent until proven guilty,” Hamilton reasoned.
“Anything that’s looked at with trans women especially, although there are trans men as well, all of that so far has been on physiological measures. In trans women those have shown that the oxygen carrying protein, called hemoglobin, has been reduced.
“Technically, trans women cannot carry as much oxygen around the body for their bigger lungs, so why have maximum rate of oxygen consumption tests not been done in any trans research?
“Data has shown testosterone suppression reduces your muscle mass, it increases your fat mass, reduces your hemoglobin content, that kind of thing, but there’s nothing on lung function. It’s crazy, that’s the gold standard of sports performance tests, and that hasn’t been done in any trans athlete at all.
“Here’s another thing that blows my mind about the research, no study has compared an athletic group against another athletic group. It’s always untrained individuals, always.
“Some of the studies we’ve done are really complex, but they don’t answer the sporting question at all. That’s what my study actually intends to do, we’re actually looking at sportspeople, and comparing that.”