There are not many people that can legitimately say they are the first to do something, but Zooey Perry is one of the few.
Known as Effy, Perry is the first trans woman ever to compete in competitive British handball, even going as far as to be part of Olympia’s unbeaten title-winning team in 2019.
Her journey in the sport goes back to a school exchange to Norway where handball is a dominant sport, and the country’s passion for it made a lasting impact on Perry.
However, it would be years before she would pick up the sport on a regular basis in the UK at university – in which time she had spent a couple of years out of sport completely and transitioned.
Now it is difficult to imagine a life without handball, and Perry expects it to play a major role for her even after she retires.
“Handball is Norwegian history, they’re so intertwined,” Perry said.
“It was just different, and I could see how passionate the Norwegian kids were about it when we were training with them.
“I discovered handball about a year before London 2012, so that was my first experience of watching handball on TV. It’s so fast paced, it has really high scores and when you get those really close games where it’s neck and neck until the last second, it really is edge of your seat stuff.
“I still love football, it’s impossible to come from the UK and not love football, and I was a Middlesbrough season ticket holder growing up. I still love them now, I try and get to games whenever I can and I watch a lot of games over here.
“I genuinely don’t know what I would do in life if I wasn’t playing sport. I love to win, but it’s everything that happens off the field that I think I would miss most about it. You’d miss the banter in the changing room, you’d miss the banter amongst the team and all that camaraderie.
“That’s why, God forbid, the day I stop playing I want to stay around the game as much as possible. I’d love to go into coaching, I have my coaching badges from British Handball.
“Sometimes I think about everything that sport has given to me. I can’t imagine living a life without those highs and lows, and the comebacks after the setbacks. I wouldn’t change it and I couldn’t imagine a life without it.
“When I came out I was maybe 13 or 14, something like that. I’d enjoyed sport until that point, but I think when I realised that I wasn’t like everyone else, in trying to find out who you are you cut back on a lot of things.
“I had to build myself up from the bottom again. I had cut away everything that I was doing at that point to find myself piece by piece, so then I didn’t play sport for about two years. I was obviously going through ups and downs, and trying to understand myself a bit more and work on the relationships I already had – whether it was with friends or family.
“Eventually I realised how much I was missing. When I stopped, I was only really playing football and I was missing doing that and the camaraderie.
“I reached out to a local football team to go and play with them. They were good as gold, amazing people. I think it was important for that first time to go well, because if it hadn’t then that could have put me off doing anything forever.
“I’m so grateful to the coach at the time and the girls on that team as well, because they were super. The north east isn’t a very understanding place at times, but thankfully they were all good as gold and everything about it was fantastic.
“Getting back into that process of training every week, even if it was just a kick about or something while I had all this other stuff going on in my head that I was trying to work out, it was refreshing. It does wonders for your mental health being able to be open about it. I’m just grateful to have had that first opportunity.”
A trailblazer in sport
It is almost at the point of cliche to say that women’s sport is a more inclusive place than men’s sport.
Still, with trans athletes so rare at a high level there could be a pressure that comes with the tag of being the first.
Perry’s experiences have been nothing but positive to date, despite what critics outside of sport may want you to think.
“No matter what the sport is, in the women’s game you will always find more LGBTQ athletes, and by extension it’s more welcoming, especially on the inside from the players themselves,” she explained.
“The comments you see about trans women in sport, the debate that’s been going on for the past couple of years now, it’s a lot of people talking from outside the sport. It’s not a lot of people inside the sport that are actually complaining, so it’s out of touch with what the actual people in the game are feeling and saying.
“Whether it was handball, football, whatever, in any sport I’ve played I’ve never had issues. Every team I’ve ever been in has been understanding, or open to learning because I’m very aware that for a lot of people I’m the first trans person they’ve ever met.
“I’ve always said to people I’m open to questions. If you ask a question that might be a little bit suspect, I’ll answer it no problem, but I’m also going to educate you on why this might be a bit of a problematic question with someone else.
“People, especially my teammates, have always really appreciated that. On the flip side, I’m not the oracle of everything, so if I tell you something that’s wrong then don’t shoot the messenger.
“I didn’t ask to be one of the flag bearers or trailblazers of the sport. I can’t control that I was one of the first – it’s a bit sad because I would have liked there to be a lot more before me as role models – but it’s the way the cards have been dealt.
“It is a weight on your shoulders. Sometimes you feel like you’ve got to do this or that because you’re setting the standard, you’re setting the precedent.
“At the same time, I’m one of the first ones, and I’ve always been proud of that. Again, I didn’t ask for it, but if it’s a job you’re going to put on me then I’ll do it. If you need me to be one of the flag bearers for trans women in sport, I’ll do it.
“It’s weird, because what can anyone else genuinely say they were the first to do? It is a strange feeling sometimes, but I’ll take the ball and I’ll run with it.
“It does sometimes keep me up at night – in a good way. In those times when you’re laying in bed late at night just being really introspective about everything, it does make me proud.
“I wasn’t the first in the world. We had Hannah Mouncey, the trans woman who played for Australia in the World Championships and there are one or two others. I suppose it’s not role models like idols, but people in the same generation who I can look at what they’re doing and see we’re doing this together.
“Unfortunately, I’ve never had the chance to meet them or talk to them, but I’d love to, especially Hannah Mouncey in Australia because that was a big thing.
“I remember reading about her in the UK, maybe in like 2015 or 2016, something like that. That was when I first started taking notice that this isn’t a thing that people are trained to have a debate about, and that was because she was playing for the Australian Olympic team.
“In the same way that I consider myself to be carrying the flag for this, if there’s one person that I can be like ‘yeah, you did this’, it would be Hannah Mouncey. It was in handball as well at a time when I was picking up the game.
“I didn’t have those role models growing up, but with everything Hannah Mouncey went through, I can look at her and say she started the path and I’m just following that. I’d love to meet her, she’s incredible.”
Overcoming the “debate”
The barrage of attacks on trans people right now is overwhelming to see, and sport has had its share of controversy.
More and more governing bodies are taking steps to exclude trans women especially from participating, but to an extent Perry has been watching from afar.
Having lived in Norway for the last couple of years, Perry has seen the stream of anti-trans rhetoric in the UK from the outside, and she says it has prevented her from returning to the country.
Still, there is a seemingly simple way for her to make a defiant stand – and that is just to get on with her life.
“For the last couple of years, especially the last six months or so, I have really missed London to the point of maybe looking into going back,” Perry added.
“Every time when I think I’m going to get my portfolios and apply for jobs in London though, something will come out in the news and I’ll decide to give it another six months and see how it is.
“It’s not just the British media in general, it’s the world media in general. It’s so tiring to wake up every morning and scroll through and see someone else doesn’t want me to exist. That’s just what I want before breakfast, and I can rinse and repeat to the point where it’s just part of my morning routine.
“It’s tiring, but what can you do except be vocal in opposition and draw attention to how negative it is? Hopefully one day it’s going to be better, and I have to hope that it will one day, but right now every morning just feels like a punch in the face.
“It’s mental. It genuinely is crazy. There are people and organisations you wouldn’t even think of where it’s like ‘oh, this person has retweeted this’ or ‘this well known person has posted this’.
“Nobody was having this debate about trans women in sport five years ago, six years ago, seven years ago – this was not a thing. By that point I was fully out and I don’t remember a single debate or anything like that.
“It’s literally only in the last couple of years, probably since 2020, that it’s become this big thing which isn’t a big thing but people with loud voices just keep saying it like it’s a big thing.
“I do so many other things with my life. I’m a million layers before you even get to the fact that I’m trans – that does not define me. I’m a horrible cook, horrible. I’m an artist, a graphic designer. People say I’m pretty funny as a person. So many other things could describe my personality before you even get to the fact I’m trans.
“I think I want to be known as a trans woman who lived a full and happy life.
“The life expectancy of trans people in general isn’t the greatest statistic to look at, and again that’s something you become more aware of day by day. I’m grateful that I can open my eyes every morning and look out the window and start my day because there are so many other trans people before me – and unfortunately probably so many trans people after me – who won’t get to do that.
“It’s about knowing where you come from and the trans people who came before you. Everyday I wake up thinking I have to continue the fight that other trans people before me were fighting, and it’s worth everything.
“For the trans people who aren’t here anymore, I have to wake up every day and keep fighting so that one day we don’t have to look at the trends like life expectancy.
“All of the people who are critical about people being trans, I think their biggest fear is us living a full, happy, healthy life, so if I can ruin one person’s day by doing just that then my life goal is complete.”