TRUK United Natalie Washington Sammy WalkerTRUK United

History in the making as all-transgender team TRUK United face Dulwich Hamlet Women in first for English football

On Thursday, March 31, 2022, as most English fans are impatiently waiting for the Premier League to return after the international break, football history will be made at Champion Hill.

At the non-league stadium in south London, Dulwich Hamlet Women will be taking on TRUK United FC in a friendly match.

The date is appropriate, as it coincides with Transgender Day of Visibility [TDoV], and TRUK United are a charity team offshoot from Trans Radio UK.

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TRUK United are a team entirely made up of transgender women, and this will be the first time such a side has played a game in British football.

They have tough opposition for the occasion, too – a semi-professional side from the fifth tier of the English game.

For Paula Griffin, a player for TRUK United and a volunteer at Dulwich Hamlet for more than three decades, this game represents both a labour of love and a dream come true.

Speaking exclusively to GOAL, she says: "I spoke to Lucy Clark [founder of TRUK], and said this might be a game we were able to arrange during the season.

"It's taken a while to get to this stage. We were trying to look for a good date but league fixtures were being moved around. But we managed to get a date which worked well, with it being TDoV.

"I have been overwhelmed by the support the Dulwich Hamlet players and management have given to this game.

"I've been involved with the club for 30 years and been involved with all sorts of jobs – I've run the club website, I've been on the committee, run the charity trust.

"The club has supported me so much over recent years – I've had cancer, I've come out as a transgender woman – and the support and acceptance from this club, it makes me emotional to talk about it.

"Everyone has accepted me as myself, so to be able to put on a game like this... the experience has been overwhelming."

There is immense excitement from the Dulwich Hamlet side, too, with the club having established itself as one of the most liberal and inclusive on the English football pyramid.

Dulwich Hamlet central midfielder Zoe Elmore is sadly missing the game due to a long-term elbow injury, but says she and her fellow players have backed playing the historic game from the start.

The New York-born player, who has played for Dulwich Hamlet for the last seven years, tells GOAL: "I was the first player to catch wind that we were participating in this, and it was really exciting.

"To play devil's advocate, it will be difficult given how our scheduling is, but it is really exciting. Our club stands for inclusivity in sport, and especially standing with women in sport."

Team-mate and centre-back Ceylon Hickman agrees, and says the game can go a long way towards promoting LGBT+ inclusion and acceptance in sport, something she is passionate about through working in her day job for charity Football Beyond Borders.

She says: "I am super excited for this game, it is history-making. It is a privileged moment to play in a game that is breaking boundaries, and setting a path for how football should go.

"I work with schools around the country, children who are passionate about football. I'm currently working with a school near Dulwich and I am doing everything I can to get the kids at the game.

"It would be their first live football match and it is the perfect game to introduce them with, as it represents everything we stand for at Dulwich."

The friendly arrives amid a renewed focus on the place of transgender people within sport, in particular trans women, from the debate over Lia Thomas competing in the NCAA Swimming Championships, to the recent suspension of an 'LGBT-inclusive' five-a-side league in London over its adherence to the FA's "archaic" rules on trans players.

For Elmore, as a cisgender female football player, she is proud to try and lead the way by showing that concerns over the future of women's sport is little more than a moral panic.

She says: "I know it's a hot topic, but I feel there needs to be more normalcy on women playing football. I hate this stigma, this barrier that women cannot be themselves and play the sport that they love. I hope this match shines a light on that.

"It's a tough conversation to have as a cisgender woman. All we can do is support and give a safe space, using our platform as best we can to normalise all women playing football.

"I don't want to downplay it but, from my perspective, I want it to be a normal football match. I know it isn't, for so many reasons, but it's a friendly match against another team of women, and that should draw a crowd regardless.

"Everyone I have spoken to has been really positive. Having pro-trans conversations, just like anti-racism and anti-sexism conversations, are part of our club. It feels really natural to be part of a historic match which hopefully isn't historic for very long.

"I hate that there is a perception around this. We are trying to normalise this and I hate that in 2022 this still has to be a conversation.

"Recently, there has been a lot of negativity around trans women competing against cis women in sport, and hopefully this can break down some of those barriers."

Hickman feels the negativity towards trans women in sport is an offshoot of misogynistic attitudes towards women in football generally, citing the historic and current comparative lack of funding and media coverage of their game compared to the men's sport

She says: "It is frustrating that we have to have these conversations where you have to actively shift people's perceptions. There are systems and structures in our world which make trans women some of the most persecuted people in western society.

"What football is to me and so many others is a space of radical acceptance, it's a feeling of belonging, where you can let go and forget about the rest of your life for 90 minutes. Anyone should be able to experience that.

"The men's game is such a reflection of society, as a hetero-dominated culture, and what is beautiful about the women's game, there is this overriding sense of being a minority in the game, so you have this sense of solidarity and camaraderie. Trans women are no different, they should be in that space.

"You have to work harder to include trans women in that space, and Thursday is an active attempt to make that happen.

"It will be a really powerful coming together of allied forces, and hopefully providing a blueprint for what football can be. All we can keep doing is knocking on the door, because that's what women's football can do."

Griffin is aware that one friendly will not do much on its own to shift attitudes, and the reaction she has got within Dulwich Hamlet fans while promoting the game as a volunteer has been notably mixed – but that the only way to change minds is to be as visible and vocal as possible.

Lucy Clark TRUKTRUK United

She says: "I've had a very interesting reaction – at the last home Dulwich game I was handing out flyers about the match, and there was a difference in reaction.

"On the whole, female supporters were very positive, saying they will be there, while male supporters... you say those two things, women's sport and transgender people in sport, and they take a step back. There was that inkling of reticence, and I definitely saw that on a gender basis.

"There's a long way to go, but if we start chipping away little by little we can make a difference.

"I'm so hopeful this can be a starting point to get away from the sh*t we are seeing around the coverage of Lia Thomas, the misrepresented photographs and stuff like that, which we have to fight against as grassroots footballers, to let them hear our voices and I think we can really start to make a change in our game."

TRUK have managed to put together a surprisingly bulky squad of 21 players, considering the dearth of trans players at any sort of competitive level in UK football, with a couple of notable names, including semi-pro goalkeeper Blair Hamilton and former Watford academy player Sammy Walker.

However, they will certainly start as underdogs against a semi-pro Dulwich Hamlet side, although Griffin is quietly confident of a respectable result, predicting a 3-3 draw while Elmore and Hickman go for a 3-1 victory to Hamlet.

Griffin says: "We have a good range of players with a wide range of experience from all over the country.

"Sammy, if she's fit – if not, we'll get her on the pitch on a stretcher as she's brilliant – is our skipper. We have Blair in goal, she plays for Hastings and is an excellent keeper. Then there's myself, the ultimate utility player – useless in every position.

"It's difficult to prepare, as a lot of our players are training with their own teams. From a personal point of view, I train with Goal Diggers FC, others might be coming in a bit cold. Hopefully, we'll get in a good warm-up and, of course, we are wanting to allow all the players to play.

"As a game, it has that thing with trans women in sport – it's a Catch-22: if we lose, it's a joke; if we win, it's because we have this supposed physical advantage. I'm hoping for a high-scoring draw to keep everyone happy!"

The amateur side may be doing well to grab a result, though, as the semi-pro outfit will not be taking it easy.

"I sadly can't play in this, but we will approach this like every other match," says Elmore. "We want to win and we'll take no prisoners. We're a competitive bunch, we don't step onto a pitch unless we are going out to win."

Hickman adds: "We have a challenge on our hands, and it being a mid-weeker changes our training schedule, but we are in it to win it, and hopefully we will get a good crowd down.

"It'll be difficult for Paula to be playing against the pink and blue, but we want to win, we are up for it – then, we have the league leaders on Sunday."