An award-winning five-a-side league which promoted itself as an LGBTQ+-inclusive competition has apologised and been suspended after several clubs withdrew over the "archaic transphobic rules" it has under the FA's guidelines.
The Super 5 League (Super5) in Hackney, which is sponsored by Nike Football, has more than 50 teams across seven divisions, and promotes itself as a sports environment "where women and non-binary people of all levels are welcome". It was named Project of the Year at the 2020 FA and McDonald's Grassroots Football Awards.
However, multiple clubs have announced a boycott of the league over the treatment of a player for Camden Bells, one of the teams in the league, and the Super5League now says no further games will take place in the immediate future.
According to a statement from Camden Bells via Instagram on Friday night, a Super5 official told the team that the player - who is trans non-binary - should not be allowed to play in a "women's league".
Hannah Thornley, Camden Bells founder, said they will hold a Zoom meeting on Monday evening with players and clubs to discuss further action, including whether to leave the league. According to Sky Sports, 22 of the league's clubs will be at the meeting.
Speaking exclusively to GOAL, Thornley said: "The league needs to take any LGBT+ branding off their site. This is why we are so angry - by being affiliated with the FA, it adheres to archaic transphobic rules.
"We encourage Super 5 League and the FA to look at the distress they have caused, and take action. This can't be brushed under the carpet.
"We played on the Tuesday night, and I was approached after the game by a league official. It was not in a very gentle way, it was quite rushed. We were asked if our trans non-binary player was going to play next week, and I was advised it was better if they did not do so.
"I spoke to the FA on Wednesday, and they were not helpful, in fact they were quite dangerous in the language they used - they didn't want to use the player's correct pronouns, they kept insisting on using the player's name so they didn't have to use their pronouns.
"The rules they have involve invasive tests in order for trans people to play, and if any of our team are not made to feel welcome, we are not going to play.
"We are so angry - this league has been going since 2017 as an LGBT-inclusive league, this can't be the first time this has happened. This is a well-known, financially backed league, and people feel scared to speak up about these issues. I am tired of the way organisations use LGBT labels to entice people and gain from sponsors, but then not wholly protect us.
"We just want to make proper change that lasts, and make people feel safe."
Since Camden Bells announced their boycott, several other teams in the league also said they would not play any further matches, leading to Super 5 League announcing on Monday that no further games would take place until further notice.
The Super 5 League statement reads: "In light of the recent events and conversations with our teams, we will be suspending all league fixtures as part of our ongoing commitment to work with all teams and players to provide a safe and inclusive footballing environment for all players.
"This decision has not been taken lightly and is being done to ensure we can work through the current situation with the level of sensitivity, time and respect that everyone affected deserves, particularly those who are most impacted by current governance on trans and non-binary players' participation in amateur football."
The league also said they have never banned any player "for who they are, and never will", and that they "fully support the inclusion of all trans and non-binary players within the league and all walks of life".
They said they are in talks with governing bodies about the future of the league, which will remain suspended in the meantime.
The statement concludes: "We also wish to take this opportunity to apologise unreservedly to everyone affected.
"We have always made the effort to talk to managers to understand and educate ourselves on the needs of players from our communities. This ranges from how to approach players, sensitive topics and general challenges our players face in the game and wider society. This is something we believe we need to do more than ever. Where we have fallen short, we will learn from these mistakes and make every effort so there are never any repeated missteps."
The FA's policy on transgender inclusion in football was last updated in 2015, and makes no mention of non-binary identities. It operates on a case-by-case basis and requires trans applicants to meet strict parameters in hormone levels and provide additional evidence of their transition. -
In 2016, the FA produced 'A Guide to Including Trans People In Football' which says trans players who "fall outside of the description [of man or woman] will be considered case-by-case, taking safety and fair play into account".
The FA told GOAL in December that it is looking at publishing updated guidance in 2022, but no timeframe or process for new rules have been announced.
An FA spokesperson told GOAL: "We are aware of and will look into the issues raised with both the league and affiliated County FA in order to ascertain all of the facts.
"The FA released its transgender policy in 2014, which outlines ways in which trans people can enjoy playing football. We also commissioned Gendered Intelligence, an organisation which specialises in trans inclusion, to develop guidance on approaches to including trans people in football.
"Our current policy positioning has enabled positive outcomes for trans people, and assisted in allowing participants to continue playing football either in their affirmed gender or in a safe and inclusive environment. We are passionate about ensuring that football is for all and we will continue to work with Gendered Intelligence to provide additional information to supplement our policy and related guidance, which are currently being reviewed this season.”
The Amateur Football Alliance (AFA) released a statement on Tuesday evening, which said it "was disappointed and concerned to be informed of an alleged transphobic incident involving one of our clubs and leagues last week.
"Since that time, we have had positive conversations with Camden Bells and the Super5 League, along with colleagues within The FA. Both Camden Bells and the Super5 League are keen to work together to ensure the league meets its commitment to be fully inclusive for trans and non-binary football players, where we can help, we will."
The AFA also said they are working with the FA on a pilot for mixed-gender sport, with hopes of a rule change for the 2022-23 season which would see mixed adult recreational football leagues become affiliated with the FA.