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'Should I play, or will I be abused?' - Rainbow Laces shines spotlight on transphobia in British football

2:30 PM IST 08/12/21
LGBT+ Rainbow Laces Transgender Inclusion GFX
GOAL spoke to one of Britain's best transgender footballers to learn of her experiences at a time when the game is pushing for more LGBTQ+ inclusion

"A ball was passed back to me, and to try and put me off the striker screamed 'go on big man'. For me, it was obvious that it was intended to abuse."

For Blair Hamilton, it was a moment of complete shock, followed by anger and upset - the first time she had suffered transphobic abuse from an opposition player on the pitch since coming out more than four years ago.

Hamilton, who plays for Hastings United in the London and South East Regional Women's Football League, the fifth tier of the game in England, was playing in goal against Bromley in an FA Cup third-round qualifying match on October 24.

Heading for a 2-0 defeat in the final minutes of the game, the sudden heckle from an opposition player stunned her completely.

Speaking to GOAL, Hamilton says: "I was shell shocked, to be honest. Straight away, I thought, 'did I just hear that?' Then I started screaming at the referee, and my centre-back, she heard it and started screaming at the referee.

"I was angry, upset - previous abuses I've had have never been direct to my face. Murmurings in the crowd, usually I don't hear them until someone lets me know afterwards.

"This is the first time in my four-and-a-half years in the women's game that anyone has abused me to my face. I won't lie, the red mist came down. Usually I'm composed, but I lost the plot, and I'm not embarrassed to admit that. You could have put six shots against me and I wouldn't have saved any of them, I was all over the place. I wanted justice.

"What I didn't get, our team was losing 2-0 and we were in the final five or 10 minutes. I couldn't get my head around why someone would do that when they're winning. You've got the upper hand, why do you feel the need to abuse someone?

"It has had a massive effect on me; luckily our game was cancelled the weekend after, because I went to training and my head was not in it. I trained terribly, I could not stop thinking about it."

It forms part of a trend, identified by transgender players and campaign groups, of a rise in transphobic abuse in football recently, as the matter becomes more of a point for toxic debate in social and traditional media.

Football Association (FA) rules surrounding whether transgender females can play women's football are lengthy and stringent, however Natalie Washington, campaign lead for Football vs Transphobia, says she is hearing more and more about players being targeted with abuse both on and off the pitch, and that a more focused effort from the sport's governing bodies is required.

She tells GOAL: "Anecdotally, I am hearing more often from people who have experienced some form of transphobia in football. That cuts across playing or attending games. It speaks to a wider growth in transphobia. Transphobic hate is growing in society more generally, it is more at the forefront of peoples' minds.

"We are talking to FA and county associations, it is very early days in trying to get them to understand what transphobic abuse even looks like. I ran a session a while back with referees about how they can recognise transphobic abuse, and that is one of the big barriers.

"There is not a widely accepted definition of transphobia, it is a fast-evolving space, the language is different to 20 years ago but society has not necessarily kept up, so it is difficult for referees or FAs who are administering reports on harassment or discrimination to make the right decisions.

"We need to get to a point where transphobia is seen as real abuse and is taken seriously. Particularly with transphobic language, we can do better education to help clubs and academies to understand what it actually looks like, to give tools and resources to deal with that.

"Also, we have to have the processes to deal with incidents where people really want to hurt someone, and I would like to see county FAs make provisions in their policies for transphobia to show it is something that is taken seriously when reported.

"Kick It Out accepts reports of transphobic abuse through their app, but I still think we are at the stage where we are trying to make sure the football community at large has opposition to transphobia included in their policies."

That FA trans inclusion policy has been in place since 2014, from a review that began in 2012 - nine years ago.

This is now being reviewed over the course of this season; the FA currently review player participation on a case by case basis.

Edleen John, equality, diversity and inclusion director for the FA, says they continue to assert inclusion through their policies as much as possible.

She tells GOAL: "By participating in things like Rainbow Laces and making sure we are showcasing and talking about inclusion being our primary concern, and how we can put that into place in grassroots and recreational football, we continue to affirm and re-affirm that for us, football is for all."

Transphobia creating barriers to people taking part in football is an issue acknowledged by Jason Webber, equality, diversity, inclusion & integrity manager for the Football Association of Wales (FAW), who says they are working on ways to make victims feel they can be more comfortable reporting abuse, whether on the pitch, in the stands or online.

The FAW has shown support for the LGBTQ+ community, most recently through extensive pride displays at Wales' World Cup qualifier against Belgium, but Webber acknowledges more consistent action has to be taken.

He tells GOAL: "The number of trans players we have in Wales is not as high as it should be. It's definitely something that we are conscious of, in regards to the environment within the game, ensuring that it is inclusive and that individuals are not getting transphobic abuse. I'm fully aware that it is something that is a wider societal issue, which has an impact within football.
"We know all discrimination is under-reported, in Wales and elsewhere, in football and across other sports. It is something we try to be very vocal about, and we have seen a general increase following our campaigns and social media promotions.

"That visibility, while on its own can be a gesture, does form part of trying to raise awareness and ensuring people report these things and they are taken seriously.

"The way we are approaching this, it's not just for a couple of weeks then we're done, we're trying to be proactive with raising visibility and providing education throughout the year for fans around the LGBTQ+ community.

"We are aware that the reports we get are not reflective of reality, and we are working hard to ensure every incident is reported so we can support the victims and educate the perpetrators, and make sure there are serious sanctions in place as well."

Hamilton says she has had good support from Kick It Out and the PFA since reporting her abuse, but has had "complete radio silence" from Bromley and the FA - and that she and her team-mates have resolved to take more direct action should a repeat event take place.

"My captain, Rebecca Relf, has been very supportive," she says. "We came to a decision afterwards that if this ever happened again, we would walk off as a collective unit. They say, we know this is a contentious topic, but we have played with you for eight months now, we win games and lose games, the fact you were assigned male at birth has nothing to do with it.

"It's great having all this support, but they can't make me forget what happened. I'm a Rangers fan, and last year you had the Glen Kamara racism incident. There are parallels; why would a player abuse someone just because they are 'different'? I've never truly understood how Kamara felt until that happened to me. I never thought that would happen."

Hamilton switched from male to female football in 2017 after beginning to medically transition, and was approached by the women's captain at the University of Aberdeen, where she was a student, asking if she wanted to join the club.

For the 31-year-old, it is not the first time she has been singled out for complaints based on her gender - last season, she says, an opposing team filed a complaint to the FA despite recording a 3-1 victory, saying Hamilton kept the score down and the hit to their goal difference could cost them the title - but the recent increase in media coverage of trans people, especially in sport, has had an effect.

In particular, a recent report by the Sports Councils Equality Group (SCEG), which said "for many sports, the inclusion of transgender people, fairness and safety cannot co-exist in a single competitive model" has given players like Hamilton concerns that they will be blocked from being part of football clubs that are central to their lives and well-being.

It is a particular source of frustration for Hamilton, given that off the pitch she is a doctoral research student in "the effects of testosterone suppression or supplementation on the athletic performance of transgender athletes" - but says she and other scientists in the same area of research saw their findings ignored by a report she views as one-sided and not fit for purpose.

She says: "It went the same way as World Rugby, saying trans women are too dangerous to play in the women's category. They make the mistake of categorising trans women athletes as elite male athletes. That is not what you see in the clinical data, comparing trans women and cisgender men, they are nowhere near each other.

"They have ignored a lot of our research. We wrote a paper on this very topic, on trans women in archery and shooting, we talked about the process of safety and inclusion, and how you could do that with examples. This was completely ignored.

"One of the first lines of the SCEG report is 'no consensus could be found in the scientific community on this topic'. Hold the phone, we have the consensus of 70 of the world's leading sports medicine practitioners saying this is the route to go and you have just ignored it.

"It blatantly looks like they have taken one side of the argument and not balanced it off with the other, which is not the way science should be done."

Washington agrees, saying a golden chance to find an inclusive balance in British sport has been passed up in favour of giving renewed licence to the divisive rhetoric which characterises the transgender "debate".

She says: "It's a missed opportunity to really look at some of the ways in which we can improve inclusion in sport, it feels like a backwards step. There are many sports in the UK which have done really great work on inclusion for trans and non-binary people, and this really does not seem to pick up on that and move it forward.

"As the conversation around trans people's participation in sport has become more toxic, it is unsurprising that we see that playing out on pitches on Saturdays and Sundays up and down the country. People are consuming that narrative, and I think that gives people a licence to act up."

The divisive status of the SCEG report was further highlighted by new guidance from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which confirmed there should be no assumption transgender athletes automatically have unfair advantage.

Regarding the FA's own policy review for transgender footballers in England, John says they are working to make their rules as firm and fair as possible, and promised they would work with as many interested parties as possible.

She said: "We haven't mapped out the process in detail yet, we'll be working with our colleagues in governance, in the medical team, our research team. It will be a broad spectrum, the timeframe has not been mapped out yet. We will have partnerships with organisations like Gendered Intelligence, it will be broad in how we gather our information and form our policy.

"It is fair to say when applying our policy from 2014, it has been a successful application of case by case basis, which helps the FA remain fully sensitive to the needs of transgender participants, and that will be critical to bear in mind. In our review we will look at our policy and decide, is that the right approach? Does that still work, is it still relevant?"

Webber is unconvinced by the SCEG and IOC reports and how much they realistically apply to trans sportspeople, and says the FAW will not be swayed from their support - even in the face of targeted online abuse.

He says: "I think you could question how much consultation has been done with all of those reports within the trans community, both within sport and those who are not in order to find out why not and what can be improved.

"From our perspective, our core is football for everyone, and we want out game is one where if you are transgender, you can be involved. Any barriers, or perceived barriers, need to be addressed. We know what those barriers are, they have existed for a long time. We are trying to lead the way ourselves, and not be governed, guided or forced by others in what we are doing.

"I've personally been targeted by anti-trans groups because of some of the work we're doing, but I'm fine with that. Over the last 18 months since I joined, some of the comments on our social media channels have been concerning, but I have seen and felt a shift in some of the attitudes towards the community, and I certainly feel the work we have done has had an impact.

"If all we are putting out is white straight non-disabled boys on all our comms, then people would not be represented in our game."

While Hamilton thinks little of the SCEG report as a scientist, as a footballer she admits the weeks since the report came out have been the first where she has actively considered whether she would be welcome on a football pitch.

She says: "From a personal point of view, after this report, for the first time I had the thought, should I go and play? Will I be welcomed? Will I be abused, attacked or heckled?

"I never usually think like that. I had to speak with my club about it, it put a lot of anxiety in my head, and has made me wonder if what happened at Bromley is going to start happening a lot more often. I know other trans female footballers who have felt very similar, it has put that seed of doubt in our minds.

"You think about the last year, with lockdowns but with sports teams allowed to train, for a good few months the only other people I got to see were the Hastings players, these girls have become like a family, we have these roots and bonds. And now this report saying I'm unsafe, with zero data from trans athletes, they are going to rip that away to be overly cautious. It's crazy.

"I have probably played 100 games in women's football and I have never once injured another player, never once been sent off. I've had games where I've conceded six, games where I have conceded none. Being assigned male at birth doesn't make a difference.

"If I was dominating the sport, would I not be up in the WSL? Scotland would be looking at me. They're not, and that tells you there are female footballers who can run rings around me and are much more talented. Sport is multi-faceted, and there is no magic wand to fix it."

Washington agrees that the potential loss of football for transgender people should the SCEG guidance be heeded could be devastating, and even more so for those who play at a lower and less competitive level than Hamilton - who, despite only playing in tier five of the English game, is among the highest level trans players currently active.

Washington says: "Football has been massively important in dealing with the difficult stuff that comes through transition, and building a new social circle, being on the pitch for a while and forgetting everything else that's going on, having some time away.

"I have thought about what might happen if I can't play, and know lots of others have had the same thought.

"If I can't play women's football any more, it's the end of me playing football. I have played football with men occasionally in a five-a-side kickabout, but physically I can't compete - I can barely compete with the women my age. Socially it wouldn't feel right either, like being forced to be someone I'm not again, and I'm done with that in my life.

"I also know it is putting people off getting involved; the ultimate losers in all of this are the trans people who self-exclude because they are worried they are not going to be welcome or think they will get banned, or have to out themselves in some rigorous process, and thus meaning they don't get the mental or physical health benefits, which is a real shame."

Asked about players feeling confident in reporting transphobia that they would be treated properly, John said: "We view all discrimination as serious.

"There is no sliding scale for one form of discrimination over another, we want it all to be absent from our game. We investigate any allegations of discrimination in a serious way to make sure we understand what has happened and take any action necessary.

"[Transphobia] isn't something we want in our game, we don't want anyone to feel that they cannot participate in a way that works for them. Rainbow Laces is broad, and we need to engage on multiple topics in that area."

While recent abuses and an uncertain future have put Hamilton and other trans footballers under immense pressure and scrutiny, she still regards her experiences in women's football as being primarily of feeling included, happy and belonging - with one memory from her time in Scottish football the particular standout.

"Dod Duncan, my old manager at Grampian Ladies, where I played before I moved south, something he said to me really rang through. After a game, he said: 'The one thing you need to realise is you're not Blair the transgender goalkeeper, you are Blair the goalkeeper, you are one of us'.

"It's a testament to the man, it's nice that someone can look beyond the thing everyone else is throwing their arms up about. To see me as the gender I align with, it really empowered me, and made me feel like he had massive belief in me.

"It's such a small thing as well; people ask, surely winning trophies or saving a penalty in a cup final must be your best experience, but it's the little things that count."