Travels of a transsexual football fan

Normally, once I'm comfortable with people I don't worry too much about ‘passing’– that is, hiding my transsexual past – but I'm not sure how to play this. Are they reading and treating me as male or female?

Saturday 9 November 2013. I’ve seen Norwich City beat West Ham United, and I’m on the train from Norwich to London. It's packed, so I end up without my friends from the Capital Canaries (Norwich’s supporters club in London), who know my (male-to-female) gender history and happily take me as I come, and instead I’m in a carriage full of West Ham fans.

I think about listening to music, or writing, but the man opposite asks me about the game. He supports Rangers and the guy next to us supports West Ham, so we talk about our respective teams – Rangers’ tax case and subsequent demotion to the Scottish Third Division, West Ham’s inability to score and the pressure on Norwich manager Chris Hughton after a run of poor results – and it's all quite pleasant. I'm not wearing colours and I've put my Norwich scarf in my bag, which I think gives me the option of keeping out of post-football discussions if I don’t feel like having them. We stop at Chelmsford and they leave, before three male West Ham fans, one in his early twenties, the others in their thirties, sit with me.

“Are you happy or sad?”asks the younger one, and it takes a moment to realise he's asking which team I support. Not joining the conversation may well provoke an angry response, and anyway, they seem alright, like my friends from the Capital Canaries, so I say: “Happy."

I get good-natured questions about how long I've followed Norwich, and why. I explain that I'm from Surrey and have no good reason to support City. One says “I’m guessing you’re 32? 33?” and I nod. As the other two say “No! You’re 27, 28!” he says “Norwich can’t have been very good then – you had Robert Fleck up front, right?” He knows his football: instantly, he’s put me in 1991-1992, when Norwich narrowly avoided relegation from the old First Division, after which they sold Fleck to Chelsea, and clearly differentiates it from the first Premier League campaign the next year, when City nearly won the title. This leads onto ‘Disco’ Dale Gordon, who left Norwich in 1991 and later joined West Ham, and we’re getting on fine.

I say that as a child, my geography was terrible, joking that I liked yellow things, and that I’m glad I didn’t choose my local team, Crystal Palace. As they laugh, I realise they already see me as a strange category error, a middle-class Canary from the Home Counties, and then that they’re calling me “she”, telling people not to swear in front of a lady, but occasionally calling me “he”– at least, I think they are.

Normally, once I'm comfortable with people I don't worry too much about ‘passing’– that is, hiding my transsexual past – but I'm not sure how to play this. Are they reading and treating me as male or female? Why this mix of pronouns and gendered behaviour? The younger one asks where I'm going and I tell him it’s an indie disco, and so they ask me about music. I realise this is going to be an extended conversation so think harder than usual about my voice, tone and gestures, and how my statements relate to masculine and feminine stereotypes: these three are alright, I reckon, and them realising I'm trans probably wouldn't be too problematic, but now lots of drunk West Ham fans are listening, and I'm not sure I want them all focusing on my gender identity.

The younger one says I should go for drinks with them instead, and I politely explain that I'm looking forward to seeing my friends at Scared to Dance. So they ask which bands I like, and I try not to be too obscure, naming The Smiths and New Order, Talking Heads and the Velvet Underground, and someone leans over, saying that he’d heard about Lou Reed’s death, and I just nod. The younger one asks if I like Nickleback, and I say they’re “not really my thing”.

I decide to shift the conversation back to football, so they ask what I thought of West Ham’s performance. “Not great," I said, “but you’ll be alright.”

“Nolan was shit, wasn’t he?”

“He didn’t do much,” I laughed.

The younger one asks if I like West Ham: I say yes, and they enquire about my favourite West Ham players. Now there are some interesting gender stereotypes at work. In my late teens and early twenties, presenting as male in terrible jobs, football was my Get Out of Jail Free card when people thought I was irredeemably weird (as they often did). I didn't join many conversations but I'd ask who they supported and would ask a few questions: “£13m for Sylvain Wiltord– worth it?” “Should you have sold Beckham?” “Should Gérard Houllier have been sacked?” Even if we found nothing else to talk about, football usually provided enough conversation to get us through our days.

Here, I want to build enough of a rapport to ensure that they'll be cool if I'm ‘read’ as trans, and stick up for me if necessary, but as I think they're treating me as female, I don't want to look like a footy anorak as it’s such a male archetype. How to answer? Discussing the merits of loyal utility man Steve Potts or the reasons for Romania star Florin Raducioiu’s disastrous spell at Upton Parkin 1996 probably wouldn’t work – it would only invite follow-up questions about how I knew about them, but I don’t want my interest to look too superficial either, because any suggestion that I’m only interested in football for the players’ legs would really annoy me. I hit on current Irons player Winston Reid, a useful defender who plays regularly but isn’t a household name, who’d missed the match through injury.

“Why Reid?” they ask, and I face the same dilemma.

“I used to have family in New Zealand.” (I did, years ago, though I barely met them.)

They cheer and sing about Winston Reid, but I don’t catch the words. I'm looking out of the window to see where we are, hoping it’s near Stratford. We pass through Forest Gate: we’re only a few minutes away, and as the train pulls up, we all wish each other a nice evening. As I walk to the Overground, I realise that I should have said Luděk Mikloško, West Ham’s Czech goalkeeper from the Nineties – I know all the words to his song, and love the way they rhyme his surname with ‘near Moscow’, and I’m sure it would have been gone down well if I’d joined in.
 

Norwich City fans: a friendly bunch? Image: Getty

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era