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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?

New Statesman
Norwich City fans: a friendly bunch? Image: Getty

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.