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.

Photo: ASA
Show Hide image

Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA