The first all trans-masculine football team in the world is proving that there is a place for everyone in sports
A version of this article was originally published 25 April 2023.
Whether you are a player or a fan, you’ll have experienced the pure joy and jubilation of your football team scoring a goal. You’ll know the feeling of solidarity and community that comes from celebrating with those around you – because that’s what sports, at its best, is: a unifying force that brings people together through a shared passion.
For the players on the TRUK United FC team, who took to the pitch on a rainy evening in front of a crowd of 500 last month, the feelings of triumph were even more heightened and poignant than usual. They were celebrating a historic goal, on a historic occasion – the first all trans-masculine team in the world playing its inaugural match on Trans Day of Visibility. “It was a really, really special moment,” says captain Arthur Webber. “You could see everybody in the crowd just screaming and the other team came over and celebrated with us as well because they knew how much it meant. Everybody coming together, it was absolutely lovely.”
Most of the players on the team didn’t know each other, had only met a few hours before stepping onto the pitch, and had never trained together. Before the match started, Webber led a warm-up that also doubled as an exercise for everyone to learn each other’s names. Yet they played with such unity that a footballer from the opposing team, Dulwich Hamlet FC Supporters Team, said he had never been up against a group so cohesively together. “I think it’s because we all knew how much it meant,” says Webber on how they were able to become such a close-knit team despite being practically strangers. “I don’t think we expected how much it would mean to the whole community, but we knew how much it meant to all of us to be there on a team where everybody has the same story.”
All levels of skill and experience made up the TRUK United team, from semi-professional Parker Dunn, who scored the goal, to players who hadn’t kicked a ball since school. Webber, who has been passionate about football his whole life, gave up playing at the age of 13 because he thought there would never be a place in the sport for him and only recently started playing again with grassroots team Leftfooters FC. Emmerdale actor Ash Palmisciano drove down from Leeds to play, while another player flew in from Scotland.
“For all of us to be able to come together and be on one team because of our shared experience of being trans-masculine was quite special. And I think that made everything more cohesive, because of us all knowing how much it meant,” says Webber. It was his call-out on social media that many of the players who turned up were responding to, although others had been brought in by Lucy Clark, founder and manager of TRUK United FC, who started the all trans-feminine side last year before expanding the club to include a men’s team this year. The first openly transgender football referee in the world, Clark founded TRUK United after trans people kept coming to her saying they wanted to get back into football but didn’t think there was a place for them.
That there is demand for trans-inclusive teams and spaces is clear to see, not just from the number of people who showed up for the teams but from the response the match in March has received since then. When Dunn scored, the joyful celebrations were captured by Lucy Copsey, a photographer and player for TRUK United’s women’s team, and the image quickly went viral on social media. That the team lost 8-1 at the final whistle didn’t matter to the thousands of people who were seeing for the first time that it was possible for them to continue to play the game they love.
In the aftermath of the match, people from all over the world have been sending messages of support, asking how they can get involved or set up their own team in their city, and placing orders for merchandise – including Welsh international and midfielder for OL Reign Jess Fishlock MBE who bought a jersey. There has been so much interest Clark has been staying up through the night to get orders shipped and Webber hasn’t been able to get his own hands on a kit yet.
“It’s been really cool that it’s gone beyond just us,” says Webber. “I’ve had hundreds of trans guys messaging me on all of my different social media saying, ‘How can I get involved?’ I’ve had people [message me] who used to play internationally for England and Scotland when they were kids and had to give up because they were trans and didn’t know there was a space for them. I’ve had parents of trans kids message me saying, ‘I’ve shown this to my child’ because they play for their school team and are worried about where it was going to go. So that’s been really special.”
It was those trans kids that Webber was thinking of as he led his team onto the field for their first match; the kids who, unlike himself at that age, would now be able to see a future for themselves in sports. “I was thinking back to 13-year-old me who gave up football because he didn’t see anyone like him and thought there was never going to be a space like this ever,” he says. “There are going to be trans kids today who see us and know there is a space and maybe we’ll get some really, really good footballers a few years down the line who see this game and don’t give up.”
Also occupying his mind, however, was the pressure of being the first all trans-masc team in the world and the knowledge that, because of that, lots of people would be watching, including the transphobes of the world. “There was that pressure of, we can’t leave with ten broken legs because then the argument will be that it’s dangerous for trans men to be in men’s sport and we can’t lose 20-0 because then the argument would be that it’s not fair, even though it is our first game so losing 20-0 wouldn’t be uncommon anyway,” says Webber.
Trans athletes are under attack right now, as legislation around the world attempts to ban participation at all ages and levels, from school teams to professional competitions. But it’s not just the players who are being made to feel unwelcome and unsafe in sports, it’s the fans as well. Thanks to the aggressive and hyper-masculine culture that surrounds the game, live football has been a historically hostile environment for everyone apart from straight, white cis men. “Even if you objectively pass most of the time, I think most trans people would be worried about going to a football game because of how hyper-masculine the stadiums tend to be,” says Webber, who only attended his first Arsenal men’s match in 2021, despite being a fan since the age of six, because of this fear.
i cried when i first saw this.— dani (@exdeedani) April 4, 2023
when i was younger i played in a boys team but i couldnt play any matches because i was “a girl”.
to see now there’s a whole team with men like me makes me cry out of happiness. i’m so overwhelmed to see a future finally for transpeople in sport https://t.co/BReExSpXkw
Last season, in an attempt to combat this, Arsenal invited trans and non-binary members of the club’s LGBTQ+ supporters group GayGooners to attend a match against Brentford in an executive box. Initiatives like this and supporters groups like GayGooners, which Webber is a part of, and Rainbow Devils are so important when it comes to the continued effort to make football a safe place for all fans he says, especially when teams are still having to put out statements and fans are being arrested over homophobic chanting. “Trying to raise awareness and having a big rainbow flag at every single game makes it very apparent that we are here, we’re not going anywhere,” says Webber. “That visibility is really, really important.”
When it comes to the future of the TRUK United trans-masc team, Webber says they have a lot of exciting things ahead, although he’s under strict instructions by Clark to not mention many of them just yet. They have a couple of matches already lined up, including one in July the day after Brighton Trans Pride. “I'm very proud of all the guys and obviously everybody’s really keen to get back into it and play together again,” says Webber. Thanks to the huge amount of interest they’ve had – there are now almost 200 people in the TRUK United slack – the club is also looking to join some five-a-side leagues in London and other big cities.
But while it’s important for people to have a safe space to play football, especially those who have been afraid to get back into it after transitioning, Webber says that the aim has never been to advocate for solely separate, third spaces for trans people. “There are trans people who just play in regular men’s and women’s leagues all over the place and they are welcome,” he says. “Trans people should be able to play in whatever leagues that they identify with. It’s just that we have this space as well.”
And for anyone who doesn’t play football themselves, there are still plenty of ways to get involved and be a part of the community. “When matches are announced, come along and support us because it’s not just for the players, it’s a really nice community space for trans people to come together,” Webber says. “One of my friends doesn’t go to any football but she likes coming together with other trans people to cheer on trans people. There’s space for everybody in this and that’s great.”