Whitehawk FC’s Sophie Cook: ‘I had to change my life or end it’

Sophie Cook is, among other things and in no particular order, a football manager, an author, a jet engine technician, a photographer, a mental health worker, Whitehawk FC’s new equality and diversity officer, a public speaker and a transgender person who lives in a horsebox. Most of all, she is happy. Her mission is to try to help other people to be happy, too. Can’t argue with that, right?

Well, she has to argue for it. After an appearance on BBC’s Newsnight a couple of years ago she got 1,000 abusive messages in one hour, including death threats. “I had talked on the programme about people getting offended by different uses of gender and language and I said to the presenter there were certain people who would be offended just because I was on the show – and then they all went and proved me right,” Cook says with a laugh. She has a knack for finding a funny side to stories, which is part of what makes her so good to talk to. Mainly, however, she is worth listening to because her own story is exceptional and her message enriching.

Sophie Cook was known as Steve Cook until the summer of 2015 when, at the age of 48 and while employed as the club photographer at Bournemouth, she came out as the first transgender person working in professional football. “I had reached a point where I had to either change my life or end it,” Cook recalls. “I’d known I was transgender since I was about seven years old but back then we didn’t have the knowledge or the language so I had no idea what was wrong with me. It took me the best part of 50 years to work it through in my head. The point I realised I had to transition was just as Bournemouth were getting promoted to the Premier League.”

The first people to tell were her family, including two children. “My son was 14 and my daughter was 11. I just sat down with them and said I’d never really felt right in my own body. My daughter went through all five stages of grief in about 10 minutes.” Once they processed it, the children accepted. “Now my daughter is 16 and some of her best friends at school are trans. And that’s not because of me, it’s just because their generation understands it a lot more. They have a lot more knowledge than my generation did. So much has happened in the last five years.”

But what about the reputedly conservative world of professional football? How did Bournemouth react when the photographer they knew as “a fat bald bloke” called Steve returned for the new season as Sophie? “We had a meeting in the owner’s box overlooking the pitch.” The six people in attendance included the chairman, Jeff Mostyn, as well as Eddie Howe and his then-assistant Jason Tindall. “And me in a pencil skirt and heels, looking fabulous,” Cook adds.

Bournemouth’s club photographer Sophie Cook prepares her images before the Premier League game against West Bromwich Albion in May 2016.

Bournemouth’s club photographer Sophie Cook prepares her images before the Premier League game against West Bromwich Albion in May 2016. Photograph: Tgsphoto/Shutterstock

“Since there had never been a trans person working in professional football before, this was a conversation that no one had ever even thought about, so I had no idea how they were going to react. The first thing they told me was that I still had a job and then Eddie Howe turned around to me and said: ‘What can I do to make this easier for you?’ You can’t expect everyone to understand straight away when you come out but, if your boss says that, that’s all you can hope for. It just sums up what a decent and honest human being Eddie Howe is. He was never anything but totally supportive of me during my transition.”

The answer to Howe’s question was: “I’d need to meet the players before a match day because the first time they see me like this can’t be when they’re running out on to the pitch.

“Jason Tindall, who obviously has now replaced Eddie, called all the players together and said: ‘I suppose you’ve noticed our photographer has changed a bit since last season; I’d like you all to meet Sophie.’ The captain, Tommy Elphick, started clapping and all the rest of the players joined in. And then they went and trained.

“We couldn’t have had a finer group of players in that changing room. The way they all handled it was really nice. I said to them: ‘Listen, we can sit down and talk, there are no stupid questions, you can ask me anything you want.’ And I sat down with a lot of them and told them about my struggles with mental health throughout my life. It was absolutely unbelievable the way everyone at Bournemouth reacted. The fans were really supportive, too. When people started trolling me online and giving me death threats, it was fans who stood around me and gave me support.”

Cook left Bournemouth in 2017 to stand as as a Labour candidate in the general election. She won more than 20,000 votes in East Worthing and Shoreham but finished second, narrowly missing out on becoming Britain’s first transgender MP. Her advocacy work has not relented.

Sophie Cook at Whitehawk FC’s ground.

Sophie Cook at Whitehawk FC’s ground. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Last year, at the suggestion of a friend – the former Spurs, Portsmouth and Brighton midfielder Guy Butters – she arranged a friendly between a team of former Premier League players and the side she manages, Rainbow Rovers, a mixed-gender team of LGBT players. Rainbow Rovers are now a fully fledged part of Whitehawk, members of the Isthmian League South East Division. In July Whitehawk appointed Cook as their first equality and diversity officer after gaining sponsorship from Utilita, an energy supply company.

“Whitehawk is going the extra mile, taking steps that others might just give lip service to. We’re going out there and really pushing the boundaries of what can be done.” Cook believes much of the corporate world is turning in favour of equality. “We’ve got a mixed-gender LGBT team and we’ve also got a major sponsor which is fully behind what we’re doing – I think that says a lot.

“There’s a thirst for people who are prepared to break the mould and go out there and make a difference. And we get messages from all over the world. Whitehawk is not just a little non-league club from Brighton, we’re a club with a global reach and global concepts of how you make the world a better place through the power of football.

“I strongly believe that football has a massive transformative power for social change. Because it opens doors. I do a lot of talking in schools and if you go in and say: ‘I’m going to talk to you about equality and diversity’, they’ll all turn off. But if you say: ‘I used to work in the Premier League and we did this and we do that’, then suddenly people are switched on and you have a conversation.

The Hawks Ultras in the stands during Whitehawk FC’s FA Cup second-round replay against Dagenham & Redbridge in December 2015.

The Hawks Ultras in the stands during Whitehawk FC’s FA Cup second-round replay against Dagenham & Redbridge in December 2015. Photograph: Steve Paston/PA

“Also, other groups are interested in having matches against [Rainbow Rovers], such as disability rights groups and Black Lives Matter. I see this as having real traction to bring causes together. We’re looking at doing matches all over the country. I see this as a way of using the power of football to introduce conversations and make a difference. At the end of the day, we all want to make the world a better place.”

Meanwhile, as part of efforts to keep making her own life better, Cook recently moved out of her flat to live in a mobile horsebox she has named Betty Blue. “When the pandemic hit, so many people sat there thinking: ‘I wish I could get back to normal.’ But I was thinking: ‘Normal doesn’t work.’ Normal for me meant struggling to pay bills every month, constantly worrying. I thought: ‘I’ve had enough of this.’ So I gave notice on my flat and bought a horsebox that I’m converting. It’s going to have a garage in the back for my motorbike and office because I’m writing my second book. It’s about how so much of what we do in life is toxic. Betty Blue is part of my solution to do that. Two nights ago I woke up by Worthing seafront and went for a swim. Last night I slept near South Downs and watched thunder storms come in across the Channel.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

The Guardian

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