Signing a first contract with a club in the football league system should be a cause for any player to celebrate but Sammy Walker is afraid to – for fear of the repercussions.
The 30-year-old has signed for a club in the Women’s National League South, the third tier of English women’s football, but does not want to name the team until she makes her debut.
This is because Walker is transgender, and despite FA rules being very clear in allowing her to play women’s football, she fears protests and abuse, having already suffered threats online.
“The girls I play with have been super accepting of me, that I play at that level because I deserve to and I don’t have any kind of advantage,” she tells Goal in an exclusive interview.
“I don’t want to bring negative attention; it isn’t about me. We’re a team that work together to try to grind out wins, and as much as I want to fly the flag for trans women in football, I must balance that with my responsibilities as a team-mate.
“I’ve been the subject of a load of online abuse and the last thing I want is for people to start protesting at games where I’m not even playing.
“There is always potential for people to say, there’s a target. I also don’t want to scare the chairman. He has taken a big risk in accepting me and inviting me to play for the team.”
Walker, before transitioning, played academy football for Wycombe before being picked up by Watford, but she quit football at 18 as she struggled with her identity.
She slipped out of the game, fell into problems with addiction and even considered whether she wanted to carry on living, before finally accepting herself and transitioning aged 26.
On her childhood and time at Watford, she says: “It was difficult. As I was hitting puberty, things started changing and I became more aware of how uncomfortable I was in my own body.
“Seeing the state of the game, back in the 2000s, it made me realise there was no place for me in football.
“Being an out gay player is still something that haunts people, so the idea of being the first to play at a decent level and then transitioning, that was so overwhelming. I fell out of love with the game, I didn’t feel like it would ever be the place where I could be me.
“Growing up in the 90s, we were still in the shadow of Section 28, meaning anything that wasn’t cisheteronormative was wrong. When you start primary school, there is the first clear segregation between males and females. I found it hard to relate to the boys but because I was good at football, I was accepted. It gave me a good cover.
“By the time I was 15 or 16, I was pretty sure this was my eventuality, even if the realities of that were terrifying. I didn’t want to be the weirdo, as I had spent my life pursuing what was the ideal of masculinity within the football community.
“Ultimately, that degraded my mental health, I had problems with drugs and addiction, and it wasn’t until my mid-20s when I realised, ‘I can’t do this anymore. Living like this makes me want to die.'”
Having played top level academy football in her teens, Walker spent her early 20s playing the occasional five-a-side game with her brother, as she tried to push her gender to the back of her mind.
Having transitioned, she decided to try and get back into football by joining a women’s Sunday league team in her hometown of Aylesbury – but soon realised she did not belong there, yet.
“I had short hair, I hadn’t transitioned medically, I was very much the odd one out,” she explains. “There were people who made evidently clear that I shouldn’t be there, that it wasn’t my space to be in. It got to the point where I was asked to just play with my left foot, so I wouldn’t play quite as well.
“I’m not super physical, I’m not a massive person, I’m 5’9”, but at that point I had the benefit of 10 years of the best training a young footballer could have.”
Instead, Walker played with inclusive teams Soho FC and Bristol Panthers in the Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN) National League, where men, women and transgender people can feature in the same teams.
This was the bridge Walker craved to get back into the sport she loves.
“I moved to London, and my partner at the time was getting fed up with me doing keepy-ups all the time in the house, so I went to see if there was a team I could join,” he says.
“I ultimately went to Soho FC, who were just the best people. They knew exactly what I needed at that time in my life. I made my debut for them in a cup final, came on as a sub, and scored.
“It’s something I’m very passionate about: you need to have a clear pathway for people, especially when they start their transition and don’t meet FA requirements for women’s football. And men’s football is an even more daunting environment.
“I think it is responsible as trans women to prove the doubters wrong, that we are not all entitled and demanding things. Having those two years with Soho FC and Bristol Panthers gave me my space to play football again, and show football wasn’t exactly what I remembered it being.
“My best moment in football since transitioning was captaining Soho FC at a national tournament in Liverpool. It was the first time I felt totally accepted and recognised based on my football ability and the fact I can lead a team.”
Having medically transitioned, Walker is now eligible to play women’s football based on the FA’s rules about testosterone levels. She is grateful to the governing body for their acceptance of transgender people.
“It comes down to blood tests and hormone levels, as I progress through my transition I have lost a lot of muscle mass,” she says. “Self-identifying is not accepted, which I agree with. People should not just be able to self-identify and play.
“One of the arguments always presented to us is, ‘Why don’t you start your own trans league?’ I don’t think we could get a team together, let alone two teams for a match.
“There is such a varying degree of skill level, and what do you do – trans men and trans women in the same league? No-one seems to realise that the removal of testosterone is performance debilitating.
“The FA are doing the right thing in openly accepting trans players and encouraging their inclusion. There is no point dedicating a load of funds because there are bigger problems in the game that need addressing. The FA cannot do more than normalise our existence and our participation.”
Walker is currently sidelined with a knee ligament injury, so has not yet made her debut in women’s football and is unlikely to play this season.
She finds it ironic that she is currently unable to play because of a hefty tackle, when the doubters and trolls would have her marked down as the imposter who would injure other women.
“Anyone else can go in for a slide tackle, they might injure the player, but that’s part of the game. If I went in for a tackle and somebody got injured, it would be because I’m a danger,” she says.
“I’m out injured for most of the season, I’ve done my knee ligaments. Out of the 20-odd girls in the squad, I’m the only one out because of a tackle.
“The concerns about trans women in football are largely down to misogynistic ideas that people born male are massive, big and strong, a stereotypical idea of what a trans woman is.
“It doesn’t take from my game, but it does play on my mind. The rules are different for me.”
Despite all the hurdles she has faced, Walker is now in a more positive place than she has ever been previously when it comes to her relationship with football, and recently launched a series of Q&A sessions to give clubs an opportunity to learn about trans inclusivity in sport.
She ponders a final question from Goal on whether football has saved her life.
“I was quite a troubled kid, I had a lot of conflicts, with myself and my family. I get on the pitch, and the game consumes me. I don’t have to think about anything else,” she says.
“Exercise is so important for peoples’ mental health, and I struggled with that when I was younger. Football helped, and since coming back, attitudes have changed towards people like us, the rhetoric sometimes pushed in the media is not reflected, by and large.
“Football has contributed massively towards my transition and validating my existence. Being accepted in a group is so important, it developed me as a player and as a woman.”