Sophie Cook on being the first transgender person to work in the Premier League and a vision for Sussex
PUBLISHED: 14:20 05 November 2018 | UPDATED: 14:24 05 November 2018
Former Shoreham Labour candidate Sophie Cook discusses being the first transgender person to work in the Premier League, transitioning and her vision for the county
When it comes to breaking down barriers, Sussex-based politician and broadcaster Sophie Cook is an old hand.
Back in 2015, she became the first transperson to work in the Premier League in her capacity as club photographer at the newly promoted Bournemouth FC.
Initially anxious about coming out, the news was punctuated with a hearty round of applause from the players, while manager Eddie Howe later presented Sophie with a shirt bearing her name on it. No sooner was the news delivered, than the team got on with playing football.
The acceptance was in heartening contrast to the 51-year-old’s first attempt at transitioning in 2000. “The world was a very, very different place then,” recalls Sophie who lives in Lancing in a flat overlooking the sea. “There was abuse and prejudice wherever I went. When I came out in 2015, it felt like a lot of things had moved on and they had. The fact that I was able to carry on working in the Premier League as a transwoman surprised me as much as anyone.”
Sophie’s story caught the attention of Match Of The Day who featured her on the programme, prompting presenter Gabby Logan to tweet: “I am Sophie” in support. It was a flagship moment for the beautiful game and for Sophie, another in a life peppered with such remarkable moments.
Indeed, a glance at her dizzying CV gives a tantalising glimpse at the lives she’s led. “I was a Mod. I joined the [Royal] Air Force at 16. I saved someone’s life following an explosion at 18 and then had post-traumatic stress following that.”
And that’s just her early life. Other incarnations include ex-motorbike racer, ex-newspaper editor and a manager of a PR and marketing consultancy. No wonder that she’s putting pen to paper to write her memoirs, Not Today, Why I Choose Life. Though given the further twists and turns since transitioning, perhaps it should be a series. After all, her new life as a presenter for Brighton-based station Latest TV (making her Europe’s first transgender broadcaster), a hate crime ambassador for Sussex Police, a public speaker – with a slot at the prestigious TEDxBrighton this October – and a politician are all worthy of a chapter. While a mixed bag, all roles have shaped Sophie.
“My CV is very disparate but as soon as I became a parliamentary candidate all of those skills made sense,” she argues. “Being a journalist and writer you have that natural inquisitiveness about people, you want to know their stories. That’s a rare thing in a politician; to honestly care about what people are telling you.”
No ‘slacktivist’, Sophie does as much as she thinks. Last year she campaigned for the Labour seat in East Worthing and Shoreham narrowly missing out to Tim Loughton. On the night of the vote, she’d been in politics for five weeks and, “increased the Labour vote by 114 per cent.”
If elected, she would have been the first transperson to work as an MP in the UK: “When I was selected to be the parliamentary candidate for Shoreham, people said to me: ‘You do realise this isn’t Brighton, no-one’s going to vote for a transwoman here.’
“But nearly 21,000 people did and do you know what? That proves that people are moving on from that prejudice.”
While Sophie – who is keen to stand again – wants to offer a new way of doing politics, moving away from the ‘crocodile smiles’, on a wider point, she sees Sussex paving the way for equality. “When I transitioned, Brighton seemed liked the place to go. Let’s face it; I’m a transwoman sat in a bar on the beach and no-one bats an eyelid. There are still places in the country where transpeople are terrified to go out. I’d like to see Brighton and Sussex be a cultural and diverse beacon for the rest of the country.”
This means equality for all.
“Sometimes people call me a ‘trans activist’. I’m not; I’m an equality activist. I’m fighting for everyone. There’s no way I’d be like: ‘I want equality for me but not for you.’ It doesn’t work like that. That’s not equality, that’s privilege. The clue is in the word; equality. Equal. Until everyone’s equal, no one is.”
There is much work to be done. “There were still 20,000 people who didn’t vote,” she adds. “One of the problems with our parliamentary system is if you [live] in a safe seat, no matter what party you support, you feel that your vote is wasted. For me, those 20,000 people who didn’t vote now will know there is a point in voting.”
While politics is changing, so too are outdated attitudes on the terraces. “I’ve always said the problems that happen inside football grounds aren’t football’s problems, they’re society’s problems. If those problems exist in society, it will be reflected in football.”
Fans in East Brighton have proved how the beautiful game is moving forward in non-league football. “The Whitehawk FC fans have this great thing where you don’t abuse anyone. They sing, ‘The referee’s a referee’ which is a way of showing disappointment with a decision without being abusive. If anyone did get abusive, very soon the other fans would shut them down.”
Abuse is something she sees all too often in her work with Sussex Police. “The idea that LGBT hate crime would go up post-Brexit is purely because people with bigoted views felt validated,” she says. “It was like, ‘Oh look the other 52 per cent of the population feel like me’ but they don’t. 52 per cent of the population don’t think like that and I think that’s the problem; the whole Brexit campaign got hijacked by certain people using it to validate their agenda.”
As well as her work with the police, she also delivers talks at companies and schools, weaving her transition with the struggles she’s had with mental health.
“For a lot of the people I’m the first transperson they’ve knowingly met and I’d like to think I’ve left them with a positive opinion of what transpeople are. I remember when I was growing up, the only time you ever heard about a transperson was if they were being demonised, particularly by the Sunday tabloid press as some sort of pervert, and we’re not.
“We’re people who got dealt a particular hand of cards and we’re trying to do the best we can with it.”
Opening up the lines of communication is one solution. “It’s about education. People say to me: ‘How do you react when you get abuse?’ There’s a couple of different ways it happens. Transpeople will be misgendered. I’ve had people call me ‘sir’ in inverted commas like it’s something I’m trying to hide and they try and hurt me with it. But then again you get people saying it and it’s just a slip. It’s an accident because they don’t know better and it’s knowing what the difference is. Because if someone makes a genuine mistake, I will educate them.”
While some ‘bigots’ are beyond redemption, Sophie is on a mission to convert negatives into positives. “If you go through your whole life with a silver spoon in your mouth where only good things ever happen to you, you never ever grow as a person,” she says. “You never learn to overcome diversity. You never learn to become resourceful and in some ways, you don’t learn compassion. I think that diversity and that struggle is part of what makes the human spirit so great.”
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