"Football saved my life": Meet Lucy Clark, the first ever transgender referee

By Eleonora Pilastro
Published
Lucy with ball and certificate

Lucy Clark is officially the first openly transgender football (soccer) referee in the world. 

Now 51 years old – with decades spent on the pitch, honouring a sport she loves –  Lucy started taking an interest in football when she was very young. Her first experience refereeing happened when she was only ten, playing in a junior club. 

Since then, she never let a day go by without giving her best through her work. 

Enthusiastic about all things football, she set up her first team when she was about 15.

Either finding the net with her teammates or refereeing a game, football soon became more than a passion: on and off of the pitch, with a whistle, managing a team or running after the ball with her teammates, football has always been Lucy's lighthouse. 

No matter how dark her mindset could get or how rocky the waters she was navigating would become, football was there for her.

“There are so many good memories,” she says. “Goals I scored, going into these amazing and iconic stadiums, there’s just so much. Football’s like my church: some people would see a church and marvel at a church. I can see a stadium, and marvel at it.”

When she considered taking her own life, glancing at a football stadium in the distance gave her strength. It felt like a sign. “It allowed me to come down in an elevator rather than in other ways,” she says.

“If I didn’t have football I wouldn’t be here today. Football saved my life." - Lucy

However, the lack of inclusiveness in the sport — which only added to the amount of negativity and hate referees face every day regardless of their gender —weighed on Lucy’s decisions and, later, on her transition. 

In fact, if Lucy has to find one negative looking back, it would be that her love for football delayed her transition. 

She wasn't sure that the world she loved so much would accept her true self. 

In 2017, convinced that the Football Association wouldn’t accept her, Lucy almost resolved herself to hang up her whistle and give up on football.

There’s not enough education – or discussion of inclusiveness - around the theme of LGBTQ+ rights in men’s football, Lucy says. And that was scary, too.

Lucy Clark on the pitch

“There’s a lot of homophobic chanting,” she says. 

“And even if football is a very inclusive space, because everyone in the world loves it, it can give off the vibe of not being inclusive with the behaviour of some fans and clubs. It may seem a very scary place to come out.”

Especially as the referee, without the support of a fanbase that a player might count on, and already being a target because of her role, Lucy recalls how scared she was about revealing her true self. With a very low number of players coming out as part of the LGBTQ+ community, how would the news of a transgender referee be received?

“For 15 years, we lived a double life,” Avril, Lucy’s wife, remembers when looking back at those days of hiding, of playing a painful part. 

When the two met, they knew they had found a soulmate in each other. It was love at first sight, they both say. 

Looking at them in their house – surrounded by pictures of their family on every wall, as they flick through old newspapers or take care of their adorable pets – it’s clear that the bond the two share is precious and deep.

“I looked at her and I just knew. It became evident very quickly that this was something special,” Avril recalls, “our relationship grew from there.”

Lucy refereeing

Also “thanks to copious amounts of vodka,” as Lucy remembers with a laugh, she told Avril about her true self early into their relationship. From that point on, for fifteen years, they carried on their double life with Lucy playing a part out of the domestic walls. 

“That became very hard because you keep forgetting names and pronouns,” Avril recalls. “But I always knew she would transition.”

The turning point for Lucy happened in 2017, after a period plagued by severe chest pains. Those would later be identified as multiple heart attacks, and Lucy was forced to spend Christmas 2017 hospitalized. 

It was an eye-opening, world-tilting experience. 

"We have one life," she says, recalling the cascade of heart attacks that convinced her to change her life and embrace her real identity. "This life isn't the rehearsal I made it up to be."

Then, in 2018, Lucy told the Football Association (FA) who she was and that she wanted to continue refereeing.

 Lucy and Avril celebrating with a Guinness World Records certificate

“Football has always been a massive part of my life, and so I decided to see if the football world would accept me.” - Lucy

Despite Lucy’s initial fears, the association supported her the best they could. At the beginning of the 2019 season, she came out publicly as a transgender woman – the very first openly transgender football referee in history.  

“I felt like a fraud, in a funny sort of way, because I was portraying this life that wasn’t mine. And when I came out, I had an immense sense of relief,” she says today.

Of course, covering a role that is so dramatically exposed to negativity, in a sport that is often male-led and struggles with inclusivity, wasn’t always easy. 

It sure isn’t easy in the current climate, when the hard-earned rights of the LGBTQ+ community are slowly being chipped away by an increasingly anti-liberal climate. 

However, Lucy always remained positive: she keeps on educating people, advocating for better, more inclusive spaces in sports.

“I am a transgender woman and a referee, so I have the toughest skin you could ever imagine,” Lucy says. “I’m tough-skinned. I can take a few bullets for the community.”

Lucy being interviewed with her cat Milly

Being outspoken about her identity also allowed Lucy to become the spokesperson for many initiatives for the trans and non-binary community, such as the radio station TRUK (Trans Radio UK) and the football club of the same name, TRUK United FC. 

Together, Lucy and Avril also carry on many initiatives and host safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community — and specifically trans people — in the UK. 

One of those projects is the radio station TRUK Radio UK, for which Lucy is the founder and the very first presenter. Her first experience working as a radio host dates back to 2005 when she set up a football-focused, non-league radio station. 

 Lucy set up Trans Radio UK six months before coming out as transgender, she recalls, and since then the project has bloomed. It involves several hosts around the world. 

“We enjoy being radio presenters,” Lucy explains, “but we also needed a radio station for people not only to listen but to discuss issues.”

“We also wanted to give back to the community that gave us so much. So we set up the radio station. We had one presenter, which was Lucy, and one listener, me.” - Avril

Avril talking

Winning the Trans Ally of the Year award, Avril also works on TRUK projects and takes part in several protests and marches. Every day, she speaks about the hate and misconstructions perpetrated against the trans community – and especially bringing attention on the issue of targeted hate against trans women.

Avril is also a presenter for the radio station, which has snowballed into an inclusive space with over 60 collaborators who volunteer from all around the world. 

Another massively important project that stemmed from Trans Radio UK is TRUK Listens, a mental health helpline which offers support via ten trans or non-binary trained counsellors. 

“TRUK is a big beast,” Avril explains. “Lucy is full of ideas. We were going to have a helpline anyway, but we had to bring that forward because so many people came to us during lockdown.”

Lucy also founded TRUK United FC, an all-female trans football team, in January 2021. 

With a lot of people coming up to Lucy saying they wished there could be a place for them, the Wonder-Team of Lucy and Avril got to work to create an inclusive, supportive club where people could just play football and enjoy a passion.

Avril Clark working at Trans Radio UK

Since then the team has gone from strength to strength. 

“In 2023 we formed a team of just trans men, and that was absolutely unbelievable,” Avril says. 

With very few players who feel comfortable enough to publicly come out in football, the creation of the club meant so much more than “just” a team: it became a family, a support network and a place where people could finally be free to enjoy a sport as their true selves without fear of rejection. 

“No one can say that there isn’t a football team for me: well, there is, because we set one up.” -Lucy

“Male football needs to take a look at the women’s game, which is so inclusive. And the world of sports needs to show that they are inclusive all year round,” Lucy says, “not just one day in a year.”

Throughout her journey, there were moments when Lucy struggled with her mental health despite her best efforts to be strong. 

“Especially when I was young: I knew how I felt but, in the 70s and 80s, I didn’t have the internet to research.”

Lucy with football

“I knew I couldn’t tell anyone because they would think I was mad. That was really hard.” - Lucy

Discovering through the internet that she wasn’t the only one that felt trapped in the wrong body was a massive, life-changing discovery for Lucy. 

Although the web comes with its own darkness and challenges, with several transphobic accounts perpetuating hate, Lucy also highlights the positive impact that online communities can have. 

The web can be a resource, connecting people and allowing them to discover that they are not alone, not crazy, and not wrong in any way. 

And to those who may be struggling with living as who they are, Lucy says: “Be who you are. You only get one life, so go live it. Live a great life.”

“You have to be an ally. You have to stand up, because the hate against trans people now is virulent.” - Avril

We are sure that Lucy’s story will inspire and encourage many, and can’t wait to see what records she has in store next.

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