For­mer Shore­ham Labour can­di­date So­phie Cook dis­cusses be­ing the first trans­gen­der per­son to work in the Pre­mier League, tran­si­tion­ing and her vi­sion for Sus­sex

Sussex Life - - Local Life - WRITER: Kee­ley Bol­ger PIC­TURES: So­phie Cook

hen it comes to break­ing down bar­ri­ers, Sus­sexbased 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

Wdizzy­ing 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 ex­mo­tor­bike 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

“The prob­lems that hap­pen in­side foot­ball grounds aren’t foot­ball’s prob­lems, they’re so­ci­ety’s prob­lems”

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.”

RIGHT: So­phie with Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn BELOW: As a mo­tocross rider in Saudi Ara­bia, 1992

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