Three years after being interviewed for a Sky Sports series about her experience of coming out as trans while working in the Premier League, Sophie Cook is still getting messages from first-time viewers.
“It happens when someone’s just found it on catch-up or online,” she says, referring to the ‘My Icon: Rainbow Laces’ episode in which she talks about being Bournemouth’s official club photographer and telling the manager and players at pre-season training that she had grown her hair out over the summer, and that her name is Sophie. They all applauded her.
“It’s always an overwhelming outpouring of love and support. There’s actually so many positive stories within football but much of the media is obsessed with negativity. Through that series, we captured some of the good news stories for LGBT+ people in sport.”
However, there’s so much more to Cook’s journey than just that moment. Since then, she’s become an in-demand public speaker, a published author, a parliamentary candidate, a TV and radio broadcaster, the first-ever Equalities and Diversity Officer at her local club Whitehawk FC in Brighton, and last year she was awarded the title of Doctor of Letters by Bournemouth University in recognition of her work on mental health.
On Friday, she claimed another honour – a British LGBT Award for Outstanding Contribution to LGBT+ Life. The national awards, now in their sixth year and supported by many high-profile businesses and brands including title sponsor NatWest, also bestowed a 2020 honour on former Wales rugby union international and HIV awareness campaigner Gareth Thomas in the Sports Personality category, while Sky UK took the gong for Inclusive Employer or Company.
In her award acceptance speech, Cook stressed how important it will be to retain the “sense of community” fostered amid the challenges of a COVID-centric 2020. Getting involved with Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign back in 2016 certainly helped her feel more connected within football, as she featured alongside then England player Casey Stoney, Team GB’s Matt Lister, and other athletes and fans in a powerful video message.
“I remember doing that filming and meeting so many people in football who have become firm friends,” she tells Sky Sports.
“In fact, I now have friends at clubs all over the country that I first met through my time with Rainbow Laces, all helping to break down barriers in their own way. It’s just amazing to see so many people doing so much good work out there.”
Community is a major theme for the 2020 campaign activation, with the pandemic forcing so much football activity online, as fan group members bond further through online Zoom chats and interact more frequently with their clubs and players on social media. Cook feels the conversations that the campaign continues to spark are more important than ever.
“When I came out as trans at Bournemouth, nobody had ever done it before in professional football. It was an unknown – and it was really scary,” she explains.
“The great thing that Rainbow Laces has done is introduce that story to so many other clubs. It got people talking. Obviously there are going to be a few detractors – ‘why are they bringing all that into football’, etc – but it does help to make these clubs more welcoming for someone else who might be scared or worried.
“Whether it’s myself coming out, people like Ryan Atkin as a referee, or anyone that’s made the news over the last five years or so, each of us makes it a little bit easier for the next one to come out.
“There’s just that positive story to show you that it’s not as bad or as scary as you might think.”
In summer 2019, Cook took on another football challenge after a conversation with former Tottenham, Portsmouth and Brighton defender Guy Butters – being player-manager of an LGBT-inclusive, mixed-gender ‘Rainbow Rovers’ team for a charity match against an All-Stars side of experienced ex-pros, some of whom had played in the Premier League.
Sky Sports went along to cover the ‘Football United’ game on Brighton Pride weekend and witnessed Rovers come away as 4-2 winners.
“It was a crazy idea that myself and Guy came up with,” she recalls. “I got this team together, some of whom had never even met each other before – I think one of them had never even played football before!
“My pre-match team talk mentioned how the media is obsessed with when a gay male footballer is going to come out. I said, ‘let’s go out there and show them what LGBT people can do’ – and I think we scored within the first minute, so that worked!
“The All-Stars were a bit shocked. They had Lee Hendrie, Keith Gillespie, Paul Walsh… it was just an absolutely amazing experience.”
The match was played at Whitehawk FC’s TerraPura Ground, where Cook has since taken on a role focusing on all aspects of inclusion. A new website is planned for Rainbow Rovers and it is hoped the team can reassemble for more charity matches in 2021.
“Whitehawk was the first football ground that I went to that wasn’t Bournemouth after my transition,” she adds. “I walked in there and heard the fans chanting ‘no to homophobia, no to sexism’, and holding up the rainbow flag and the trans flag. They’ve even got a mirrorball hanging up in the home end. It just encapsulates a spirit of togetherness.
“I’ve always believed football can be an agent for positive social change and Whitehawk is like a family to me now. Everybody knows everybody. I’m now getting involved with different faith groups and working on more disability access – all of these things will help make football there even more accessible.”
Rainbow Laces are now available in trans flag colours too. What does that mean to her? “I think it’s great to have all the different laces out there. It’s going to be a real conversation starter.
“People have started to recognise the rainbow laces but now they’re going to turn around and say, ‘ooh what are those?’ and learn about words like pansexual, and what it means to be non-binary. We’re a diverse community – let’s celebrate everyone within it.”
Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign. If you’d like to help inspire others in sport by sharing your own story of being LGBT+ or an ally, please contact us here.