In Conversation with...Verity Smith
Interviewed by Feyi Osiyemi
Verity Smith is a trans man who works for Mermaids as a Trans Inclusion in Sports Youth Worker. He is passionate about sports and encouraging the next generation of trans children to live their truth.
Question: How would you describe yourself?
Answer: I describe myself in many different ways, I tend to talk about intersectionality. So I'm a gay trans man and I'm a rugby player. On top of all that, I'm still just a human being named Verity. It's quite hard because I came from having to identify as a lesbian when I was younger because the word trans wasn't around and I knew I was attracted to masculinity. I didn't know what that meant for me at that age. I grew up, I married a woman as well. Just try and carry on, trying to fit in. I hate using that phrase ‘fit in’ because all I wanted to do was to play sports. I was told if I came out as trans, that I wouldn't be able to do that anymore. So for me now, being able to be Verity, gay trans man is absolutely amazing.
I also talk about how to come out with a disability as well because when we sit here talking like this, nobody knows that I've got a disability. I actually sit in a wheelchair and my legs don't work correctly, I've got an injury to my spinal cord. So there's so much intersectionality there, we can't just be one thing or another. For me, being a gay trans man, isn't who I am. I’m Verity. Being a rugby player is another part and the disability is another part of that. And then all that then comes together, and you've got what's in front of you today. So I’m just learning to be myself all over again at the age of 40. I’m just trying to navigate society and how that sees me.
Question: What are you most passionate about?
Answer: My passion for me is around making sure that young people have got access to sport because for me, that was taken away from me. My life was pushed in a different direction due to the way that policies and the world sees trans people within sport. So if I can take my history, my background, and what's happened to me and turn that into a positive and make sure that all children have access to sport. So it doesn't matter whether you're trans, whether you're disabled, whether you're able bodied, your background, where you've come from, we need to make sure that everybody is able to access well together. Unfortunately, that's not happening at the moment. There's 182 recognised sports in the UK. and there's around a handful of policies that support trans inclusion within sport for young people. We need to be having these conversations in these spaces.
On a personal note, it's massively rugby for me - rugby at an elite level and I played for 26 years, league and union. Now, I play wheelchair rugby in the UK Super League. I actually got my first try last week, on the first day in the Super League, so that was absolutely amazing. And it's given me a chance of hope again and it's allowing me to carry on playing that sport. So definitely sport is the thread that runs right the way through me. It's definitely inclusion because I don't want any young person to lose the way that they live their life just so that they're able to play sport; we should be able to play sport as our authentic selves. Being able to go out there just for that time on the pitch, or whatever sport it is that you play, and just be yourself.
Question: What would you say are the most important things you do at work at Mermaids?
Answer: The most important thing is having a voice for the young people because many of them are not able to speak or reach out, they may not be able to have those conversations. Well, for us, it's about speaking to the national governing bodies and speaking to local clubs. Some young people don’t engage in the sport because a lot of them think that they're not allowed. We shouldn't be saying you're not allowed, it's about how we get you involved.
I had a situation when a young person had gone to a rugby club and spent all their money in the summer holidays on new boots. They turned up, and they were told to go away because they were born the wrong sex. These are things that shouldn't be happening, we should be engaging with them. Clubs should be showing that they are inclusive and welcoming. What we're doing is we're looking at these real barriers; which is lack of policy, lack of knowledge, lack of education... people are simply unaware. Then, we're looking at the perceived barriers, “I'm not allowed”, “I'm not good enough”, “I've been told…”. And we'll try to break them down and show that you are able to carry on playing the sport that you love as yourself and show that there are people out there carrying on and playing sport. As a trans man, I'm still playing wheelchair rugby. I've spoken about what my experiences were when I was playing Women's rugby, pre and during transition. It's about having those conversations with bigger bodies that they may not want to have at all.
We offer policy support as well. We can talk them through and have a look and work through policies to look at how we can make them more inclusive. We've got a legal and policies team that work on that. We're also looking at how we can do the first piece of research about 11 to 16 year old transgender diverse people in sports, so that we've got something that can be published. It needs to be spoken about in regards to the government and at the highest level because everybody's talking about elite sports as well. However, there are so many young people at grassroots level that need to be involved in sport. Parents actually reach out to us to say: “Do you know if there's a club or a certain sport that my young person can get involved with?” We want to support and answer questions that people may have.
I've been here since September and it's going absolutely great. We're getting some really good feedback. It is making a difference but unfortunately, it's not going to happen overnight. But we are going to keep pushing this forward and having these conversations and making sure that spot is for everybody as it should be.
Question: What does ‘pride’ mean to you?
Answer: Pride to me isn't about going out and having a party - it's about being seen. It's about being acknowledged and being able to be your authentic self. The reason why we still need pride is because there's still a need for more equality throughout the country, the world and for our humanity. Unfortunately, even within the LGBTQ+ community, there are still issues out there with anti-trans groups; there are still people out who are against trans people in the community who may not think that we should be involved. As a gay trans man myself, coming out and finding my way has been quite hard to navigate.
Pride is about bringing everybody together and raising these questions and raising awareness - letting people know that we are here. Everything still isn't equal but it's about being proud of who you are, and where you've come from, and how this all started. Without the Stonewall riots and without Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Riviera, we wouldn't be where we are now. It's about keeping that history alive.
Question: What misconceptions do you often hear about transgender men?
Answer: I can't talk for trans men as a whole, I can only talk for myself. Through my transition, it was a case of I've been called mentally ill. I've been told I haven't met the right person, when gender and sexuality are two very separate things. There are a lot of assumptions that when you transition that you're going to become heterosexual because you've transitioned. From transitioning from female to male, they would expect you to be dating and be seen with another woman.
Within the sports arena, people are asked to sign waivers that say: “if you're injured, it's your own fault”. But for me, it's “if you were born a female, you're not going to be the same as the cis male that you may be competing with”. I think that's the biggest misconception that I'm hearing at the moment, especially within the sports world. It’s all about ‘what can trans women's bodies do?’ If you're born female as a trans man, what can your body do? So for me, it's about policing bodies, not people. There's not a lot of information out there on trans men at all in any way, shape or form - whether that’s in sport, or within life or within the media... it’s not talked about.
Question: What does ‘EDI’ mean to you?
Answer: EDI to me means inclusion for everybody. Intersectionality is not just one person against another or a group of people, it has to be a whole. So for me, it's about allowing transgender diverse people to be involved in sport. On a personal note, it’s about looking at disability sports. So it's about engaging and reaching out and making sure everybody from every walk of life is involved. I think my end goal would put myself out of a job so that everybody was able to play sports equally and enjoy themselves.
Question: How can people be better allies to the LGBTQ+ community?
Answer: So we can all be allies and it doesn't just have to be in regards to community. We can be allies to people with disabilities in so many different ways. Being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community means speaking up for them, correcting misinformation, if you’re hearing offensive language, you say “That's inappropriate”. It's about speaking up and having a voice for those people who can't have a voice and doing it 365 days a year. Also, making sure that it's safe to do that as well because a lot of people who are allies get a massive backlash because they support the LGBTQ+ community.
It is important to use your voice, whether it's raising money for a charity to be able to support young people, whether it’s within your workplace and supporting HR and having your policies are looked at. It's great to have allies as part of the community as well, because as one person, we're not very loud but as a collective, we can make so much more noise together. For example, during Pride Month, what we're seeing is a lot of people putting the pride flag out there and showing that they're an ally but they're not actually doing anything. We need people to back that up with actual support.
Verity’s Social Media Links:
- Twitter: VeritySmith19
- Instagram: smithverity
Verity works for Mermaids - https://mermaidsuk.org.uk/