Thursday, 28 April 2016

From Tractor Boy to Tractor Girl

Living in Yorkshire, I find social media gives me an opportunity to connect with a whole range of Ipswich fans that I would not otherwise have the opportunity to meet.

One such fan that I would consider a 'friend' through our conversations online, was Mark Lees who is around the same age as me.

Towards the end of last year, I noticed that his status updates were becoming really quite painful, he seemed to be going through a very unhappy time and it was really sad to watch.

I was rather proud, then, to receive a 'friend request' from Jennifer Jo, who explained on her timeline that she was in the very early stages of moving away from her life as 'Mark' and coming out as a transgender woman. Her posts since that time have been incredibly open and I'm ever so proud of how brave she has been through what must have been a really difficult time.

One thing she mentioned she was nervous about was her friends at the football finding out and how she would be treated at Portman Road. I longed to offer her some support, to go with her to games for a bit of back up because, to be honest, I too was worried about how she would be treated.

After all, football is a man's world. At any match you go to, when there are groups of jovial men and boys gathered together, jokes about gender and sexual preferences are par for the course. At Ipswich, we have an incredibly lovely bunch of fans and such 'jokes' are rare and never meant with any malice, but that underlying mind-set does exist at times.

So, I have to admit that I was nervous for Jennifer. There has been some widespread coverage on the topic of transgender women in the last year or so, after radio presenter Stephanie Hurst went public with the experiences she had while 'coming out' and how it affected her job. But it's generally not a widespread conversation within football circles, I'd say it's a fairly untested subject that many have had very little experience of, including myself.

Earlier this year, I was worried when I noticed a friend of Jennifer's had posted a link to a thread on a Town fan's forum, talking about the transgender fan in the North Stand.

Having previously received some quite nasty comments on the site myself, despite never actually posting on it, I clicked the link and signed myself in - ready to defend Jennifer should the conversation turn inappropriate.

But I needn't have worried, the comments were so supportive and kind, they really made me very proud of our online community and restored my faith in humankind a little! The kind response from Town fans as a whole best summer up by this comment: 'Well done Jen... From my position a few rows back, you didn't seem to get any grief... People clearly recognised you, but were mature enough to respect you for who you are and appreciate you're one of us - a Town fan'.

At a time when the fan-base seems to have been split by opinions over our current manager and owner, it's easy to forget that, actually, we will always be there for each other through times that are hard, because we are all one big family (I know, so corny). We all share a common love for our football club and, no matter your gender, age, or background, that will always be the most important thing.

Today, as Jennifer prepares for her second appearance on the Portman Road pitch as part of the half time competition at Saturday's final home match, I am proud to share with you her thoughts on the experiences she has had over the last few months.

I know she will be given a lot of support at Portman Road on Saturday and I guess I just wanted to post this to say well done to her for being so brave, and thank you Town fans for being so lovely.

**Group hug**

My name is Jennifer Jo Lees, I have been an Ipswich Town supporter since the age of nine and a season ticket holder in the Sir Bobby Robson Lower since 2010.

I have seen some incredible matches at Portman Road in that short time, including the 1-0 win against Arsenal, Pablo's injury time winner vs Coventry and the 5-1 win against West Ham.

Most recently at the Rotherham game, I stepped on the Portman Road pitch at half time with two other people to take part in the penalty competition and successfully scored three penalties past academy keeper Nick Hayes to earn my place in the final.

The walk down the length of the pitch before hand was so unreal and to hear my friends in the Sir Bobby Robson stand chanting, "LEESY!!!! LEESY!!!! LEESY!!!!" was amazing and nerve wracking at the same time!

When I scored the last penalty, I was overcome with such excitement and happiness that I ran towards my fellow fans and celebrated by sliding on my back and raising my arms in victory which was well captured by the EADT photographer.

This was a very big moment for me, not only getting to the final but also walking onto the Portman Road pitch as a transgender woman in front of 20,000 fans.

I was born on the 8th May 1986 as Mark William Lees and have lived in Leiston, Suffolk, all of my life.

After 29 years of hiding my true gender identity and a previous failed attempt in trying to come out, I came out to my family, friends and work colleagues back in October that I am transgender and that I want to go down the very challenging path of becoming a woman.

This was met with a lot of love and support from my friends and work colleagues but as you can imagine was met with a lot a worry from my family. They tried to convince me to snap out of it, but I couldn't pretend to be happy being Mark when I knew deep down I wasn't. I realised I had to stop trying my best to please my family all the time and focus on me.

I remember going to the Huddersfield game at Portman Road. I just felt so blank and lifeless and my friends near me were beginning to notice that something was up with me. I guess it was because I was worried about losing my friends at the football and what they were going to say if I came out to them.

It didn't help matters that I had gone to Blackburn away the previous week and witnessed such an awful game, which we lost 2-0. The journey home just felt so long to be feeling the way I was about myself, I honestly felt like crying and knew that I had to make the big step!

I went out for the first time as Jen on the 30th October as a witch for Halloween and then the following night for a karaoke night at my local. The love and support that was shown to me was amazing and it was a night to remember!

I created a Facebook account for myself as Jen and created a two part coming out video. The friend requests and messages of support poured in!

After a lot of thought, I came out to my fellow Town fans on Facebook and it was met with total support and respect which really meant the world to me!

I spoke to my GP in November and he referred me to a counsellor who I spoke to on the phone in January this year. His challenge to me was to break down the barriers which were holding me back from being Jen at certain times.

And that is exactly what I have done.

I have been living full time as a woman for over six weeks, am now working as a woman and have legally changed my name to be known as Ms Jennifer Jo Lees.

The first Town game I went to as Jen was against Reading when we won 2-1 on the 2nd February. First game as Jen, first win!

I saw a post on TWTD after the game which was entitled, "Fair play to the guy who has come out as a girl in the Sir Bobby Lower"

Some of the comments were really funny and some a little bit offensive, not to mention there was a bit of confusion as to whether I was doing it for a bet or being totally serious. So, I signed up and introduced myself and this was met with total respect afterwards.

The experience of my penalty shootout inspired a lot of support from my fellow town fans and I got stopped a few times afterwards and congratulated.

I was contacted by the EADT later that evening and told that they were doing a piece about my success on the pitch and asked if I could say a few words about it. This lead to the EADT contacting me again to do a two page article in the paper about my life and Radio Suffolk contacting me to do an interview with the lovely Linda Walker for the Etholle George Breakfast Show which also featured a contribution from Kelly Maloney.

I was so pleased to get the chance to do this as my experience will hopefully help and inspire other transgender people who are still in hiding to find their voice and the confidence to come out and be themselves and know that they can do anything if they set their mind to it.

I am loving life so much right now and couldn't be happier!

Bring on the final on April 30th and May 8th when I celebrate my 30th birthday as a woman for the first time surrounded by such amazing friends!
Picture via the East Anglian Daily Times

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